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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

We'd be hard pressed to identify a person with better open-source advocacy credentials than Tim O'Reilly. So it came as a mild surprise to read his column over the weekend lamenting the politicization of software by a radical fringe.

He characterized the efforts of Peruvian Congressman Edgar Villanueva Nuñez to mandate free software in government as "great theater," but ultimately misguided. Particular IT solutions should never be mandated, he argued quite reasonably.

He also dismissed the Digital Software Security Act, a (halfhearted?) 'proposed law' written chiefly to draw attention to open source alternatives for government bureaux, delivered to the SanFran City Hall during the recent LinuxWorld Conference by Red Hat honcho Michael Tiemann and our own occasional guest columnist and evangelist-at-large Bruce Perens, along with a few stragglers.

Perens wrote a good column for us here, in which he advocated not specific mandates for government, but a few basic principles for government to consider in choosing software. Personally, I found them modest and sensible: maintaining open standards, using open-source development as a way to keep publicly-funded research in the public domain, that sort of thing.

There was nothing 'radical' about it. Perhaps the DSSA was a bit much; but surely one can indulge in a bit of theater like it or the Villanueva proposal to dramatize an important issue without actually being a maniacal all-or-nothing insurgent.

Where are these 'radicals' O'Reilly is concerned about? Apparently he's been frightened by a handful of teenage Slashdot trolls. Meanwhile the grownups are making sense, so far as I can tell. So what if they get a bit dramatic to make their point? Drama, like open source software (and skateboarding), is hardly a crime.

Common sense

Ensuring a citizen's right to communicate electronically with the vast bureaucracy which regulates his life from cradle to grave, involving everything from his indoor plumbing to his public behavior, certainly doesn't depend on forcing every bit of software in use to be GPL'd. It does, however, require that open standards be mandated.

Suppose a government decided to accept only document files 'certified' in some way (think Palladium). Fine if the certification mechanism is open and available to all document files, and the formats are open and interchangeable.

Let's use Palladium as an example. MS says the certification standard will be open, and that's grand. Perhaps they're even telling the truth (though their past inclination to use secret little coding landmines to thwart competitors isn't encouraging). But for the sake of argument, let's give them the benefit of the doubt: the Palladium standard will be open, and there will be no tricks. This means OpenOffice.org can incorporate this certification scheme into their own, open document format. So far, so good.

But there's more to it; suppose MS keeps its Word format closed. This might well mean it won't be possible for an 'open' document application to create a Word document with the required certification, so it becomes useless if the government or business entity one wishes to communicate with insists on a certified and proprietary file format like Word. That's how I see Palladium working in the end (if it ever succeeds); and that's how I think MS sees it working, the sneaky bastards.

Currently there's no legislation in effect anywhere in the world that I'm aware of which would prevent government bureaux from using proprietary standards for documents and Web services. I really don't care what software they use, so long as they take it easy on taxpayers by doing an honest cost of ownership analysis (none of this mickey-mouse MS marketing propaganda) and choose the least expensive solution that addresses their needs adequately; and so long as whatever software they buy interoperates with 'alien' files, browsers, software apps and hardware.

Even with the best of intentions, e-government may end up shutting out citizens through some unforseen 'catch' buried within reams of cheerful marketing and lobbying propaganda eagerly proffered by certain software behemoths with the resources and inclinations necessary to pile on the distractions until it's too late.

The answer is legislation demanding -- yes, demanding -- open standards for Web access and document formats. Not particular standards, mind; that would be just another drag on innovation. I'm merely saying that whatever IT solutions a government chooses, costs have got to be calculated rationally and standards have got to be open so that citizens aren't paying more than necessary or getting locked out of the public debate merely because they've chosen their own software.

Government should never be forced to choose a particular brand of software or type of licensing scheme; but it should certainly be forced to pinch pennies and consider open-source alternatives seriously. And that's all I hear the 'radical fringe' saying.

Fancy being frightened by a proposal like that. ®

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