Monday, 12 January 2009

On Open Source and Open Competition in a not-so-Open World

Open Source is global in nature. You can develop a database in, say, Finland or Sweden, and become known in, say, Ukraine or the United States.

This would imply that Open Source knows no borders.

In practice, borders hamper Open Source work a lot. I have been familiar with the hassle involving MySQLers in Russia and the Ukraine trying to get Schengen (European Union) and US visas for meetings. And I have myself gone through a lot of hassle travelling to Russia and once even (out of my own stupidity and carelessness, though) been denied entry to India when I already was on Indira Gandhi airport in New Delhi.

But now, I've experienced what I had expected the least:

Several Sun Microsystems Inc employees, especially related to the Database Group, have been denied short stay business visas to Australia, over the last few months, as they have been seen to be competing with local Australian businesses unfairly.

I regret to share that this will adversely affect MySQL presence at linux.conf.au in Hobart, Tasmania 19-24.1.2009.

Footnote: The illustration is from the border between Finland and Russia. When I grew up, it used to be a very closed one.

Update / clarification


I am overwhelmed by the attention this post has got! It's been quite a ride, and a lesson in blogging. In retrospect, I should perhaps have anticipated the level of interest, and spent time fine-tuning my wording. I didn't, so there's a need for clarifications and an update for anyone who doesn't want to read all the over 30 comments.

First: Personally, I am not the one to have been declined a visa to Australia. The person whose visa was affected is a close colleague, but not myself. I've been several times to Australia, both prior to and after joining MySQL AB, and I have never had any issues.

Second: Given my frustration at the rejection of the visa of my colleague, I chose to use the word "several" to describe two instances.

Third: The first instance, in August 2008, is referred in detail in Comment #29. Not thinking I was providing a scoop for The Register, Heise Online and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, I didn't even look up that chat log until replying to the commenters on the blog. And in that first instance, the person in question ("kv") had already got a visa. He was not denied a visa. However, the interaction over instant messaging with "local_mysql_activist" implied that the visa could be overturned by the immigration authorities at the border, so "kv" did not dare go try his luck. I apologise for the inaccurate wording on my part, as it's technically not true that "several" MySQLers would have got their visas rejected (although I can assure you that's how "kv" personally feels).

Fourth: The connection between the first instance and the second instance, where my close colleague was rejected a visa, is not evidenced by any official information from the Australian government. The rejection letter merely says ”SHORT TERM BUSINESS ETA APPLICATION WAS NOT APPROVED NO AUTHORITY TO TRAVEL TO AUSTRALIA HELD BY PASSENGER”. However, the person who now got rejected has been frequently in Australia and, to the best of my knowledge, lacks any record which would imply a visa rejection (such as, but not limited to, unpaid traffic fines).

Fifth: Some readers have asked me whether I see an Australian anti-open-source conspiracy. Definitely not! The trip was related to an open source conference, and the applicant went by the book, asking for a short-term business visa where many frequently travel on tourist visas for equivalent purposes. Thus, the denial could be the result of an overzealous bureaucrat in the aftermath of #29. But that assessment is firmly in the realm of speculation and has no claim on objectivity.

Sixth: Thanks for all the offers of help! However, by now, linux.conf.au is so close that we can’t appeal this. Flights have had to be cancelled, and are now either full or horrendously expensive. So the harm has been done (for whatever the reason may be) and Sun / MySQL won't be represented at linux.conf.au at the level originally intended. Some of us will still come, though.

Finally, I'm deeply grateful for all the sympathy and support we got. Thank you!

33 comments:

  1. Hej Kaj,

    That's an interesting and rather flawed rationale on the part of the Australian border control - MySQL enables far more many Australian businesses that it competes with.

    I wonder how consistently they apply this criteria and what recourse there is.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Interesting. Did they say how the compete unfairly? My guess is they probably don't go into detail on how they come to these decisions, but still I am curious.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Governments usually don't share their rationale with foreign citizens. Not even the Australian government. So I don't have that information. Thanks for your sympathy, though, @Edward and @Zak!

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Arjen, I don't want to make life harder still for these individuals. Things are being tracked over the web.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Ah, Australia! Making the USA look soft and liberal.

    Just try to bring a pound of raw milk cheese in while you're at it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Absolutely intollerable lack of understanding on behalf of the powers that be.

    How do such uneducated people get to make decisions like this? The public service has a lot to answer for.

