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PITAC: U.S. Government Should Foster Development of Open Source/Free Software

Sep 14, 2000, 20:44 (24 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Tony Stanco)

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By Tony Stanco

Earlier this week the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) issued its "Recommendations of the Panel on Open Source Software For High End Computing."

This is a very important event for Free/Open Source software, because it signals that the U.S. Federal government is finally ready to invest heavily in free software. This, along with the interest shown by the governments of China, Japan, Brazil and France to move away from proprietary software for national security reasons, goes a long way to legitimize free/open software development worldwide (as if that was an issue any more). Still, the thought that the U.S. Federal government is considering pumping potentially billions of dollars into free software has to count for something.

The cover letter to the report says that PITAC "believes the open source development model represents a viable strategy for producing high quality software." A promising start.

The committee was charged with:

  • 1. Charting a vision of how the Federal government can support the developing Open Source software activities for high-end computing;
  • 2. Defining a policy framework for accomplishing these goals;
  • 3. Identifying policy, legal, and administrative barriers to the widespread adoption of open source software efforts; and
  • 4. Identifying potential roles for public institutions in Open Source software economic models.

The report makes three recommendations:

1. The Federal government should aggressively (!) encourage the development of Open Source software for high end computing;

2. A "level playing field" must be created within the government procurement process to facilitate Open Source development; and

3. An analysis of Open Source licensing agreements is needed, with an ultimate goal of agreeing upon a single common licensing agreement for Open Source software development.

So, there are some promising things that may come out of the report.

But there are also some troubling things that are apparent if you read carefully between the lines.

1. How does a report to the President on Free/Open software development not even mention Richard Stallman? The man who almost single-handedly brought the world to this point. Without RMS standing up to the ridicule and laughter from all quarters for 16 years as he preached an alternative to proprietary software development, would the world even know now there was an alternative to proprietary? That the Presidential committee doesn't include RMS as a member puts the whole report under a dark cloud, in my opinion. Also, when you look at who is actually on the committee, you quickly see all the usual suspects, so that uneasy feeling doesn't go away, but is actually reinforced. When I spoke to RMS about his noninvolvement, he said he wasn't even aware that the report was in the works.

2. This raises another question: who knew in the community that this committee was working on the report? When working on a report about the Internet-inspired democracy/meritocracy of free software development, does it take that much imagination to use the same Internet-inspired democracy/meritocracy to prepare the report? Where's the community involvement in this report? After the initial euphoria of what this report may have promised, one quickly fears that this group simply misses the whole point of free software, even if they now realize that something important is going on. Obviously, old biases are hard to replace. This report comes from people who have the same, old, corporate, command and control hierarchical mindset.

3. Did anyone notice recommendation No. 3. the ultimate goal of which is "agreeing upon a single common licensing agreement"?

While there are some interesting things in this report, there are also some dark clouds on the horizon. It is hard to say at this point whether this is going to be ultimately good or bad for free software. But it does show more community involvement is warranted to address where powerful people are trying to take us.


Tony Stanco
Free Developers
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