Should governments legislate open source?

Governments also need to focus on local economic development, something that the European Union firmly believes is fostered by open source, not proprietary software. In this way, a preference for open source is not a way of shackling choice, but rather o

Last week there was a minor ruckus over Jason Matusow's suggestion that governments should not legislate IT policy, whether for or against open-source software. He wrote:

I think technology mandates are not good policy in any country....Technology providers want their current and future technologies considered on the merits of the technology and the value those technologies bring to those who choose to consume it. If a government mandates a specific technology and/or class of technologies, they are unnecessarily restricting their own choices. Inevitably statue moves more slowly than technology, and mandates subsequently lead to sub-optimal choices.

Jason's perspective is actually one that I've shared, but my viewpoint has been changing. A recent article by Jack and Suzy Welch actually pushed my thinking more than the "mandate" debate did.

In the article, the Welchs discuss how to help local businesses compete locally, and deride the practice in some countries of propping up local companies against outside competition:

The businesses that will compete most effectively in a fierce global economy will be those that have benefited from intense competition at home.

Think of it this way: No speed skater or pole-vaulter heads to the Olympics before years of intense competition with the hotshots in his own backyard. The same goes for companies heading into the business "world games." First, they need to train and prove themselves against hometown rivals....

Look, no normal person seeks competition. It makes everything harder. But it also creates excellence and verve--in a word, edge. And you don't want to leave home without that.

In the Welchs' words is ample fodder for both sides of the mandate debate, but I read it like this: In most developing nations or simply those without global software vendors, their best chance of growing a local software economy is with open source, as I recently argued in Russia. Singapore isn't going to build a robust IT economy on the back of Microsoft. It will simply end up shipping its currency to Redmond.

Governments need open source because it preserves choice. No government should cede sovereignty to any private enterprise.

But governments also need to focus on local economic development, something that the European Union firmly believes is fostered by open source, not proprietary software. In this way, a preference for open source is not a way of shackling choice, but rather of preserving it for the long term. This is good economic policy. It's good IT policy.

Do I think governments should be forced to use open-source software where it's not a viable competitor to proprietary software? No. Any mandate to use substandard software is a poor one.

But government mandates that government IT buyers should first consider open source strike me as appropriate. They put the onus on local economies to service local needs, which is good for long-term choice within a sovereign nation.

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