Governments should switch to open source - study

A new study from the University of Maastricht finds that open source is a better fit for the public sector than proprietary software

A new study has recommended that governments require the use of open-source software, fanning the flames of the increasingly heated debate over the place of open-source in public policy.

The Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) study, from the University of Maastricht's International Institute of Infonomics, argues that open-source software can bring substantial benefits to governments, including reduced costs, and that governments should require that the software they buy uses an open-source licence.

"By determining the conditions under which software can be used in public sector organisations, no natural or legal person should then be prohibited from offering goods and services to them," the report said. "This should not be misunderstood as a positive discrimination for a specific type of software, e.g. free of charge software."

Aside from the inherent advantages to the public sector of open-source licences, such a requirement would also effectively increase competition in public-sector buying, the report argued: "By determining these requirements governments would in practice open the market for public services, by avoiding (a) lock-in situation." Proprietary software companies seek to improve their competitive position by locking users into their products -- that is, making them dependent on a particular data or file format.

Open-source software makers cannot lock users in because the nature of an open-source licence gives competitors access to the way applications and file formats are constructed. Broadly speaking, open-source licences allow developers to modify and redistribute the original programming code of a piece of software, so long as the modifications are returned to the community.

The FLOSS report argues that open-source software, by its nature, better fulfils certain governmental responsibilities than software to which source-code access is restricted. These responsibilities include the public's right to public information and to know how that information is processed; the permanence of public data; and the security of that data.

As a result, it recommends that governments require software licences that essentially follow open-source guidelines: unlimited access to source code, the right to reproduce an unlimited number of copies of the software, and the right to modify and redistribute the software, for example. If such software isn't available for the desired purpose, governments could accept limitations that would allow it to use proprietary software only as a last resort.

However, the political will involved in creating such requirements means that open-source software is more likely to continue making its way into the public sector in a piecemeal fashion, the report said. Governments in Europe, led by France and Germany, have begun shifting serious support to open source, the report noted, with France's ministries of Defence, Culture and Economy shifting to open-source operating systems. Germany's Federal Institute for Agriculture and Food, Administration of the German Parliament, Lower Saxony Police and other bodies have implemented open-source operating systems on servers, workstations or both. In Britain, open-source activity has mainly been concentrated in the NHS, the report said.

Government use of open source is an increasingly controversial issue. Activists recently announced a bill that would require the government of California to use open source, and governments in Europe and elsewhere have shown stronger interest in the software.

On the other hand, the likes of Microsoft and the Initiative for Software Choice have begun to step up their anti-open-source lobbying and propaganda efforts, claiming that licensing requirements are discriminatory against proprietary software vendors.

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