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Editor's Note: Open Source �ber Alles!

  • January 5, 2000
  • By Kevin Reichard

Silly ideas are presented to legislative bodies all the time, but one of the silliest political movements is now brewing in the software world, where some open-source advocates are talking about a lobbying effort that would have legislative bodies around the globe mandate that governments exclusively purchase and implement open-source technologies, to the exclusion of commercial software.

The movement is fueled by two disparate beliefs: 1) that commercial software is the result of a corrupt and unredeemable development process, leading to purchasing decisions based more on under-the-table deals than purely technical merits (the paranoid rationale), which would serve to level the playing field; and 2) that government will save huge sums of money by adopting open-source software, thereby leading to lower taxes (the right-wing-bordering-on-libertarian rationale).

Of course, both of these rationales are fallacies. First, every major government computer project (at least in my home state of Minnesota, where my governor can beat up your governor) is released for bid, with a list of specifications that every vendor must meet. The paranoiac in the open-source community would like to believe that Microsoft wins a lot of government business by bribing decision-makers, but the fact is that it's the larger resellers and system integrators�Dell, EDS, IBM, Unisys�who win the big projects; Microsoft just doesn't have the resources to win major contracts on its own, and you generally don't see a request for bid limited to only the operating system. Mandating open-source technologies doesn't level the playing field: it eliminates the playing field. Secondly, open source doesn't equal free software. Linux developers are entitled to make a buck just like everyone else, and to assume that huge savings can be realized by mandating that Slackware Linux be used instead of Microsoft Windows is a rather simplistic approach to understanding how an enterprise (which, in terms of scale, is what government is) adopts and purchases software.

And there's one larger issue to address: the fact that it's probably not a good idea to involve government in the software marketplace. It's one thing to acknowledge that government is a large customer of software (indeed, it would be intellectually dishonest to acknowledge that the government-funded educational world hasn't done yeoman service in promoting open-source technologies), but it's another thing to turn government into an advocate. For this same reason many in the open-source community are loathe to see the government take an active role in future OS development at Microsoft (no matter how reprehensibly Microsoft behaved in the past), preferring to let the marketplace make those decisions.

(Anyone writing about politics should disclose their biases, so here are mine: I was born and raised in a liberal, union "Humphrey DFLer" home in Minnesota, and I've been known to occasionally pitch a tent at a Finnish co-op camp where Gus Hall made his start. I've never voted for a Republican.)

It's unclear whether this is a real movement or some wacko proposal by some fringe open sourcers; at the present it's more a concept than an actual call to arms, and so far the leaders in the open-source community have been silent on the issue. (Indeed, noted libertarian Eric Raymond must be in serious conflict over this proposal: the open-source advocate in him wants to see open-source software advanced at any cost, but the libertarian in him wants to see government disappear.) But realistically, the idea of using government to mandate the usage of open-source software is doomed to fail. The only mystery is whether any government body in the world will actually give the idea a hearing.

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