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French ‘spy agent’ paranoia fuels Open Source law moves

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Three French MPs are proposing a new law which will require the use of open standards and source code that is "accessible to all public administrations and organisations" in France. There would seem to be some chance of the proposal becoming law since it has been developed by three socialist members of parliament - the ruling party. In a discussion document on the principles for the new law, Jean-Yves Le Déaut, Christian Paul, and Pierre Cohen are very blunt about their reasons for introducing it. Without source code, they say, it is "impossible to fix bugs that the software publisher refuses to fix" and "to check that there is no security trap" such that "sensitive private information is communicated to foreign companies or organisations". Microsoft was not mentioned specifically, but who else could be the guilty party? Five lofty principles are trotted out in a supporting document:

  • Freedom
  • Access to public information
  • Retrievability of public data
  • National security and consumer security
  • interoperability
  • There can be little doubt that the real concern must be national security, and that the government wants no replay of the exposé when the Direction Générale de la Securité Exterieure (DGSE) was caught planting industrial spies in the European branches of IBM, Texas Instruments and other US electronics companies. Officials from the FBI and CIA visited the French government to confront it with evidence that the DGSE had been running a major espionage programme against foreign business executives since the late 1960s, intercepting electronic messages and giving information to Bull. The document explains that the "law should lead to a higher level of security of governmental information systems, because the knowledge of the source code will naturally eliminate the increasing incidence of software containing ‘spy agents'." So there you are. The open standards that the politicians have in mind are those of the W3 Consortium. A FAQ advises that Linux is not required, but MySQL, SSH encryption software, and Solaris would pass muster, they note, because the source code is publicly available. The politicians deny that the law is designed to be "against Microsoft", but it also turns out that Olivier Ezratty, Microsoft France's vp of marketing and communication, has said that Microsoft might grant some independent technical body full access to the source code of Microsoft software used by the French government. Another facet of the proposed law is that it guarantees software compatibility even if there is a conflicting patent or trademark. European law, in the shape of the 1991 Directive on the legal protection of computer programs, already says that interfaces are not protected by copyright, and that recompilation (reverse engineering) to achieve interoperability is legal. ®

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