    ReplyDelete
  7. On behalf of Australians, I am so sorry for this. This is insane - I think I will lobby to have microsoft excluded - given that they are an illegal monopolist who most definitely compete unfairly with local interests.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Microsoft has a big MS SQL Australian shop no? Is that the reason?

    ReplyDelete
  9. Australian citizens can raise this directly with the Minister here:

    http://www.minister.immi.gov.au/contacts/

    I encourage you to write in, but remember to be reasoned and polite. They seem obligated to write back to you, even if it takes them a few weeks... Maybe we can prevent it next time.

    ReplyDelete
  10. This is bizar. Doesn't this violate one or more international free trade agreements? And even if it doesn't, why isn't there a diplomatic riot about this between the USA (MySQL's headquarters?) and Australia?

    ReplyDelete
  11. So, they've asked for business visa rather than tourist visas because they're looking to do work over here, rather than just visit?

    I presume if they were _just_ coming over for LCA, they could get a tourist visa.

    (Disclaimer: We've recently benefitted from the govt's prioritising of certain skillsets over others, in that we helped one of our new guys get residency by demonstrating he was providing some of the "in demand" skills. So these decisions cut both ways...)

    ReplyDelete
  12. This sucks. There's still time to appeal, I guess. Do you get the right of rebuttal?

    ReplyDelete
  13. Oh PS - I'll vouch for Stilgherrian and Crikey. A story in Crikey would ensure that a lot of higher ups in Government would hear about this. Worth your time speaking to him, I'd say.
    Good luck!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Us Aussies have had awful PR of late. I'm curious as to how you got into trouble after landing in India.

    ReplyDelete
  15. [...] by John C Dvorak in General Also Banned! — There goes the conference business in Australia. Several Sun Microsystems Inc employees, especially related to the Database Group, have been denied s..., over the last few months, as they have been seen to be competing with local Australian businesses [...]

    ReplyDelete
  16. As an Australian as well its very sad to hear this. I shall add it to my long list of gripes to take out on my local politician....

    ReplyDelete
  17. The aforementioned rationale for denying visas seems absurd, especially since there are Sun Microsystems employees and customers already doing business in Australia. I would suspect it's more about protecting local employment, than an anti-competitive agenda. Even still, it seems quite draconian, and as an Australian LCA attendee I'm truly disappointed.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Would it be possible for you to post the letter or email from DIMA - showing the reason for rejection, so those of us in Australia can bring this to the attention of our representatives?

    It may just be one incompetent official - DIMA is the second worst government department in Australia. They have even deported Australian citizens in the past.

    ReplyDelete
  19. It might be polite to edit your intitial post to reflect your new knowledge. This story seems to have attracted a lot of attention, and the casual reader isn't going to always make it down here to realise you have changed your mind about the facts initially posted.

    There is a lingering doubt about this little story. Your edited transcript suggests that someone in Australia, somone who makes a living from MySQL, was unhappy about "what you'd be doing here." The obvious conclusion is that that poster was being competed with, not by MySQL, but by the individuals who were proposing to travel to Australia. If it turns out that those Sun employees were intending conducting tutorials or consulting in MySQL for which they would be paid, in any form at all, those people would have been breaking the terms of their visa. All short term business visa's specifically prohibit employment. This is pretty standard in any country in the world. There is a clear implication in the quoted IRC transcript that this was exactly what was being proposed. The guys can do whatever they like for free, or they can do it on Sun's time, but they can't be paid in Australia. If it just so happened that the immigration department was tipped off that a particular person was intending to do this, maybe, just maybe, there is a track. But it would be a track back to a person who was actually deliberately intending to break the law.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Frank Ch. Eigler13 January 2009 at 14:56

    Kaj, you should change your post at the top, as many people won't bother read the comments where you backtrack on all the juicy claims. Please add a prominent link to your comment #31 or whatever.

    ReplyDelete
  21. [...] Förstår mig inte på Australien längre. Först var det den stora brandväggen som de fortfarande jobbar på såvitt jag vet enligt samma modell som Kina. Nu har de hindrat anställda från Sun som jobbar med open source databasen Mysql att resa in till landet i samband med linux.conf.au, eftersom man anser att de konkurrerar på orättvisa villkor med lokala bolag. Läs mer på Kaj Arnös blogg. [...]

