Free Software Foundation Europe Leads Call For Taxpayer-Funded Software To Be Licensed For Free Re-use

from the public-money,-public-code dept

Free Software Foundation Europe has a new campaign -- "Public money, public code" -- which poses the following question:

Why is software created using taxpayers' money not released as Free Software?

And goes on:

We want legislation requiring that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available under a Free and Open Source Software licence. If it is public money, it should be public code as well.

It certainly seems pretty ridiculous that code written for public bodies, whether by external companies or contractors paid by the public purse, or produced internally, should not be released as free software. But aside from this being a question of fairness, the FSFE lists other reasons why it makes sense:

Tax savings

Similar applications don't have to be programmed from scratch every time.

Collaboration

Efforts on major projects can share expertise and costs.

Fostering innovation

With transparent processes, others don't have to reinvent the wheel.

An open letter on the site, supported by dozens of organizations and open for individual signatures, provides a few more:

Free and Open Source Software is a modern public good that allows everybody to freely use, study, share and improve applications we use on a daily basis.

Free and Open Source Software licences provide safeguards against being locked in to services from specific companies that use restrictive licences to hinder competition.

Free and Open Source Software ensures that the source code is accessible so that backdoors and security holes can be fixed without depending on one service provider.

Considered objectively, it's hard to think of any good reasons why code that is paid for by the public should not be released publicly as a matter of course. The good news is that this "public money, public code" argument is precisely the approach that open access advocates have used with considerable success in the field of academic publishing, so there's hope it might gain some traction in the world of software too.

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  1. identicon
    spodula, 20 Sep 2017 @ 3:59am

    Yeah, but one big downside..

    The general public gets to see to atrocious code produced by Contractors working for the public sector.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Michael, 20 Sep 2017 @ 4:56am

    Re: Yeah, but one big downside..

    Trust me, it is not any worse than the atrocious code produced by Contractors working for the private sector.

    and that code is not any worse than what is produced by most corporate development groups.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 5:20am

    That's easy

    Considered objectively, it's hard to think of any good reasons why code that is paid for by the public should not be released publicly as a matter of course.

    Nonsense, if the code is made public then the companies paid to create it can't sell it again, and again, and again to various agencies who might need it. That's a great reason!

    ... oh, you mean good reason from the public's perspective. Hmm, I'll have to get back to you on that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 5:29am

    Re: Re: Yeah, but one big downside..

    ..........does any major US software contractor reliably produce code/programs for their government/private clients ??

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 5:45am

    Re: Re: Re: Yeah, but one big downside..

    Oh, they reliably produce code alright. Never you worry about that. Whether the code is also reliable, is a whole other matter.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 6:02am

    Re: That's easy

    There is another reason to keep it protected:
    As soon as you open the source nobody would want to code much. Instead you would get a sparsely connected carpet of licenses for a lot of already available code.

    Modern software is a lot of negotiations of legal responsibilities, thus if the software company can't make the former responsible, they would have to take the legal risks on. Legal risks are very expensive and will thus likely lose the bid for the project in the first place.

    Of course we wouldn't like to end up in the 80's with monopoly software that extorts agregious licenses, but the value in open software is limited when we talk liability for security breaches, up-time quotas, reliable upgrade schedules support and other needed considerations.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    DannyB (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 6:05am

    Re: Yeah, but one big downside..

    Can't the government hire a paid insultant to fix the poor code written by contractors?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    DannyB (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 6:07am

    The code must be kept secret

    The government has to keep it's inner workings secret from the public which serves it.

    Because:
    [x] Terrorists
    [_] Think of the Children!
    [x] Sex traffickers
    [x] Lobbyists
    [_] Backpage

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. icon
    TheResidentSkeptic (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 6:22am

    Relevance?

    A lot of government code has no value outside of the agency it was created for. (a lot has no value INSIDE the agency it was created for) The code to issue a permit to build a boat dock doesn't have a lot of usage outside of an environmental agency. The code to create and issue social security numbers probably shouldn't be released.
    OTOH, there are a LOT of utility programs that absolutely could and should be shared. A lot of value could be gained from the FOSS world taking them, enhancing them, and sharing them.

    Oops. "sharing". Well, that's gonna upset the trolls...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 6:35am

    Along this line of logic, the size of the government matters. If the city of Denver pays for some piece of software, should the city of Chicago benefit from that. Their tax payers didn't contribute. If US federal dollors are used to make software, should the rest of the world be able to use it? Limiting software distribution can be hard, giving it away to anyone also means giving it away to everyone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Toom1275 (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 6:36am

    I mean, technically the citizens have already paid for the software, so there's no reason to not let them access it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:02am

    and govt funded information

    e.g. in UK, although address information / mapping of UK was publicly funded this is not available for free. The cost of reverse geocoding are disproportionately high for "one man band" / small companies and so a definite barrier to innovation.
    ... Ironically with Google allowing free mapping calls in Android apps, one of the few areas of geographical related software innovation is in android apps as this allows experimentation without big financial outlay.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:08am

    Re: Re: That's easy

    Nonsense. All the hand waving in the world will not make your argument any better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:13am

    Re: The code must be kept secret

    They need to keep the code hidden because:

    [ ] all the reasons they claim

    [x] they do not want to expose how the lowest bidder policy affects quality

    [x] lowest bidder wants their greed & incompetence hidden

    [x] other agencies need exploits hidden

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:17am

    Re:

    Wouldn't all those details be covered in the contract used to define the purchase?

    afaik, If it is a work for hire, the writer is paid and does not retain any copyright/patent/trademark/whatever. In this case, denver could share or not, is this really an issue?

