Case against proprietary software on government systems

This has been sitting as a draft for more than two years now so I figured I should publish it.

The modern government is an information processing entity where public servants and software collaborate to serve the people. If you take away any of those two components, governments cease to operates. So it is crucial that government maintains control over its processes to shield itself from interference by outside interests; it is at the basis of sovereignty and part of what makes its area of jurisdiction a country.

You wouldn’t hire foreigners as public servants, so why would you trust your software to outside interests?

Software was introduced into governments by individuals who had no idea of what software was in the first place. It was and is still purchased, managed and used like off the shelf physical goods, but it was already too late when people figured out that replacing a vehicle fleet is a lot less work than migrating from on operating system to another.

Nowadays, companies like Microsoft could make every developed country’s government grind to a halt very easily or severely compromise it. Take the US patriot act for instance, which lets the government request any data from companies based in the US if they deem it necessary even if that data does not belong to an american entity. Another yet even more disturbing example uncovered by Edward Snowden is Microsoft handing out the keys to its encryption systems to the NSA thus actively collaborating in their espionage projects.

The European Union is starting to come to grips with this reality and is moving towards drafting rules and regulations that will make the interaction between software corporations and governments more open and directed towards giving their citizens security and value; unless this initiative gets killed by a lobby. This has obviously positioned open-source software as a preferred choice, prompting changes such as a migration to Ubuntu by the French Gendarmerie Nationale and the creation of Trustedbird by the french department of defense and British Telecom, a more secure fork of Mozilla Thunderbird (an e-mail client) whose code they intend to contribute back to the main Thunderbird tree for everyone to benefit from.

The procurement process in its current form cannot consider open-source technologies as it depends on active bids by companies. Software developed by volunteers is systematically left out for a lack of an imperative to market itself using conventional challenges. A few consulting firms on open-source technologies are trying to turn the tide but they only advertise the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the available open-source solutions. There has been litigation lately in Quebec following decisions from the government to award a contract to Microsoft without a call for tenders based on criteria purposely crafted to exclude other vendors. A similar conflict occurred more recently when another governmental organization decided to procure MS Office licenses using the same scheme. This begs the question of whether the procurement process is really providing the government with the best value for its dollars.

I could go on detailing how companies are consciously locking governments in their own system by not following industry standards (Internet explorer has systematically been failing the ACID test) and violating anti-trust laws but I believe the previous paragraphs have been sufficient at getting my point across. I have nothing against Microsoft, IBM, or any other software corporation, they make quality products that are most often superior to the open-source equivalent (things would be the other way around if governments took part in helping developer communities improve their software). In fact, they themselves are  increasingly embracing the open development model because they have figured out that it provides them with the best value. Individuals and private businesses are free to spend their money in whatever manner they want, but government are not. They are not profit making machines or fashion following teens; they exist to bring security and prosperity to their citizens and basing information processes on closed-source software is an hindrance towards the achievement of those goals.

The lobby is strong so it is unlikely that change will come from atop. And even down at the individual level, most are incapable of dissociating Windows from a computer as Microsoft has made it certain in concert with the rest of the industry that every new computer around will be provided with a license of that operating system for very cheap (again sparking anti-trust lawsuits), thus never giving the user a real choice. Apple is starting to grind away at Microsoft’s market share thanks to the visibility it gets from its massively popular IPods and IPhones, but at the root, this company is not a whole lot different than its main competitor and in some cases practices even worse methods of locking customers in such as with their closed platform policies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *