Governments push open-source software

Concerned with costs and dependency, legislators from Brazil to China are increasingly considering open-source software.

Paul Festa Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Paul Festa
covers browser development and Web standards.
Paul Festa
9 min read
Governments around the world have found a new rallying cry--"Software libre!"--and Microsoft is working overtime to quell it.

A recent global wave of legislation is compelling government agencies, and in some cases government-owned companies, to use open-source or free software unless proprietary software is the only feasible option.

This legal movement, earliest and most pronounced in Brazil, but also showing signs of catching on elsewhere in Latin America, Europe and Asia, is finding ready converts as governments struggle to close sometimes vast digital divides with limited information-technology budgets. So far, there is no evidence that similar legislation is being considered anywhere in the United States, experts said.

Open-source and free software represent a budget-priced alternative to Microsoft's Windows operating system and applications that can cost thousands of dollars a month to license. In addition, access to underlying source code means governments and businesses can fix problems or modify software to work more effectively.

But behind the obvious reasons for the move to open-source and free software are more subtle issues. One of the overriding drivers behind legislation, experts said, appears to be a desire to break free of the United States' lock on the global software market.

Laws requiring the use of free or open-source software give governments "free rein to do what they want, how they want and when they want it," said IDC analyst Dan Kusnetzky. "It's not just the United States government they're worried about but a single vendor exercising so much power over their government operations. A government would not like to be under so much influence from any supplier."

In Europe, where numerous bills and resolutions have been introduced, local, state and federal governments Government software chartspent $7.8 billion on software in 2000. In Brazil, governments spent a mere $200 million the same year, an indication of how little the country has to spend on software and why free or low-priced software holds such powerful appeal.

Proponents of the legislation use the term "software libre" to describe software that is not only free of licensing fees but whose development is not controlled by a single company.

Theoretically, that single company could be any one of a number of software providers. In reality, most of the legislation in Europe, Asia and Latin America is specifically targeted at gaining freedom from Microsoft and its perceived lock on the commercial software business.

In a motion passed by the city government of Florence, Italy, in June, legislators warned that continued use of proprietary software was leading to "the computer science subjection of the Italian state to Microsoft."

Microsoft has matched or exceeded this level of rhetoric with its comments on open-source software, characterizing it variously as "a cancer," "an intellectual property destroyer" and--appropriately enough in the context of the global wave of open-source-only law--"un-American."

In response to the new laws, Microsoft summoned arguments similar to those it has made in its protracted antitrust fight with the U.S. government.

"Regarding this specific (legal) trend, we don't believe that governments should pick winners and losers," said Microsoft spokesman Ricardo Adame. "Technology should compete on its merits in a free market. Let the government look at all the options and then make a decision, so they can say, 'We may have to pay for this software, but it's the best solution for our specific needs.'"

Since the laws are so new, and so few have actually passed, it's unclear what financial effect they might have on Microsoft. The company sold more than $5 billion worth of software in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and more than $2.5 billion worth of products in Asia during fiscal 2001. Microsoft does not break out Latin American sales.

Software libre
Several foreign governments have considered mandating the use of open-source or free software.

  The French Parliament proposed a bill concerned with both the availability of source code for software used by the government and with the use of open standards. Observers say the government is blocking the bill pending European movement on the matter, particularly as it relates to patent issues.

  The Argentina Parliament reviewed a proposal that mandates, with some exceptions, the use of free software in all government offices and in government-owned companies.

  In Germany, the government has funded efforts by the German Unix Users Group (GUUG) to adapt the free privacy software called GnuPG--analogous to the proprietary PGP privacy software--for use by non-U.S. government entities. The project specifically cites U.S. export restrictions as a reason why PGP itself is inadequate.

  The European Commission has solicited recommendations from the European Working Group on Free Software, which last year raised the possibility that the EC could mandate the use of free software "whenever feasible" but stopped short of recommending that it do so.

  In Spain, the Canary Islands Parliament recently approved a multipartisan, nonbinding resolution urging the use of free software by the government.

  In Asia, governments have acted by appropriations rather than legislation to limit the use and impact of proprietary software. In South Korea, public universities squeezed by the region's 1997 financial crunch found themselves unable to purchase software. In response, the Ministry of Information and Communication last year set up training programs for GNU Linux for systems administration.

  In China, the government has moved to install the open-source Linux operating system provided by Red Flag in an attempt to avoid reliance on U.S. companies, particularly Microsoft.

But the trend could be troubling to the software giant, which has eyed the proliferation of open-source software nervously. Microsoft isn't taking the new legal assault sitting down. Adame said that through regional trade associations, the company had lobbied the Brazilian government against adopting laws mandating open source.

"We want to participate in any discussions on industry policy all over the world," said Adame. "We are aware of initiatives in Brazil and have expressed our concerns to different government officials. We're supporting the position that the decision by government to acquire technology should be based on the benefits and value of that technology and not on limiting those possibilities."

Governments--especially those of poorer nations with less money to spend on information technology--are eager to reap the cost savings of using free software.

