March 2, 2004

Alabama latest state to present open source software bill

Author: Chris Preimesberger

Alabama, with Senate Bill 276, is the latest state to introduce a bill concerning the use of open source software in the public sector.

SB 276, written and submitted by State Sen. Quinton Ross, last week passed its first challenge with a 7-1-1 vote in the Governmental Affairs Committee where it originated. It will now go to the state senate floor for debate, probably within the next few months. If it passes the senate vote, it goes to the full legislature. A win there sends it to the governor's desk to be signed into law or vetoed.

The process may be deliberative and time-consuming, but one-page bill itself is simple in concept and in language. The synopsis: "This bill would expressly allow any state entity to use open source software in lieu of proprietary software whenever feasible."

SB 276: A simple reminder

That's it. Just a reminder to IT decision-makers on the public payroll not to forget open source when the time comes to spend taxpayers' dollars for software.

As benign as it appears, bills like this one invariably bring loud opposition in every jurisdiction from lobbyists who are paid -- and paid very well -- to watch these things as they progress. In most cases, the proprietary software industry wants to make sure that the tables aren't tipped unfairly so that open source gets preferential treatment from government. Funny, open source promoters are contending they want the same, exact thing.

So, if fairness is what everybody wants, why all the controversy? "We just don't want open source to be 'more equal' than proprietary software," said Mike Wendy, a lobbyist with the Computer Technology Industry Association in Washington, D.C. CompTIA is an industry lobbying consortium of 290 software companies with strong backing of Microsoft and Intel, and it describes itself as an impartial industry watchdog association.

Open source software is becoming the topic of an increasing number of proposed U.S. laws. California (with its proposed Digital Software Security Act), Oregon, Oklahoma, Texas, Virginia, and Massachussetts have been in the legislative process at different levels, mostly in efforts to improve public awareness of open source software as a viable alternative for use in government agency IT systems.

In January, the state of Massachusetts Information Technology Division finalized a new open standards IT policy which outlines acquisition guidelines for the future and gives the vendor community -- including open source software companies -- fair and open opportunity to compete for contracts.

Largo: Already all open source

A while back, the city of Largo, Fla. decided to go completely open source in its city IT system. As budgets get tighter, other public agencies are following suit around the nation.

How did this newest bill get started?

"Before I was elected, I was the principal of a magnet school with a technology component here in Montgomery," Ross told NewsForge. "We needed computers for the kids, we had none at all. So, the technology teacher and myself went to the business community and got 80 older computers donated for classrooms. That was a start, but then we looked around at office software. We saw the licensing costs, then decided to go with OpenOffice ... we saved about $10,000 for the school by going that way.

"That was a lot of money saved for only one school," Ross said. "Of course, we know the trade-offs involved with whatever you do. But in this day of tightening budgets and improving open source software, we have to look seriously at what is available.

"The reason for writing this bill is that we need to make people think out of the box. We think that this is what all public agencies should be aware of. Getting the word out about the alternatives is what this is about. We want to make sure that all software alternatives get equal treatment when it comes to awarding contracts or spending public funds. No one vendor should get any preferential treatment," Ross said.

Right now, the state finance office is running Red Hat Linux and is happy with it, Ross said. So there is already proof in the Alabama pudding.

Ross: Realistic about the political process

Ross is realistic about the chances for his bill to actually make it into the books as law. "As far as the bill itself is concerned, it's a long road ahead. We got good support in the Governmental Affairs committee, but it will be tough to get it through the senate with all the other issues we have to deal with on a daily basis. Frankly, for most people, the kind of software the state buys isn't a top priority issue."

Ross heard immediately from people outside the state on this bill. CompTIA was one of the first to ring. "We'll listen to what they have to say, and we might need to amend the language a bit. But all of this serves to bring awareness, that's our main goal," Ross said. "All the discussion is good."

CompTIA says it strives for equality for all in these cases, just as open-source advocates do.

Unnecessary legislation?

"We just think that legislation like this is unnecessary," Wendy said. "IT administrators are already quite aware of the choices out there, if they're doing their jobs correctly. They don't need a law to tell them that open source software -- or any sort of software -- should be considered for use in a system. We think the whole thing is a waste of time and effort."

Wendy said he thinks calling specific attention to open source software in a bill like SB 276 unfairly gives a de facto advantage to open source. "When it is called out like that, is makes it look like open source is 'more equal' than proprietary software, and that impression shouldn't be out there," he said.

Wendy said that there are about 70 similar iniatitives at various levels of process all over the world. "They are certainly becoming more and more common at this point," he said, "but they will eventually slow down as things get settled."

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