October 21, 2002

Open Source: A Case For E-Government

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
This was the official title of a conference I attended last week in Washington, D.C., where government officials and consultants from countries on every inhabited continent gathered to discuss how and why they are using more Linux and Open Source software. This article is an overview of the event. Later this week I'll report on conversations I had with Peruvian Congressman Edgar Villanueva, with several Linux advocates from Vietnam, and with some very strange Microsoft apologists from the Alexis De Toqueville Institution.

Most of the conference sessions had a strong "how to do it" bent to them, not only on the technical side but also on the political front. Many attendees were Open Source devotees, but a significant number came to learn more about why they should use Open Source, and many -- even the strongest advocates -- seemed at least as interested in the political and economic ramifications of Open Source as in learning about the latest Gnome, MySQL or OpenOffice features.

There was broad consensus among attendees from less-prosperous countries that Linux and Open Source are the way to go.

When you live in a place where a sysadmin's annual income is less than the combined cost of Windows Server Edition and IIS, the "Open Source software runs up your labor cost" argument for premade proprietary solutions does not compute. When you are teaching most of your employees to use a desktop computer for the first time, there is no retraining cost if you suddenly decide to use OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office -- and if your clerical employees are already accustomed to Windows and Microsoft Office, but their annual salaries are less than the combined cost of XP Pro and Office XP, you certainly don't mind a few weeks' drop in productivity while they learn to use the new (free) software.


70 proposed laws mandating Open Source

The "70 laws" figure came from Robert Kramer of CompTIA (Computer Technology Industry Association), who was adamant that his group is not a Microsoft front, and indeed "receives no more than one percent of its funding from any single member." Kramer seemed aghast at the idea that political leaders everywhere from California to Zambia might consider legislating a preference for Open Source software use which, he claimed, would hurt thousands of CompTIA members including small software developers, resellers, systems integrators, and others all over the world. He stressed the point that CompTIA loves Linux dearly; that CompTIA pushes its Linux+ Certification like mad and does well with it; that Open Source is fine in its place (except, of course, for that pesky GPL), but that it is bad for governments to discriminate against proprietary software vendors. Bad! Bad! Bad!

Bruce Perens was on the same panel. An IDG.net writer covered their debate reasonably well, but seems to have missed some of the barbs about virility and who did or didn't need Viagra exchanged by Perens and several other panelists. Maybe that's just as well. This exchange was more of a food fight than anything else: fun to watch if you were in the room, but with little real content to it. Nothing was said that Linux.com readers haven't heard before.

Upshot: Companies that have built their businesses entirely on the proprietary software sales model are scared that they may lose revenue, while government officials in many countries (and U.S. states and federal agencies) are worried about spending too much of their IT budgets on proprietary software if less costly -- or even free -- alternatives are available.

In another presentation later in the day, a gentleman from Africa pointed out a reason his country needed Open Source preference legislation: That in his part of the world, government purchasing authorities traditionally receive "commissions" from vendors, so given a choice between a $1 million Open Source-based IT solution and a $10 million proprietary solution, they would go for the $10 million solution every time because, he said, "10 percent of $10 million is 10 times as much as 10 percent of $1 million."

(I am glad I live in the United States, where that sort of thing never happens.)

Conversations in the hallways

These are always an interesting part of a conference -- often more interesting than the sessions themselves. Here are a few highlights from casual contacts I had with assorted attendees:

  • A World Bank sysdamin told me he had been forced to trade in some of his beloved Sun boxes for Windows servers. (Note: this event was hosted partially by World Bank; we were chatting in the atrium of the World Bank building.) He was ready to move to Linux, but he said his (non-technical) bosses opted for an "end-to-end" Microsoft solution for the group he oversees. He said he had no problem with Windows on desktops, but that losing the remote login ability he had enjoyed with Solaris -- and hoped he would keep having when they moved to Linux -- was making his life "hell" because his servers were in several countries, and instead of solving most problems from home or his office, he is now forced to either hire a local contractor or get on an airplane to solve many minor problems. His budget is blown, too. "And at the same time they're hosting this Open Source conference," he said. "Isn't that something!"

  • The fear of CIA backdoors in American proprietary software is a major driving force for Open Source adoption in much of the world. I had more than a few people buttonhole me quietly to tell me that Microsoft was nothing but a front for the U.S. government, and this is why the U.S. ambassador to Peru worked to stymie pro-Open Source legislation there, and why the U.S. government is working so hard to prevent the spread of Open Source elsewhere. I heard this refrain from Asians, Latin Americans, Africans, and Mid-Easterners. One attendee (from an Islamic country) told me he was worried about Microsoft stealing sensitive information not only on behalf of the United States, but also on behalf of Israel, where Microsoft has a significant presence.

  • Small countries "under the piracy gun" are in trouble. They need to have strong trading relationships with the developed world, but to keep those relationships they must reduce their citizens' rate of software piracy because trade treaties they have signed contain intellectual property provisions. But there is no way they can afford to pay for expensive proprietary software. "Of course we steal it," was a common plaint. The alternative? Free and/or Open Source, whether its use is legislated or not. (More on this in a few days when I write specifically about Peru's Villanueva and Vietnam's Tran Luu Chuong.)

All in all, a well-organized event

Tony Stanco, of the Cyberspace Security Policy & Research Institute at George Washington University, was a major driving force behind this conference. Organizations that helped put it on included IBM, Red Hat, infoDev, UNDP, and devIS. They managed to line up an impressive array of speakers -- and an equally impressive audience, not only in size (measured in hundreds, not dozens) but also in diversity.

By "diversity" I do not just mean physical appearance, but backgrounds and job titles. I met academic researchers, hands-on programmers and sysadmins, policy makers, and more than a few managers from private companies, all of whom were freely sharing Open Source thoughts, experiences, hopes, and fears. They talked about where to use Open Source and Free Software (and where not to use it), how best to implement given solutions and the need for new ones, how to deal with licensing quandaries and other impediments, and almost everything else you would expect.

Policymakers and managers predominated. Suits were the most common garb. And this -- the fact that people who have the power to sign purchase orders and make important IT decisions were not only there in force, but taking notes and asking informed questions -- was the ultimate value of this conference.

Linux, Open Source, and Free Software are starting to become not only part of the government IT scene, but possibly the fastest-growing part of it, and smart government officials from many countries -- and the private businesses that work with them -- obviously realize this and are trying hard to learn as much about Open Source as they can, as fast as they can.

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