Weblog:   The Growing Politicization of Open Source
Subject:   Governments can make their own purchasing decisions too
Date:   2002-08-16 09:12:47
From:   simonstl
Tim O'Reilly writes:
"No one should be forced to choose open source, any more than they should be forced to choose proprietary software. And any victory for open source achieved through deprivation of the user's right to choose would indeed be a betrayal of the principles that free software and open source have stood for."


I think Tim's missed a crucial point here. This isn't about restricting user choices - it's about restricting vendor choices. Governments have long set higher standards for businesses which which they work than for businesses in general. Businesses have complained about this for years, but it's not much different from the kinds of centralized decision-making power that businesses themselves wield or that individuals wield.


If a company's CTO declares that all software purchases must be Microsoft or Microsoft-compatible, then that decision has a huge effect on subordinates who effectively lose the right to choose. The same thing happens if the decree specifies open source. Individuals often make the same kinds of decisions for themselves and their families. I don't see any reason why government should be denied the same privileges.


If vendors want to sell to the government, they need to comply with the rules the government sets down - accounting, labor, and licensing. The vendors might not like it, but for now at least the vendors don't run the government. This is a perfectly normal part of government, one of the ways in which a community can have its voice heard.


If part of the open source mission involves the complete decentralization of IT decision-making in government, then this is a betrayal, but I have a really hard time seeing it that way.

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  • Tim O'Reilly photo Governments can make their own purchasing decisions too
    2002-08-16 10:19:47  Tim O'Reilly | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

    I have no problem with individual agencies, or even the CTO or CIO of a state, mandating open source. I have a problem with *legislators* mandating such a thing. It may even be reasonable for legislators to mandate certain principles -- for example, access to source code -- without specifying particular licenses. But even then, I'd agree with my correspondent that this is a slippery slope, and inconsistent with our principles. After all, what's the difference between legislation mandating open source, and legislation outlawing P2P file sharing? In one case, we say that it's good, and the other that it's bad. There's a pragmatic answer that says you achieve good ends by fair means or foul, but I've always been a fan of T.S. Eliot's observation. And I also agree with my correspondent's observation that this is likely a bad thing to do for pragmatic reasons as well, since proprietary software companies are likely to lobby more consistently and successfully than open source advocates, if it comes down to the money game that modern American politics so often seems to consist of.


    I do think that it's good to have this debate. What should the role of government be in regulating the software industry? We're hearing it from all sides, and at the very least, we can hope that the debate will be informed and thoughtful, and not just a matter of who is loudest or has the most money to put towards the issue.

    • Simon St. Laurent photo Governments can make their own purchasing decisions too
      2002-08-16 11:05:57  Simon St. Laurent | O'Reilly AuthorO'Reilly Blogger [View]

      "After all, what's the difference between legislation mandating open source, and legislation outlawing P2P file sharing? In one case, we say that it's good, and the other that it's bad."

      A lot, actually. At least in theory, governments are there to make laws that make life better for the people they represent. This statement sounds like you'd really prefer that governments do nothing - an interesting argument, but not one which I think has much to do with open source per se.

      We've got an opportunity now because the proprietary vendors have discredited themselves on a number of fronts - Microsoft in the antitrust trial, Oracle in California - so I don't see much reason to be particularly paranoid about government action on this front now. In fact, I'd argue that it's probably the best moment we're likely to see.
    • Governments can make their own purchasing decisions too
      2002-08-16 11:19:17  per_abrahamsen [View]

      "After all, what's the difference between legislation mandating open source, and legislation outlawing P2P file sharing?"

      None, really, if it is within the government itself in both cases. But in that case, I don't see either as a principal problem, allthough the pragmatic value of either can be discussed.

      The big difference is whether the government makes restrictions on what itself can do, or whether it makes restrictions on what its citizens can do.
    • Governments can make their own purchasing decisions too
      2002-08-19 16:40:25  gameboy70 [View]

      "I have no problem with individual agencies, or even the CTO or CIO of a state, mandating open source. I have a problem with *legislators* mandating such a thing."

      As Dr. Villanueva has pointed out, the state's IT infrastructure is a public resource and should not be the intellectual property of the private sector. The CSSA correctly frames software procurement as a public policy issue, not an issue of personal discretion within or between government agencies, which have a higher responsibility to the commonwealth.

      "It may even be reasonable for legislators to mandate certain principles -- for example, access to source code -- without specifying particular licenses."

      "Access to the source code" is a step in the right direction but does not go far enough. The CSSA requires that the software sold to the government contain no restrictions on use, duplication, transfer, ownership or inspection. Particular licenses do not have to be specified as long as the license under which software is sold honors those fundamental freedoms.

      "But even then, I'd agree with my correspondent that this is a slippery slope, and inconsistent with our principles. After all, what's the difference between legislation mandating open source, and legislation outlawing P2P file sharing?"

      Quite a bit, since we're talking about *internal* government restrictions. A government employee engaging in P2P file sharing is (a) sacrificing productivity at taxpayers' expense, and more importantly, (b) potentially compromising national security (who knows what files are being traded?).

      On the other hand, code which the government can neither see nor have access to inherently compromises national security to the extent that the integrity of the code is taken on faith.

      You're essentially conflating restrictions on the government with restrictions on the public, concluding then that "In one case, we say that it's good, and the other that it's bad." Your example would be more consistent if the CSSA were to actually outlaw the *sale* of proprietary software, which, of course, it does not do.

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