Free Culture X Conference notes

The Free Culture X Conference and Unconference took place the past 13th and 14th of February at the George Washington University, in Washington, DC. I had the privilege to attend thanks to a travel grant from the generosity of Google, Mozilla and Shareable.

As they define it, its vision is to bring together student activists and free culture luminaries to discuss free software and open standards, open access scholarship, open educational resources, network neutrality, and university patent policy, especially in the context of higher education.

Below there is a summary of the notes I took during the conference. It doesn’t aim to be complete nor precise, but I hope it will provide an idea of what did we discuss about.

During the different keynotes and panels, we used, apart from the classical hand-up, the tool for audience intervention during conferences. Better than a massive Twitter, IMO.

After a short introduction, we started discussing about the politics of open networks. It was pointed out that we need to come up with a clear definition of net neutrality and push the ISPs to implement the policies we want. The politics-related meetings about net neutrality often include a lot of industry representation, but seldom people from other sectors of the population, which are also affected, as university campuses or consumers’ groups.

The three-strikes law to cut the access to the Internet can become extremely harmful in contexts where it’s being used as a platform for services like VoIP or TV, disconnecting the affected user completely, unable to make even emergency calls.

In general, the existence of a competitive market of ISPs, like the one in England, contributes to the natural enforcement of the net neutrality.

Controversely, one of the panelists, Timothy B. Lee, exposed his ideas about how to preserve the net neutrality without law regulations. You can read more about his ideas, and a quite long and in-deep paper, in his blog.

I’ve recently read bad news about net neutrality in Spain. Some of the major ISPs operating in the country, like Telefónica or Vodafone, claim a monetary compensation from companies that use their infrastructures for their business, like search engines, mobile apps distributors, or VoIP companies. I personally oppose the Internet to become another TV.

Next, Pat Aufderheide directed a keynote about the concept of fair use to reuse and remix existing culture. Fair use is perfectly legal in the US and should be encouraged, even enlarging or modifying non-copying policies for homework in schools. There’s a lot of interesting material about fair use in the Center for Social Media website.

Moving on to the topic of Open Access and Access to Knowledge, it was pointed out that Open Access in public universities is low-hanging fruit and we should contact these universities to encourage them to adopt this model. The Open University Campaign, a Students For Free Culture project, contains valuable information about this. Also, the Right to Reseach Coalition is an excellent source of info about how to demand the research work paid with our taxes to come back to us without having to pay additional unfair fees.

Unfortunately, some countries lack from copyright exceptions for libraries and universities, and the changes in the law, usually promoted by the industry, always tend to make it more restrictive.

We need to take the discussion about Access to Knowledge from experts to the “family dinner”, explaining current common behaviour that is or would be illegal under the current laws, to make the public aware of how are they affected and take part in the legal discussions about copyright laws.

Also, it was pointed out that personal meetings, faxes and phone calls are much more effective than emails or Facebook campaigns to make the politicians hear our opinion.

The next panel was about Open Educational Resources (OER). Eric Frank, from Flat World Knowledge (FWK), told us that textbooks are a major portion of the tuition costs in some countries. Flat World Knowledge provides a platform to create, publish and distribute quality, peer-reviewed, customizable and flexible-licensing books that are freely accesible online and affordable as printed copies. The people from FWK have observed that, even when there’s a free printable copy of the book available, some students prefer to buy the book, which makes this publishing model presumably sustainable.

The Michigan University OER Team (Open.Michigan) is working on an impressive list of projects to enable groups and individuals to openly share their work. These are mostly collaboration tools, supporting the idea of that the knowledge is not just “transferred” from teachers to students, but something socially constructed. Some of the most interesting are dScribe, a framework to help faculty staff to gather available educational material, clear possible copyright restrictions over it (so it can be published legally under certain circumstances) and reuse it to create and publish new OERs; or OERca, the free software platform that powers most of the dScribe framework.

Finally, Timothy Vollmer, from ccLearn, told us about how CreativeCommons is helping to the development of OERs, the available tools for adequately tag content for further indexing and discovery.

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