    ReplyDelete
  22. Amazing. This isn't just blowing things out of proportion, this is outright lying. First you stated (and in bold) "Several Sun employees...have been denied short stay business visas" and the reason you give is "...as they have been seen to be competing with local Australian businesses unfairly."

    Both statements are lies. The "several" you refer to are yourself and one other, and the other it turns out "chose not to go" so never actually applied for a visa.

    Posts on the Internet are also "global in nature" as you define open source, so when you post stuff up, don't post bullshit.

    ReplyDelete
  23. @Francis, @Andrew, @Frank, @spiro: Thanks for your suggestions! Just posted a follow-up with an update and clarifications, in the original blog.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Ah, my link to Link was eaten. The source of the Michael Skeggs quote is: http://mailman.anu.edu.au/pipermail/link/2009-January/080853.html

    ReplyDelete
  25. [...] can read the full post here - and note that he says he’s observed or experienced open source people having trouble [...]

    ReplyDelete
  26. Arjen,
    I gotta say, I'm disappointed in your behavior. I think you are capable of much better than this.

    --Zack

    ReplyDelete
  27. Folks...time for a little bureaucratic reasoning and explanation. Australia has a global, non-discriminatory visa program. People from all countries have the same right and opportunity to enter Australia. Intending travellers who have been refused a visa are aware that if they cannot meet the strict selection criteria (eg. having an existing exclusion period applied arising from a prior transgression), then they can be asked -- in the case of an online application -- to visit their nearest Australian mission to make a case for compassionate and compelling reasons to enter Australia. It wouldn't be appropriate for me to go into private and personal details of any of our clients -- whether they are approved visa grants, or refusals -- but be assured rejection of a visa is not a matter taken lightly by any of the department's decision makers. If the person whom Kaj knows wants to contact me at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship for a fuller explanation of their case, I am happy to arrange for that. My eM is: natcomms@immi.gov.au.

    -- Sandi Logan

    ReplyDelete
  28. [...] Kaj Arnö meldet in einem Blog-Eintrag, dass in den letzten Monaten diversen Sun-Mitarbeitern ohne nähere Begründung ein Kurzvisum zur [...]

    ReplyDelete
  29. [...] I had a list of talks in mind to attend @linux.conf.au. But unfortunately, it seems I can hardly get the visa on time (remember the MySQL case -and other side of the coin.. *click*) [...]

    ReplyDelete
  30. [...] On Open Source and Open Competition in a not-so-Open World [...]

    ReplyDelete
  31. However, the interaction over instant messaging with “local_mysql_activist” implied that the visa could be overturned by the immigration authorities at the border, so “kv” did not dare go try his luck.

    I'm very disappointed that someone that claims to be a MySQL activist would "imply" something like that. That's basically threatening you, and just Plain Wrong. Competition *is* a good thing, and if this person can't beat out Sun in *one* aspect....

    ...perhaps the activist doesn't have the expertise, but then surely the activist could beat the price! Or, being local, activist would be able to secure a more convenient location, or offer discount packages that are better than Sun's. There are tradeoffs to getting a training course by Sun, pros and cons, and if activist can't hack it without bullying around, I can't see a business like that lasting very long.

    Basically if the only way activist is going to have a business is by not letting any competition around, then I don't believe that this person deserves the business. If the company activist works for was truly good, the company would not have to worry too much about business, because what they offer is the best around -- not the only thing around.

    And activist is just opening up a big can of worms, because all someone has to do is actually just be an Australian, and then what can be done? Being a bully is not a good business strategy -- it is not ethical, and it is hard enough to run your own business; if you start shutting out your peers, you're not going to have any help when you need it.

    (Just because a few cutthroat businesses like Oracle, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Microsoft have hit it big, doesn't mean their strategies are good. I prefer the business strategies of, say, home depot, where employees are given incentives to volunteer....)

    (sorry about the ranting, this kind of thing just makes me upset. How can we foster a community when there's backstabbing going on? and why are people so stupid to bite the hand that feeds them? i can't imagine activist will be a mysql activist for much longer, it's completely hypocritical to do what activist has been doing. Perhaps activist should specialize in another database, and join a community where such "business practices" are accepted.

    ReplyDelete
  32. [...] can’t in good conscience tell people to attend an event from which I’ve been excluded (oh, the irony). So I stayed quiet while MySQL employees told people to read my article about how to get a session [...]

    ReplyDelete