May 29, 2003

New York Open Source Rumblings

On April 29 of this year, the New York City Council's Select Committee on Technology & Government held a meeting to discuss "An Examination of Municipal Policies on Open Source Software Procurement". One of the presenters was Tony Stanco, Director of the Center of Open Source & Government, and Associate Director of the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University.

Stanco's testimony was discussed on slashdot [5/1/03].

Who are these people? The New York City Council is what you would think, and the Select Committee on Technology & Government has been around for about a year, judging from its list of reports. Select committees, I would surmise, are called into existence for temporary periods, as opposed to standing committees which exist forever.

The Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute is a decade old (although until recently it was called the Cyberspace Policy Institute) and according to its mission statement "CPI's mission is to encourage, promote, facilitate, and execute interdisciplinary research in areas related to the nexus of society and the Internet." The Center of Open Source & Government was founded more recently by Tony Stanco; it sponsored a conference on open source and government last October (and another one in March).

Stanco's testimony lists seven reasons why open source in government is a good thing:

  1. Democratic Implications
  2. Privacy
  3. Cost
  4. Research and Development/Technology Transfer
  5. Education
  6. Job Creation
  7. Security

I discussed these in a post on slashdot. I'm not crazy about his arguments, but under Democratic Implications he did say: "Governments have special obligations to protect the integrity, confidentiality and accessibility of public information throughout time like no other entity in society. Therefore, storing and retrieving government data through secret and proprietary data formats tied to a single provider is especially problematic, since the usability, maintenance and permanence of government data should not depend on the goodwill or financial viability of commercial suppliers."

The Council was not debating a specific proposal on open source procurement in city government; it was a fact-finding mission. The briefing paper (PDF) is an excellent summary of the issues. As it states in its conclusion, one problem with open source laws is defining what open source means [OSS == open source software]:

The debate surrounding OSS, as well as government interventions into that decades long debate, coalesces around several competing factors that are not easily untangled – the commercialization of software, the presumed benefits of a competitive technology marketplace, security concerns, the interoperability of different technology systems, the role which government can and should play in promoting private sector business models as well as certain development models, to name just a few of the areas of interest. As the, albeit, carefully worded definition of OSS suggests, there is within these competing, sometimes complimentary arenas confusion even over what OSS is precisely....Statutory interventions, then, as evidenced in California as well as Oregon, represent undoubtedly complicated efforts inevitably predicated on a clear definition of OSS – something which even advocates for OSS have not been able to entirely stabilize themselves.

The briefing paper also has some good links at the bottom, including one to a white paper from February 1999 by Mitch Stoltz that may be the earliest one to call for government procurement of open source software (the Committee's briefing paper got its historical information from this paper). Stoltz mentions cost only briefly; his arguments for open source include security, intellectual property, Y2K issues, and its anti-monopolistic nature (this was during the thick of the Microsoft-DOJ lawsuit). He argues that government can support open source software either by purchasing it, or by encouraging its employees to become involved in developing it (an interesting point that I have not seen elsewhere). Unfortunately his only discussion of open standards relates to network protocols, not data formats.

One thing the Committee's briefing paper does not link to is a recent resolution put out by the Faculty Senate of the State University of New York at Buffalo (although Buffalo is nominally in the same state as New York City, I doubt many New Yorkers would care to acknowledge that fact). Titled Resolution for University Support of Open Software and Open Standards, it starts out well: "direct unmediated unfettered access to information is fundamental and essential to scholarly inquiry, academic dialog, research, the advancement of research methods, academic freedom, and freedom of speech" but then it wanders off into the standard anti-Microsoft weeds, complaining about Microsoft messing with standards such as Kerberos and Java, supporting Digital Rights Management, pushing aggressive licensing agreements on users, forcing upgrades, allegedly including spyware with Media Player, etc, etc.

The resolution does recover in the end, pointing out that Microsoft software can't be modified for research purposes, and includes the all-too-true statement: "the use of closed proprietary document formats and information management systems to store the work of faculty, students, and staff limits the ways these works can be accessed and archived, and jeopardizes access itself in the long term." It ends with a recomendation that SUNY Buffalo support GNU/Linux and OpenOffice specifically, and open source alternatives in general, and that "the Faculty of the University at Buffalo call on the University to implement a policy of promoting open document formats and communication protocols wherever possible and, in the case of broadcast announcements and other documents intended for a general audience, discouraging the use of secret and proprietary formats (such as Microsoft Word format) in favor of open formats (such as plain text or HTML) that are universally accessible."

The resolution was the brainchild of John Ringland, an associate professor in the math department who is also the chair of the Computer Services Committee of the Faculty Senate. Ringland is also opposed to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (aka the "Hollings Bill") and favors the Digital Media Consumers' Rights Act, as you can see from this other resolution encouraging the university to lobby in favor of the DMCRA; a year earlier he posted a "call to action" and you can see earlier versions of both his open source resolution and his anti-DMCA/CBDTPA resolution. Ringland presented both his resolutions to the Senate [4/18/03]; the anti-DMCA/CBDTPA one was adopted on March 4, the open source one on April 1. And it is legitimate, despite the date.

Slashdot discussion of this resolution, for those interested, is here [4/2/03].

Since the committee was interested in gathering information, it did so, and as far as I know software procurement by the City of New York continues unchanged. You can read the full testimony if you wish; look on page 14 for the Initiative for Software Choice, a Microsoft-backed anti-open-source-law group. The testimony in favor of open source basically said "It works"; the testimony against basically said "A law requiring only open source software would be bad." Since these are not mutually exclusive, it's not clear what the Committee's takeaway would have been.

Posted by Adam Barr at May 29, 2003 12:09 PM