Open Source In Government

Abhijeet Chavan's picture
An article in the Los Angeles Times takes a look at how local and national government agencies around the world are increasing adopting Open Source Software (OSS). (See: "Developing Nations See Linux as a Savior From Microsoft's Grip" [Reg. reqd], Los Angeles Time, page A4, Aug 9th, 2004) . According to the article:

"Government-driven movements to shift to free or low-cost software � fed by security, economic and ideological concerns -- threaten to dent Microsoft's ambitions. In fact, government officials the world over, from local authorities in Austria's capital to high-ranking national bureaucrats in India, are increasingly moving from proprietary software such as Microsoft's to open-source products."

The article illustrates three reasons why governments find OSS attractive:

  • Economic: it costs less in the long run and promotes the local software industry

  • Social: makes it possible for more people to use computers and the Internet

  • Security: security-conscious governments can audit source code

Microsoft has tried to counter these arguments by:

  • citing studies that claim lower running costs for MS Windows compared to OSS alternatives

  • enticing governments not to stray from the Microsoft path

  • revealing MS Windows source code to select clients

However, the L. A. Times article misses one important reason why governments should consider using OSS -- data ownership.

Two years ago, in a letter to Microsoft, Peruvian Congressman Dr. Edgar David Villanueva wrote:

"To guarantee the free access of citizens to public information, it is indispensable that the encoding of data is not tied to a single provider. The use of standard and open formats gives a guarantee of this free access, if necessary through the creation of compatible free software. To guarantee the permanence of public data, it is necessary that the usability and maintenance of the software does not depend on the goodwill of the suppliers, or on the monopoly conditions imposed by them."

"...the state archives, handles, and transmits information which does not belong to it, but which is entrusted to it by citizens, who have no alternative under the rule of law. As a counterpart to this legal requirement, the State must take extreme measures to safeguard the integrity, confidentiality, and accessibility of this information. The use of proprietary software raises serious doubts as to whether these requirements can be fulfilled, lacks conclusive evidence in this respect, and so is not suitable for use in the public sector."

In 2002, Peru was considering a bill mandating the use of OSS in government. Microsoft opposed the bill. Dr. Villanueva responded in a letter that is now part of Open Source history. LinuxToday has archived the entire letter and an interview with Dr. Villanueva.
Abhijeet Chavan is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.


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