The Green view of cyberspace

European Parliament member David Hammerstein Mintz offers a Green Party spin on the tech world.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
BRUSSELS--Foes of software patents won an upset victory last year when the European Parliament voted to reject the idea by a relatively narrow margin of 648 to 729.

David Hammerstein Mintz can take credit for swaying many of those votes. The Green Party politician from Spain opposes software patents, loves free software, and thinks the European Union's pursuit of Microsoft is entirely justified.

Born in Los Angeles, Mintz has lived in Spain since 1978 and became a member of the European Parliament in 2004. He's a member of the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, the panel responsible for policy on the Internet, space and technology.

The European Green Party flatly opposes all nuclear power and weapons, supports the Kyoto Protocol and "car-free cities" and is deeply skeptical of genetic modification. Its policy principles (click here for PDF) claim everyone has a right to "a guaranteed social minimum income."

CNET News.com caught up with Mintz at a conference here organized by the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, an umbrella group of European and U.S. organizations including ones such as Consumer Action, the Consumer Project on Technology and the Ralph Nader-founded Public Citizen group.

Q: You noticed that I'm typing this on a PowerBook. You're an Apple user?
Mintz: Yes. I'm very upset that the European Parliament is all Microsoft.

What got you personally interested in technology policy?
Mintz: I'm concerned about the future of society and the environment and technology. The way technology is being developed is not at all neutral. (Developments) often conceal ideological and economic world views that are not very compatible with the well-being of people and nature.

That means you're opposed to the existence of large companies?
Mintz: Not only large companies, but a way of looking at technology in a very simple economist way that ignores the end objectives of economy and of technology, which should be to make for longer and happier and more useful lives.

(Microsoft is) forcing millions of consumers to use their products and become entwined in their spider webs.

Do you believe that the European Union's ongoing antitrust pursuit of Microsoft is justified, even though the company is under ongoing scrutiny and regulation by the U.S. court system?
Mintz: Totally justified. They're forcing millions of consumers to use their products and become entwined in their spider webs. Really, I think EU institutions should put their money where their mouth is on this issue because a lot of the internal EU information technology systems are 100 percent Microsoft. We as Greens are struggling against this and to make this system open.

As a Green Party politician, what are your views on technology topics?
Mintz: We want to stimulate the sharing of knowledge. We want to create knowledge banks where public funding reverts back to the public good--where there's much greater access to everything from scientific journals to all kind of books to traditional knowledge from rural communities about seeds, for example. Where thousands of new firms can start and become prosperous without being inhibited by overly strict intellectual-property regimes.

That includes software patents, which you don't like.
Mintz: Software patents are one example. There are lots of others. For example, part of this new view is that most small firms and individuals work by giving services, working face-to-face, working on flows of innovation, being part of circuits. Most small firms don't work by managing their IP portfolios.

Does that mean laws curbing so-called patent trolls--companies that have an IP portfolio but no products?
Mintz: I think that patents are legitimate when they refer to real physical inventions that are at the same time novel in a significant way. They are not legitimate when they are interested in creating thickets and protection of already established economic power.

What are your views on copyright protection and anticircumvention laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that we have in the United States?
Mintz: I defend the right of copyright protection. But I think we should be wary of it getting in the way of development of flows of knowledge, to access, to learning. It shouldn't get in the way of the development of digital libraries.

The efficiency of such measures is rather questionable. Can we really prosecute millions of young people who download films from the Internet? Can we go after thousands of farmers who are collecting seeds off their fields? Can we really fence in academic, scientific knowledge?

(Technological developments) often conceal ideological and economic world views that are not very compatible with the well-being of people and nature.

Do you oppose digital rights management technology in principle, or do you want more laws regulating the use of it?
Mintz: I think that DRM should assure the right of privacy of its users, the right of access to information and the right of personal use of information. DRM might be legitimate if it prevents the reselling of information and massive distribution.

But we should not try to castrate what has worked up until now with the Internet. There are legitimate concerns about individual rights with strict DRM. Also I don't think that personal information about users should end up in the hands of large companies for their marketing uses.

One Green Party faction in the U.S. calls in its official platform for a "100 percent tax on all income, regardless of source, over 10 times the minimum wage," which is $5.15 an hour. That means that 100 percent of someone's income over $107,000 a year would be forcibly confiscated. What's your stance on taxes?
Mintz: Many other things can chill innovation. We're not in favor of high taxes. We're in favor of the taxes being shifted from labor to environmentally damaging activities such as pollution. Obviously this is only one thing that can chill innovation. Lack of investment in research, poor investment (by government can also do it).

Back to patents for a moment. Our U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in an eBay patent case, and BlackBerry service recently ran the risk of an interruption because of patent claims. Your thoughts?
Mintz: If we see that one-quarter of patents that exist in the U.S. are only bargaining chips or defensive measures, there's something a bit perverse in that system.

I don't think that someone who's selling vegetables in a small shop over the Internet should be afraid of his Web marketing system and have to pay 5,000 or 10,000 euros or dollars. We should defend in the use of generic software systems.

That would make you a fan of free software, no?
Mintz: I totally endorse free software. What's even more (important) than that is that our system be interoperable. To have incompatible building blocks is very irrational.

Many of our readers might like your views on Microsoft and free software but not agree with your love of government regulation. What would you say in response?
Mintz: Greens are in favor of a thriving market economy based on small and medium-size firms with clear social and environmental objectives. We're not in favor of an overly asphyxiating state nor very high tax burdens, to the contrary. We are not statists.