Venezuela prefers OSS

by Jonathan Hassell

Related link:

Venezuela has now decreed that all software developed for its use must be licensed under the GPL, and has further issued an official preference to free software rather than proprietary.

I like this country's approach, but I still wonder if this is the direction
in which we need to go.  Read the article for more details.

I also want to address a comment on my previous entry to this log from O'Reilly
network user gerardm. His comment can be found here
It's rather extensive, and a decent read, but I'd like the opportunity for a

The responsibilities of a government, the user says, are to do the best job
possible and to be as open as possible to its people.  In actuality, a
strictly theoretical government does not have those responsibilities per se
Government exists to (a) control people using its power of coercion and (b)
raise revenue for itself.  The particular form of government dictates
whether those people governed have any control over the agenda of the
government.  In the United States and elsewhere, part of our political
culture is derived from the core value of self-government, in which the people
indirectly decide how they want the government to protect them.  But that's
because we're a democracy (although rapidly heading towards empire, in my
opinion, but that's another matter and I digress).  So the responsibilities
of a government according to gerardm really aren't its responsibilities
at all.  They are, very simply and plainly, goals to which the people who
are governed would like the administration to adhere.

Now, setting the pedantry aside, gerardm wonders how democracy is
helped by making software proprietary.  This is where Venezuela's approach
comes in and is refreshing.  It requires all software developed
specifically for their government's use to use open source standards and
coding.  I don't have nearly as much problem with this approach--which
really seems to make sense--as I do with the "ban all commercial software,
we're going with Eric Raymond" policies that Peru is investigating
implementing, and that Thomas Greene of The Register was advocating.  As I
said in my first weblog entry on this topic, governments shouldn't deprive
themselves of the ability to obtain the right tool for the right job.  What
if commercial software is better for a specific task, and yet it's prohibited
from use within the government?  The government itself suffers, which makes
the people suffer in various degrees according to the amount of political
business they conduct with the government.

The user, gerardm, further says that when a government uses
proprietary formats when conducting its daily business with its people, it
"makes people pay an extra tax in order to see that
publication."  Theoretically, yes, that is true; but in practice, it's
not at all true.  I do work for a data reselling company in Charlotte, NC,
that obtains financial and purchase information on construction equipment from publicly
available documents filed by the buyer or secured party with the individual
secretaries of state.  Much of this data is now coming to us in bulk in XML
format.  XML is an open standard, which can be read, used, written, and
maintained with proprietary or open source software.  I use
Windows when dealing with that data, and I'm currently having a lot of trouble
massaging it into the format in which we need it.  Another colleague might
use Linux to do what I'm doing, and that's fine, and not even really the
issue.  The issue--read: the pain--in this is when some states send us
bulk data in Excel format, and heaven forbid, some states send images embedded
in a Microsoft Word document.  We can deal with that data immediately, even
though it's in a closed format.  With an open format, I have to go through
this massaging procedure that I'm banging my head against.  So, for this
Charlotte company and me personally, I'm paying "an extra tax in order to
see" this data that's so much better in XML format than it is in Word,
Excel, or even DBF format.  (I hope that last sentence is completely
dripping with sarcasm, because that's the way I intended it.)

It all comes down to this: if we require governments to use open source
software and standards, we're limiting the options by which those governments
can effectively serve, protect, and govern us.  Limiting options is never a
good thing, and I believe that's what started the entire open-source debate in
the first place.  Let's not make things difficult on ourselves.  Use
the best tool for the job, whatever that tool might be.

Is this the right compromise between mandating open source and letting governments lead themselves into the Microsoft licensing trap?


2002-09-04 14:26:17
A different argument for software libre
Two minor points, and then the build of my comment:

You talk about Peru deciding whether to "ban all commercial software"; the issue is proprietary, closed software, not commercial software.

Oh, and by the way, your supposed sarasm statement didn't come off well, since you're saying that because the format isn't exactly in the format you want it to be, then you're paying a 'tax'. You'd be paying a 'tax' if the format was in a proprietary format and you had to convert it to your Excel format.

Now to the bulk:

While I find the open formats argument to be a good one, for me there is a stronger argument as to why governments should be mostly restricted to using software libre.

Closed software, almost by definition, gives maker power over the user. Not only does this power exist because the maker creates the software and laws grant 'protection' over the software, but the power also secret and hidden in closed-source software. Therefore, the user really can't be aware of how much influence the maker can be exerting over him/her. This power over the user can be used for devious means.

Moving towards more specifics, it gives corporations significant potential power over individuals or groups in government. By monitoring the user's activity, closed source applications can be acting as spyware, and then used to blackmail. Also, said closed source programs can be used meddle with systems like accounting.

In a democratic government, transparency is a quality which should be striven for. It increases accountability. Using software libre increases the transparency of a government, allows the citizens to increase their trust in the behind-the-scenes workings, and allows the government to be more independent.

This may seem like an ultra-paranoid argument, why should we trust corporations to behave more morally than our government, which doesn't exactly have a stellar record?

This is not an argument to ban all software non-libre in government, but rather to note that this should certainly be a consideration, especially for a government striving to avoid corruption and be more accountable to its citizenry.

2003-07-22 19:45:58
"purpose of governments" and "using the right tools for the job"
No time now for a real debate so I'll be brief (hopefully still comprehensible).
The only purpose for governments is to coerce people and raise revenue? My word, where did you get that one? Government is not an entity, it has not rights per se. It has no mandate to coerce or raise funds. Its sole purpose should be to protect its citizens from harm, both physical (war, terrorism, other violence) and financial (fraud, theft, etc).

Using the right tools for the job: you certainly shouldn't restrict yourself from using proprietry sotfware if it gets the job done better, that would be silly. But you are in a particular situation: ie you have been using microsoft for years and so have the government. If you had both been using open standards for years you would be using a system that could automatically parse the xml and you wouldn't have to do anything about "massaging" because you'd be familiar with the data format and have it all worked out.