    If denver purchases an off the shelf item, it most likely is not open source and there are etrms and conditions etc

    Not sure what your point is.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:21am

    What about off the shelf software?

    The problem is defining what is being written specifically for government and what is being written for more general use that the government happens to need as well. Does Windows become free and open sourced just because Microsoft writes a special version of it for the government?

    Of course that's the desire of many FOSS advocates. But just as laws like SESTA would be abused for other purposes, this would be abused by some to try and make many closed source application become FOSS. It's dishonest either way to act like this is something that could do no harm.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Thad, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:29am

    Re: Relevance?

    The code to issue a permit to build a boat dock doesn't have a lot of usage outside of an environmental agency.

    Perhaps, but it seems like it would be adaptable to other countries that need to issue boat dock permits. Or other permits.

    And hey, maybe I'm a software developer with a boat and I run into some kind of problem with the permit application process. If the software is open-source, then I can post a patch; ideally, a government agency using FOSS will have a process for accepting, auditing, and merging patches from outside sources.

    The code to create and issue social security numbers probably shouldn't be released.

    We're talking about Europe, so we're not really talking about SSNs in this example.

    That said, I don't see how security through obscurity is going to help with SSNs. We're talking about a program that's been around for 75 years; I gotta figure the formula is well-known at this point. That doesn't mean anybody can just use a numerically-valid SSN, because all valid SSNs are already recorded and attached to identifying information. Being able to generate an SSN with the formula is not enough, by itself, to be useful; you need to know an SSN and the personal information of the person it belongs to.

    It's like how the formula for generating valid credit card numbers is known, but just because you enter a credit card number that passes a validation check doesn't mean it's a real credit card that you can charge money to.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Thad, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:37am

    Re: That's easy

    Nonsense, if the code is made public then the companies paid to create it can't sell it again, and again, and again to various agencies who might need it.

    I wouldn't count on that. Plenty of open-source companies have managed to make money selling binary-packaged software, support, access to update servers, etc. For an agency that relies on stability, reliability, uptime, and security, direct access to the developers is a pretty important value-add.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:41am

    "Does Windows become free and open sourced just because Microsoft writes a special version of it for the government?"

    When the government buys something, there is a ton of paperwork filled out, contract being a part of that paper stack. Within that contract one would find the details of which you speak.

    You last claim seems a bit silly, and potentially dishonest.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 7:56am

    Re:

    Well, the reverse is, Denver could benefit from anything Chicago paid for. Also, it would encourage cities to collaborate and share expenses on projects that could help them both.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 8:08am

    Re: Yeah, but one big downside..

    I would think there would be a major problem with other coders copying bad code and spreading bad code into other projects. This is not enough to keep publicly sponsored code from being open source, but as with other open source code, there should be a caveat that there is no warranty in the quality of the code.

    Now, that might piss off the original coders, but maybe it would also be an incentive to produce better code.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 8:23am

    Re:

    I am not sure what is dishonest. Also there isn't a specially coded government version. It is just Windows with a different configuration package. Sure make the package part free, but useless without Windows.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coder, 20 Sep 2017 @ 10:09am

    Not really what happens

    Watching the clip I must say that the picture that is painted doesn't really align itself with my experience.

    Let me try to explain.

    You could say that administrations broadly have need for 2 types of software:

    • the off-the-shelf packages for fairly routine tasks that most administrations perform
    • custom developed software to perform very administration-specfic tasks

    The first category contains things like word processors, email-clients (and -servers), reporting tools, spreadsheets, etc. These are tools that most administrations will license and not have someone custom build for them. Mind you that these tools already existed and there was no need to re-develop them. The administration is simply another client.

    The second category contains mostly custom-built software. It's the very specific software to treat things like applications for building permits or for starting a new business. The software in this category is not some off-the-shelf package, but rather very much built-to-spec. The fact that the software is built to closely support the needs of the specific administration makes for poor reusability. And thus, in my experience, this software is not licensed by the administration, but owned by it!

    The clip seems to conflate these 2 types.

    In the 24 years I've been working in the software industry, I've had numerous contracts for various levels of public administration creating custom software for them. And every time, the software we created for these administrations became the property of said administration.

    They own the software in every sense, including all documentation and source code, and there is literally nothing to stop them from re-using, re-writing, modifying, adding to, giving away or sharing all or parts of the software. They can do it themselves, or hire anyone to do it (including us).