But the rhetoric behind the movement to enact these laws is at times ideological and nationalistic, with legislators urging their colleagues to avoid dependence on software whose export is legally controlled by the United States and whose development and licensing is controlled by this country's dominant software industry.

"Many administrations are still using communication standards tightly linked to a single private provider, which forces citizens and public organizations to become customers of the same provider and, in the end, significantly stimulates abuses of dominant position in the market," reads the preamble to one French bill under consideration.

"Public administrations of the state often use software which they cannot access the source code; this situation makes it impossible to fix bugs that the software publisher refuses to fix or to check that there is no security trap in strategic software," the preamble continues. "Public administrations sometimes use, without even being aware of it, software which communicates sensitive private information to foreign companies or organizations."

Open-source software packages allow organizations to examine the underlying code and, in some cases, change that code to fix a problem or modify it to run with other software. The source code for Microsoft's products is closely guarded and unavailable to most customers. The company does allow its largest customers to access source code under a program called "shared source."

Beyond the issue of source-code access, analysts say, concerns about autonomy and national security are likely to drive passage of more laws discouraging use of proprietary software.

A number of countries have also used legislation to promote indigenous technology industries, such as PC makers. Brazil and China place heavy export duties on technology products, which effectively forces U.S. companies to build local facilities and employ large portions of the population.

Countries in Africa also have used software export laws to help encourage local providers.

Where it all started
The cradle of the new wave of laws mandating free software appears to be Brazil, where four cities--Amparo, Solonopole, Ribeirao Pires and Recife--have passed laws giving preference to or requiring the use of "software libre." Other municipalities, states and the national government have mulled similar legislation.

Brazil has proved fertile ground for open-source laws, and free software advocates say that other developing nations will likely follow its lead.

"This is a political and ethical issue, just like freedom of the press or freedom of association," said Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, who this year addressed the Brazilian Congress on the subject. "It makes sense, especially for countries like Brazil that are not rich, to encourage the country to switch from proprietary software to free software.

"In addition to giving people freedoms, software has a secondary benefit because people can use this freedom to save a lot of money now draining away to a few rich foreigners."

Elsewhere around the globe, Florence in June passed a motion mandating the use of "software libero" when feasible. A handful of smaller Italian municipalities, including Pavia, have passed similar motions.

The Florentine motion's author, a member of the local Green Party, is now drafting a measure to be introduced by his colleagues in the national parliament.

In France, the Senate last year considered a proposal requiring the government to use only free, open-source software and to establish a bureau of free software overseeing the measure's implementation. Described as an attention-getting scheme more than as a plausible bill, the proposal and its revision were defeated.

However, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin last week handed down a decree creating the Agency for Technologies of Information and Communication in Administration (ATICA), one of whose missions is "to encourage administrations to use free software and open standards."

Opportunity for software sellers
Despite the anti-U.S. bent behind much of the recent legislation, the legal trend against proprietary software hasn't left U.S. companies entirely in the cold. Instead, companies that have embraced open-source software are capitalizing on the foreign appetite for such software.

IBM, for example, recently invested $200 million in its Linux ventures in Asia. And other companies are viewing the open-source legislative push as a positive development for their own open-source efforts.

"We're noticing a lot of countries looking at free and open software as an alternative and mandating its use in certain situations," said Danese Cooper, whose informal title at Sun Microsystems is "open-source diva" and who is manager of its open-source programs office. "It's very exciting because any time you have respectable entities like governments saying they want to look seriously at a certain kind of code, that supports a movement and gives it legitimacy."

Based on the Sun-sponsored OpenOffice project, Sun's StarOffice is intended to compete with Microsoft's Office software.

Cooper speculated that countries with strong socialist histories or political movements are more likely to embrace open-source or free software, whether by force of law or by less-sweeping means.

Some analysts caution that the idealistic goals of the software libre movement are worthy but likely to meet with frustration in the government sector, at least in the short term.

"The use of free software is a noble idea, but government agencies typically do not have the technology modernization nor the technical expertise to ensure rapid adoption," said Rishi Sood, an analyst with Gartner. "Government agencies certainly need to develop more open-based technology systems and are looking for ways to improve data sharing across the enterprise."

The political rhetoric surrounding the debate over open-source law supports that speculation, with ideological passions and concerns over privacy, open standards and globalism driving much of the legislative efforts.

"Economic models of the software industry and the telecommunications industry...tend to induce strategies of incompatibility, industrial secrets, programmed obsolescence and violation of individual liberties," reads the preamble to the defeated French bill.

Activists and programmers, while they welcome the free-software-only initiatives, say they're holding out for more sweeping legal protections for their work.

"These laws are not the kind of help we most ask for from governments," said Stallman. "What we ask is that they not interfere with us with things like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, with software patents, with prohibitions on reverse engineering that enable companies like Microsoft to make proprietary data formats and prohibit our work. Those are the main obstacles to satisfying the software needs of humanity."

News.com's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.