The free and open source software community has witnessed, over and over again, how far a visit to the right government officials can go. Bill Gates seems to know the game, and what cards he should play in every occasion to "make things happen".
Over the last few years, it was apparent to us that making good software and creating good standards was just not enough to fight such a strong political presence. How could the free and open source world fight this?
Here is the proposal, in a nutshell (for the lazy readers): creating a fund aimed at informing government officials and prime ministers in the world about free software, and making sure that they receive similar benefits as they would if they chose to push for a Microsoft contract.
This is an idea I have had in the back of my mind for quite some time. The latest events in Greece, where Bill Gates signed an agreement with the Greek government to "bring the latest technology to Greece", is what made me decide that such a fund might be crucially important.
Personally, I was unfortunate enough to spend a lot of my teenage years in Italy. I ran away as soon as I possibly could, mainly because of Italy's the political climate. Corruption was so obvious, and so evident, that people were wondering what the police and crime commissions were doing (and knew the answer: either "nothing", or "getting bribed"). Not long before I left, in mid nineties, Mr. Gates went to Italy to "talk to the government officials". It was a much advertised trip throughout Europe, where Gates met the then prime minister; magically, two weeks later (and if you know about the Italian government's paces, that means instantaneously) a bill was passed: the prime minister was giving several billion lira to high schools in Italy. Giving. I actually went out of my way, and looked for that bill. I never found it. What I did found, was the letter that each school had received from the government. The letter stated clearly how big a slice they would receive (a few thousand dollars, since the funding was divided for each school). There was no mention of Microsoft in the letter... until the very last sentence, in a spot that could have been a Post Scriptum: "The government suggests the purchase of Microsoft products".
I never stopped wondering how Bill Gates managed to do that. I pictured unimaginable amounts of money flowing to an offshore account, or maybe it had just been Mr.Gates' personality simply engulfing the Italian prime minister, inspiring immense awe and trust. Who knows--who will ever know. I doubt even the interest parties still remember.
A few weeks later, Mr.Gates went to the United Kingdom. He must have had a pretty hard time, over there. I remember watching with anticipation the outcome of his visit--the whole world was following Bill Gates, and I didn't have to look very hard: it was on the front page of a national newspaper a couple of days later. I don't remember exactly what it was. However, it was something along those lines: Bill Gates had committed to pay for the network connection of a ludicrously high number of schools in the United Kingdom, at the condition that those computers would run Windows and Office. Mr.Gates had definitely had a much easier life in Italy...
It's a little sad that the Internet hadn't quite "kicked in" back then, and that I can't find any trace of those crucial visits online. I am sure I could, if I looked very hard through newspaper archives (although not even remembering which year it was won't help). However, a not-so-extensive search returned nothing. You will have to trust my memory--or the commenters below--for more information and links.
The current lobbying
Mr. Gates has continued his lobbying and travelling over the last years. In general, every time he goes somewhere, something happens. A government or a city is converted to Microsoft; an important GNU/Linux contract is cancelled (see how the Mandriva deal turned out in Nigeria). Officials start contradicting each other in what they tell the press. Things generally go pear-shaped.
The trouble now is that Mr.Gates seems to have decided that giving Windows software to second and third world countries will help them. I am sure he believes, truly believes, that he's right. He wouldn't want children to get started with a laptop from the OLPC project, because in his mind it's surely impossible that the OLPC is indeed as good as Windows for those children. On the other hand, I very much doubt he has ever used a laptop from the OLPC project; and I very much doubt he would ever admit that the OLPC is better than a Windows XP machine.
We have a billionaire pulling strings in order to make sure that second and third world children get started with Windows. In July, when Mr.Gates finally leaves Microsoft indefinitely, I can only suspect he will have more time to lobby governments around the (first, second and third) world to buy, use, upgrade PCs with Windows.
Here is the proposal. What the open source and free software world needs, is a task force of very few people (five?) who track down Mr.Gates errands, and make sure that the right government officials are instructed about the superiority of a free software solution immediately before or immediately after Mr.Gates' visit. In fact, a broader project should be started so that those officials are properly informed about the power of GNU/Linux before they get financed by Mr. Gates and Microsoft. The task force will also monitor Bill Gate's moves and document any agreements that have been made, and will--with the help of the community--scrutinise each agreement and deal making sure that voters in that country know the exact terms and consequences of each contract (and how much they would have saved if they had picked free software instead).
We shall see.