May 28, 2003

Think Tanks Debate Open Source Laws

Last December the website Tech Central Station hosted a point/counterpoint about open source laws. The main debate was between Julian Sanchez from the Cato Institute, and James V. DeLong, formerly of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, now at the Progress and Freedom Foundation. Sonia Arrison from the Pacific Research Institute had written an earlier TCS piece on the same topic.

The debate was also meta-debated (briefly) on slashdot [12/11/02].

The first question you might ask yourself is: who are these people, what are the organizations they work for, and why should I care what they think about open source procurement laws?

The answer is that they all work for think tanks, research organizations that have more to do with government policy than you might think. A lot of the "experts" who appear on talk shows (political talk shows, I mean) are from places like this. They provide the intellectual backing for a lot of laws and they have the ear of government officials, so what they think and say is important. Anyone interested in passing laws involving open data formats (or open source for that matter) would be well served to get some think tank folks engaged in the debate.

Think tanks exist all over the political spectrum. There is a think tank, Capital Research Center, that studies other think tanks: you can see its quick summaries on the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Pacific Research Institute (the Progress and Freedom Foundation seems to have dropped off their radar, at least their free radar).

A quick scan of their mission statements reveals that the Cato Institute and the Pacific Research Institute are libertarian, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Progress and Freedom Foundation are conservative. Thus, according to the world's smallest political quiz, all four groups favor smaller government; the libertarians also believe that whatever government is left should leave its citizens alone. Conservatives, in general, tend to favor businesses, while libertarians tend to favor the individual.

Not surprisingly, DeLong, a conservative, comes out against open source laws [12/10/02]. His argument essentially echoes Microsoft's, although possibly not intentionally (typically, he says nothing about data formats). As he points out, he is not opposed to open source per se, merely laws that require it, and his summation is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

The two libertarians disagree: Sanchez is for open source laws [12/10/02], Arrison is against them [10/3/02] (Sanchez commented on both the DeLong piece [12/10/02] and the Arrison piece [10/9/02] in his blog, where he describes DeLong as also being a libertarian, although I have my doubts about that).

Arrison gives the standard libertarian argument: Open source software should succeed or fail in the market on its own merits, and the government should get out of the way. She makes an interesting comment: "But forcing the taxpayer's IT budget to favor one type of system over another for purely political reasons is wrong and antithetical to the spirit of the open source community." In other words, the open source movement is officially about giving users a choice (although of course for some people it is about beating Microsoft), so how can you favor a law that limits the government's choice?

Sanchez is more conflicted; as a libertarian he should be opposed to such laws, but he really likes open source software. He presents some basic technical arguments (faster bug fixes, proprietary software sitfling innovation), but then gets on his two main points. The first is that open source software procurement would be less prone to market-clogging lobbying (I'm not sure if this is true, given Red Hat's support of California's open source bill; it may simply be that the open source lobby is more politically naive and less politically active, the way Microsoft was about five years ago). Sanchez's second point, however, is about open data formats:

Proprietary software makers know that client data is locked up in a format they own. This places them in a unique position to provide upgrades, fixes, and other forms of technical support - especially when dealing with inertia bound bureaucracies less subject to the pressures that might make a private firm switch platforms more readily. They also know that software, like a VCR or fax machine, is often a "network good" characterized by "bandwagon effects," which make its value a function, not only of its intrinsic characteristics, but also of the number of other people using the same product. These facts taken together mean that firms can parlay government use of a proprietary format - PowerPoint, say - into sales of the client software to read it that format. Even when the client software is given away without charge, as with Adobe Acrobat Reader, firms know that if more users need to download their proprietary client in order to communicate with the government, that larger user base expands the market for their authoring software. Since companies can't expect to similarly capture those network benefits when producing open source software [emphasis added] - and, perhaps more importantly, needn't fear being locked out by a competitor who does - the stakes are far lower for any one contract. With proprietary software, government's potentially standard-setting procurement choices give it the role of market kingmaker.

If you just replace "open source" with "open data format" at the place I emphasized, you have a great argument for open data format laws.

Thus, the main difference between the two libertarians, Arrison and Sanchez, is that Sanchez recognized the benefits that the "open data format" part of an open source law would bring; Arrison does not. You can take Arrison's comments about why open source laws are bad, and Sanchez's comments about why open data formats are good, and combine them into one great argument that should convince any libertarian that open data format laws are an excellent idea.

Posted by Adam Barr at May 28, 2003 12:24 PM