Should Government Software Be Open?

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Here is an interesting topic that has been coming up more and more often in recent years.  Free Software Foundation Europe has an interesting new campaign:  Public Money.  Public Code. Their premise is simple:

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

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.

Code paid by the people should be available to the people!

This is a very interesting topic as it directly pertains to the software that all governments either write themselves or have other companies write for them.  If the software was paid for by the taxpayer, why can’t it be released to the taxpayer?

I can hear the noise already and I’m writing this days in advance.  (I have good hearing.)  Let’s tackle some of those objections:

  • Security.  By exposing our code externally we risk hackers being able to identify weaknesses in the code and then penetrate our systems.  Yes, this is a valid concern, but other open source products follow this route and turn out to be remarkably secure.  Let’s face it, Linux is open source and while it does have its share of security issues, it has significantly less than the equivalent number of lines of government written code.  Open source code may have security problems and bugs, but the very nature of open source makes those bugs found and squashed in a relatively quick manner.  Usually.
  • Proprietary processes.  By exposing our systems we are exposing the innards of how decisions are made, how dollars are calculated, basically, how things are done.  And this is a bad thing?  I mean, let’s face it, if someone wanted to file a FOIP request to get this information there would be no reason to refuse them.  The whole idea of open government is in that first word:  open.  Hiding behind closed doors reduces trust in government.

It comes down to this: the government paid for it why should we let others use it?  Well, technically, the taxpayers of Alberta paid for it.  It’s businesses, citizens, visitors who paid the hotel tax, or purchased fuel, and so on.  If you’ve spent time in Alberta or have done business with someone in Alberta, then you’ve probably contributed to the creation of software.  So why can’t I, a taxpayer in the province of Alberta, get a copy of the software that was paid for with my tax dollars?

It’s a tough question to answer and I don’t have a readily available answer.  I have a leaning towards openness (inclusivity as opposed to exclusivity) but that may just be because there are so many secrets in the government that shouldn’t be secrets that I may be rebelling against secrecy.

But this very topic, whether or not government created applications should be “open” to the public, is a question that many governments around the world are grappling with right now.  The concepts, that public funded efforts should have the results given back to the public, have started to take roots in many countries.  For example, around the world there are many places where any publicly funded research must have the final report made available to the public at no cost.  This wave of opening up research is helping the people in their efforts to get software opened up as many governments and public bodies are seriously considering this.

Granted, there need to be restrictions around what can and cannot be exposed, but unless it places the some one or some organization at risk I’m not sure why we couldn’t.  I know we don’t now, but why couldn’t we in the future?  What is preventing us from turning over to the taxpayers code that they paid for?  I’d like to hear your opinion.  Drop me a line.

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