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The US Government and Open-Source Software

As part of the "Second Open Government National Action Plan", the federal government is planning to share the source code behind many of its software projects.

To begin with, the plans call for federal agencies to share code with each other. This will help reduce development costs when government departments each work on the same functionality independently. Solving the same problem twice (or more often) is expensive and a waste of taxpayer’s money.

What’s more, sharing source code between government departments makes it easier for those departments to collaborate, which again reduces the expense to the tax-payer. Bugs can be discovered and fixed faster, and software designed by different departments will be based on the same underlying technology. In theory, that should make these systems more compatible with each other.

Sharing source code between different parts of the government makes a lot of sense. In fact, it’s a policy that should have been passed a long time ago, but it’s not quite what most of us mean when we say "open-source" software.

The proposal also has a portion that relates to open-source software in the traditional sense of the term. It states that up to 20% of the custom code written by the federal government each year should be shared with the public.

Opening the source of the software developed by the federal government will be highly beneficial to tech companies and innovators all over the country (and the rest of the world). Just as government departments can reduce costs by sharing source code, startups and innovators can benefit from reusing code produced using tax-payers money. Given the importance of the tech sector to today’s economy, it’s easy to see how this could be beneficial.

With more developers using and sharing the code, there’s a much better chance that bugs can be detected and fixed. This, in turn, helps to reduce the federal government’s expenses, so it’s really a win-win proposal.

The Free Software Federation has voiced its support of the proposal and has made a number of suggestions. For instance, the FSF would prefer to see the government release all of its custom code projects as FOSS. It also would like to see the government change the dependencies for some of its projects, which currently depend on proprietary software.

The FSF is keen to stress that fully embracing free software would be highly beneficial to the federal government, not just innovators and startups who reuse the code. The FSF emphasizes how users of proprietary software are not able to control that software fully. Instead, the control lies in the hands of the companies that write the software and own the source code.

In a world where companies often have interests contrary to those of the government or the citizens of a country, that can be too much power to put into the hands of a private company.

Although Washington may not be ready to fully embrace the ideals and politics of free software, its public stance on open-source software is a very promising first step. Besides the ideology, there are plenty of pragmatic reasons to move toward a fully open-source stack.

For instance, using a fully open-source stack means that it’s entirely possible to assemble a team with intimate knowledge of the entire codebase. The result is a much more stable base for the custom software deployed by individual government agencies.

That’s not to say that the political issues aren’t important too. When governments embrace FOSS software, they enjoy the same benefits as an individual who chooses FOSS software. Their basic software rights—to control the software that they rely on—are protected.

As a government is (in theory) there to serve the collective interests of the citizens of a country, switching over to free software would serve to protect the rights of all US citizens, who depend on the integrity of the government’s software.

The FSF may have a few qualms about the extent of the new policy, but it sees it as a very strong step in the right direction. At one point, the concept of FOSS was treated with suspicion by government agencies. FOSS has been labeled as a threat to the economy, and users of FOSS software and operating systems have been labeled as cyber-criminals.

The fact that the proposal even has been made is a sign that attitudes are changing. And, the FSF has been a major force driving the change in perception for FOSS.

The past year has seen a number of encouraging signs. Large commercial companies that would once have lashed out at FOSS recently have publicly spoken out in support of the FOSS community, and governments around the world are publicly supporting Linux and other key FOSS projects.

The FSF, Linux Foundation and their associated groups all depend on support from the community. In some cases, the support comes in the form of large donations from large companies. But there are many ways to contribute—even discussing free software with your friends helps, as it raises the public awareness of the related issues.

While there is still much to be achieved in the name of free software, we are making progress. The fruits of the work are there to see—these are promising times!

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