At least in the public sector!
Microsoft has announced that it expands its Government Security Program, better known under the name ‘Shared Source”, to its Office application suite. Shared Source allows governments to inspect code of Microsoft products. Since its introduction in 2003 over 30 governments worldwide took the opportunity to inspect the code of the Microsoft Windows OS.
So what happened to Microsoft, once claiming that Open Source is Communism, that they suddenly start to open their code?!I recently published an article in a german book on the normative dimension of software usage in the public sector. In this article I present four arguments that might explain the increasing use of Free Software in the public sector:
2. Fostering national economy
1: The first argument is frequently used by public actors, especially in the developing nations, with respect to the expensive licensing regimes of proprietary software vendors. They claim that Free Software is cheaper than proprietary software. It has to be acknowledged that it is not yet entirely proven that the actual TCO for Free Software is lower than that of proprietary software. But the argument works obviously very well in negotiations with software vendors like Microsoft in order to press their prices.
2: The second argument is a continuation of the first argument, with the additional stance, that the money being spend on IT-Infrastructure is staying in the country and not flowing elsewhere. There it should benefit the national economy by creating jobs and nuturing local IT-competence and knowledge. Again this is a major argument frequently brought forward by developing nations.
The first two arguments are on the middleground of economical and normative considerations. The last two are entirely normative, stemming from the political-economy of the nation state:
3: Proprietary software is a threat to national sovereignty, since the state cannot be sure that no third party interests are hidden within the code. The most obvious case in this respect was the discovery of an NSA backdoor in the Crypto-API of Windows in 1999. It took Microsoft four years to learn the lesson: A Matter of National Security: Microsoft Government Security Program Provides National Governments with Access to Windows Source Code was the title of the press-release that announced the Shared Source License in January 2003. A state needs the total control over its entities in order to function, especially in a crisis situation. But going open source alone won't be enough. If software is part of a state infrastructure, it has to be Free
Software. Free, since this 1. guarantees transparency of code, and therefore knowledge what it exactly does, but 2. only viral licensing guarantees that the software stays in the public domain and therefore remains transparent and cannnot become property of a specific software vendors again - which would also create new dependencies.
4: If software becomes part of a nations infrastructure and has regulatory force it has to be transparent in order to be legitimate. Otherwise it cannot be proven that the code functions in a neutral way, benefiting the common interest. A good example is electronic voting. Unless the underlying code and its compilation process is not transparent, it remains suspicious if the machines truly count neutral. This is an overlooked aspect of the ‘Code is law’ analogy. In democratic societies law can only be legitimate if it is readable. Laws that are not readable, will not be accepted as laws and lose their regulatory force, since it cannot be proven that they accord to the outcome of the democratic discussion process. In the words of Federico Heinz that I already posted earlier here: "You might be able to run a dictatorship on Free Software but you simply cannot run a democracy on proprietary Software".
The analyses given here holds true principally for the whole public sector, which is currently the biggest market for IT-Services. In my opinion it is inevitable that the public sector will press software manufactures to open their software and even put it under free licenses. Microsofts move today could be just the beginning of some surprising initiatives, especially with regards to their ‘Secure Computing” projects, since secure computing is throughoutly a normative project.