    So the picture that is painted in the clip, where we spend taxpayer money to create custom software and then are restricted from re-using or modifying it because of licensing schemes, in practice doesn't exist that much.

    Sure, you could argue that the administrations should do a better job of sharing and re-using (parts of) these applications that they own, but that sounds more like a political problem than a software licensing problem...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 11:18am

    Re: Not really what happens

    Sure, you could argue that the administrations should do a better job of sharing and re-using (parts of) these applications that they own

    Common problems in preventing that re-use are :

    Proper modularization and packaging of functionality.

    Documenting the available functionality in ways that allow it to be found, and accurately describing what it does.

    The loose coupled development of open source software solves these problems, as they are often also the boundaries between independent developers.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 12:02pm

    Re: Re: Relevance?

    We're talking about a program that's been around for 75 years; I gotta figure the formula is well-known at this point.

    Wikipedia has all the information you'll need, including a list of area numbers (no longer used). It says they're randomly assigned with no check digit. ssa.gov says the same thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 12:09pm

    Re: What about off the shelf software?

    Does Windows become free and open sourced just because Microsoft writes a special version of it for the government?

    MS could choose to open-source Windows or cede this area to their competitors. They don't have some right to impose arbitrary terms on the government, and the government shouldn't have any requirement to use Windows specifically.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 20 Sep 2017 @ 1:23pm

    Re: Re:

    Dishonest because you are attempting to conflate an off the shelf purchase with a contract stipulated, for hire, special build for a particular customer - not the same thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    Anonymous Coder, 20 Sep 2017 @ 3:20pm

    Re: Re: Not really what happens

    Sorry, but no.

    While the architectural and documentational problems that you cite could probably hamper re-use, they do not necessarily occur. It's not because the coding we develop doesn't have an 'open source' label that we have sloppy standards concerning documentation, coding standards, functional decomposition, etc.

    The biggest problem I encounter is that most of the written code deals with topics, datasets and business rules that are so very specific for a given set of problems of a particular administration that it becomes useless for any other purpose.

    The open source benefits you cite only come into play when the number of independent developers that actively maintain a piece of code is large enough.

    And that is directly related to the number of places that are confronted with a similar enough set of problems waiting for a solution.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 3:32pm

    Re: Re: That's easy

    ... what.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 20 Sep 2017 @ 3:34pm

    Re: Re: That's easy

    Sure, but that requires providing value after the point of sale(or not sale as the case may be), rather than just taking the same thing and selling it to multiple parties. That's much more work, easier by far to just sell the same product over and over again.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    anonymous, 20 Sep 2017 @ 9:56pm

    Think of the Security Holes!

    Do you really want to expose the source code of public sector software to everyone? with the poor development standards there will be holes everywhere..

    This is the software that they use to store and manage your supposedly secure information like social security numbers right? It's almost entirely insecure as it is.. But why not? Just open it to everyone and anyone for free access! sounds like a great plan..

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. identicon
    Roger Pearse, 21 Sep 2017 @ 4:57am

    An example: Fraktur OCR

    This is an excellent idea. May I give an example of software funded but then hidden away?

    In Germany from 1500-1941, a lot of books were printed in Gothic-style typefaces. These are very hard to read, and impossible to use scanning (OCR) software on. They are known collectively as "Fraktur". Nobody uses it any more, as Hitler banned it, in a rare moment of sanity. Getting the content of these old books online and searchable is, therefore, pretty hard. But German scholarship from the 19th century is really still important, so this is not good.

    A few years ago the European Commission paid OCR firm Abbyy to create OCR software for Fraktur, which was a very good idea. Abbyy was a good choice, as they are Russian and support Cyrillic and other weird character sets. Abbyy Finereader is the market leader in OCR, and very good it is too.

    Well Abbyy produced the Fraktur recognition software, and apparently it works well. But ... you can't buy it. It's not part of Finereader. Only large institutions can get licenses for it. What they pay... well who knows?

    So the taxpayer funded a piece of software that taxpayers do want to use - I wanted to use it the other day - but cannot. It's purely for bureaucrats at large state-funded institutions.

    Let's hope this lawsuit has a positive outcome!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Sep 2017 @ 5:52am

    Re: Think of the Security Holes!

    Think of the children using proprietary software with security holes.

    Security through obscurity doesn't work, never will. By releasing Free Software (as in freedom), one allows the source code to be inspected, improved, and shared.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. identicon
    Thad, 22 Sep 2017 @ 9:58am

    Re: Think of the Security Holes!

    Do you really want to expose the source code of public sector software to everyone? with the poor development standards there will be holes everywhere..

    Yes.

    Security through obscurity is bullshit. Proprietary software gets pwned all the time. Which browser has better security, Edge (mostly closed) or Chrome (mostly open)?

    You are correct that if people are able to examine the source, it becomes easier to find vulnerabilities. But that cuts both ways: it means it's easier for white hats to find and report vulnerabilities.

    The most secure system isn't the one that's the hardest for people to see inside. It's the one that every security expert has examined in minute detail.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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