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<nettime> C|net: software libre!
nettime's_roving_reporter on Thu, 30 Aug 2001 14:07:55 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> C|net: software libre!


     [via <tbyfield {AT} panix.com>, courtesy of harold feld of the
      benton foundation. the MS angle != interesting, but the 
      growing consciousness in LDCs about the politics of soft-
      ware pricing/policies is Good News. --cheers, t]

<http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1003-200-6996393.html?tag=st.ne.1003.saslnk.saseml> 
   Governments push open-source software 
   By Paul Festa
   Staff Writer, CNET News.com
   August 29, 2001, 4:00 a.m. PT
   
   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 chart spent
   $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.
   
   o   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.
   
   o   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.
   
   o   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.
   
   o   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.
   
   o   In Spain, the Canary Islands Parliament recently approved a
   multipartisan, nonbinding resolution urging the use of free software
   by the government.
   
   o   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.
   
   o   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.
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