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Linux users march on city hall

A small but enthusiastic crowd of Linux lovers hits the streets of San Francisco, hoping to trumpet the virtues of open source to lawmakers and voters.

SAN FRANCISCO--A small but enthusiastic crowd of Linux lovers hits the streets of San Francisco on Thursday, hoping to trumpet the virtues of open source to lawmakers and voters.

Led by Michael Tiemann, chief technology officer of Linux seller Red Hat, the group marched the mile-long stretch from the LinuxWorld conference to San Francisco City Hall. There, Tiemann unveiled the Digital Software Security Act, a proposal that would prohibit the state from buying software that doesn't open its code.

Tiemann, wearing a red fedora and clutching a map so he could find his destination, said he also wanted to point out the hypocrisy of the state, which is one of the holdouts in the antitrust battle against Microsoft even as it runs the company's software in government offices.

"While they're spending money suing the monopolist, they're also feeding the monopolist with the other hand," Tiemann told the crowd.

The march attracted the zealous, the fearful and the merely curious.

One marcher, a Linux programmer who goes by the name of Tack and who describes himself as a "freelance tech guy," said it's important that government types listen to open-source advocates before passing laws dealing with technology. He said he's already suffering from federal laws that outlaw certain types of programming that could crack copy protections.

"Instead of being able to focus on developing a new technology for my client, I have to think like a lawyer," said Tack. "I don't want to land in jail."

Another marcher, Tim Sullivan, said the event is a chance for programmers to actively protect their right to code.

"I think this is a good chance to stand up for our freedoms," said Sullivan, 22, a computer science student at Oregon State University. "I'm not really a policy person, but it's pretty evident that it's ridiculous to stop people from writing software."

Forming a band of two dozen bobbing red hats, the group snaked through downtown San Francisco, stopping periodically to hear Tiemann cite rights that have been eroded. He spoke of foreign programmers who are afraid to travel to the United States, content companies with too much power in Washington and governments financially strangled by their reliance on proprietary software.

Hoping to reach regular folks, marchers wound up Market Street and past rows of outdoor chess players and among tourists toting department store bags. They stopped briefly at the Metreon shopping center, at a cable car turnaround, and finally, on the steps of city hall. Occasionally they chanted "Balance the budget. Switch to Linux." Few outsiders looked up from their activities to acknowledge the crowd.

Sticking it to Microsoft
At one point, marchers came across a historical plaque that was sponsored by Microsoft. They groaned and quickly papered over the software giant's name with a bumper sticker poking fun at proprietary software that doesn't allow programmers to tinker. "Why would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?" it read.

Turnout was on the low end of the 20 to 100 people Tiemann expected. Some programmers complained of the early 10:30 a.m. start time. One said he had to drag his friend out of bed. Others cited the fast clip of the gangly Tiemann, who took off promptly from the conference hall and rushed up the street, forcing some programmers to jog breathlessly behind him.

But open-source guru Bruce Perens, who marched alongside Tiemann, lamented that most technologists simply aren't paying attention. "It's obvious only a tiny bit of people from (LinuxWorld) turned out, and that presents a problem," he said. "Either they don't understand the issues or they have a business partnership that doesn't allow them to talk about it."

City officials did not greet the marchers when they arrived at city hall. Tiemann said he picked the city hall destination--despite the fact he's pushing his proposal at the state level--because it was the closest major government landmark to the LinuxWorld show. No state legislators have expressed official support for the bill, but Tiemann said he has some meetings planned with lawmakers in the next few days. State Assemblyman Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, has met with proposal author Walt Pennington but took no position one way or the other, spokesman George Balgos said.

The move comes as several government entities across the globe are considering legislation that would require considering open-source alternatives to proprietary software such as Microsoft's.

Not surprisingly, proponents of proprietary software are acting swiftly to quash such endeavors. The Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a computer industry lobbying group that along with Microsoft has campaigned against open source, said a mandate to pick open software could drive IT companies out of business, endanger 200,000 technology jobs in the state, and restrict choice.

"Such purchase decisions should be made on the basis of objective criteria without a presumption that proprietary, hybrid or open-source software would be the best solution in every case stated," Grant Mydland, CompTIA's director of state government relations and grassroots programs, said in a statement Thursday. Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.