Beyond Freedom Of Information Requests: Freedom Of Code Requests

from the let-my-software-go dept

Freedom of information requests have become one of the most useful weapons in the armory of those seeking to bring more transparency and oversight to governments. Indeed, so powerful are they that the person responsible for introducing them in the UK, Tony Blair, later came to regret doing so:

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop,” Blair wrote of himself in his autobiography “A Journey” last year, recalling his adoption of the law, which took effect in 2005. “There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

A recent decision in France expands the power of the freedom of information law there in a rather interesting way. The case concerns a request to the Commission for Access to Administrative Documents (CADA, in French), an independent administrative authority responsible for ensuring the freedom of access to administrative documents. Here’s what happened, as reported by the French free software organization April:

At the end of November 2014, the CADA received a request by Mr X, who asked the Public Finance Department (Direction Générale des Finances Publiques — DGFiP) to send him the source code of the software for simulating personal income tax, in order to use it for academic research. At its board of 8 January 2015, the CADA issued its opinion, which was “favourable to communicating the requested source code to Mister X, in the format under which the government services store it. The requestor is free to reuse it according to Section 12 of the Act of 17 July 1978, barring any intellectual property rights held by third parties to the government services, which wouldn’t have been mentioned by the Director General for Finances”.

That broadens the application of access to government documents to include government software — presumably on the basis that its source code is indeed a kind of document. It will be interesting to see whether similar requests will be granted by other government departments in France, and if other countries could be persuaded to adopt the same view.

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Comments on “Beyond Freedom Of Information Requests: Freedom Of Code Requests”

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Anonymous Coward says:

legal validity of test

In the U.S., defendants are entitled to know how a test works, which would be similar to knowing how the code works.

Examples would be: polygraph, breathalyzer, drug test, DNA test, psychological test, etc.,

The criteria for the validity of a breathalyzer test are given on the internet.

Asserting or defending cases based on statistics would relate to how the computer programs are set up. For example, what attributes are measured, and what is the unit of measure?

Actuarial statistics for “disparate impact” issues in insurance would be one example.

Rambler330 (profile) says:

Computer algorithms/code used by local government should be published

This brings up an interesting conversation I had with my brother the other day.
He had recently received his city’s tax assessment on his home in a major city in Canada. He felt that it was too high by about 25%. Looking at the list of supposed comparable homes in the area, none of them where really comparable. Different size, number of bedrooms/bathrooms, presence of attached garage, lot size, etc. One home was over a mile away in a completely different neighborhood. Several more comparable homes had recently (past 6 months) sold in the close neighborhood, but we’re not listed as comps. The one thing they all had in common was that they had all sold for well above market value.
So the question came up as to whether or not the algorithm used to find the comparable homes had been tuned to maximize (and justify) the tax revenue for the city.
(My brother is appealing his assessment and is confident it will be lowered.)

Rambler330 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Computer algorithms/code used by local government should be published

Not when you get to cherry pick your data. If I throw out all the houses that had sold for low prices and pick only the 4 highest selling houses as the “comps”, I skew the data to justify raising your taxes. In any housing market you will have homes on the market that have unreasonably high prices. Often someone will meet that asking price.

Anonymous Coward says:

So… uh… what’s the big issue there?

Afraid the person might analyse the code and find a loophole to evade taxes or fund terrorist organizations?

I mean barring a national security issue, all of the government’s procedures calculating taxes and/or other dues from citizens MUST be available to any interested citizen.

Otherwise we might as well give the government blank checks.

Ray Trygstad (profile) says:

Software by Federal employees is in the public domain

Because of USC 17 Circular 92 Section 105, works prepared by employees of the U.S. Government are in the public domain. When I was the Admin Officer & Information Systems Officer for a large Navy training squadron back in the 80s, the Naval Air Rework Facility in San Diego opened a software shop. They were handing out disks with maintenance management and flight scheduling software at an event on the base as a “free trial”, with the caveat that we’d have to pay them if we kept using it. I told them we’d use it if it was any good, but we wouldn’t pay them. They told me we had too, that they couldn’t produce the software if units didn’t pay. I asked if they were all civil service folks writing the code and they said yes, and I pointed out to them that by Federal law, every line of code they wrote was in the public domain. They were a bit taken aback by this as I guess it hadn’t occurred to them that this was the case, and finally they came back with “Well, if you don’t pay you won’t get any support!” To which I replied, “Well if your software and documentation are any good, we won’t need any!”

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