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What’s behind Europe’s love affair with open-source?

And why haven’t we seen the same thing in the U.S.?

Europe open source
Credit: Amio Cajander\Wikipedia]\CC BY-SA 2.0

Government IT departments in Europe, over the past several years, have been eager to trumpet their interest in open-source software – and have been backing their interest up with action. Open-source has become a matter of national policy in the U.K., a critical part of the infrastructure at the European Commission, and the standard for the city of Munich.

Despite the fact that government agencies on this side of the Atlantic are also quietly using more and more open-source software, however, it’s not the hot topic that it is in Europe, and nor is it even a minor political issue stateside. A Red Hat-backed advocacy group called the Coalition for Enterprise Open Source Software for Government spent just $90,000 last year on lobbying, according to figures from the Center for Responsive Politics.

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By contrast, open-source organizations in Europe have the ears of some of the most powerful people on the continent. EC Commissioner for the Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes – one of the most influential regulators in Europe – has given the keynote address at OpenForum Europe’s annual summit twice, and the EC’s Joinup news and information site focuses heavily on open-source topics.

Why, then, hasn’t there been the same amount of publicity for open-source in government in the U.S.?

For one thing, according to Maël Brunet, director of European policy and government relations at OpenForum Europe, the European embrace of open-source is a reaction against American tech companies in at least a couple of ways.

“Open-source is being seen as a way to counteract or provide an alternative to big U.S. companies,” he told Network World. “There’s a lot of concern – some legitimate, some a bit paranoiac – around data privacy and back doors, especially in proprietary software. So open-source is seen as a way to address this.”

A senior U.S. government IT official had much the same impression, noting that many of the biggest software companies in the world were American. While there are exceptions – the official cited Germany-based SAP as an example – there’s clearly some U.S. dominance in the market.

“Silicon Valley, Redmond, and Austin, Texas, are all U.S. phenomena,” said the official.

This isn’t to say, however, that the American public sector is avoiding open-source software – quite the opposite.

“More and more U.S. organizations are shifting to open-source because it allows you to work across different software platform and packages with a better understanding of what the code is doing,” the official added. An American General said as long ago as 2007 that “the U.S. Army is the single largest install base for Red Hat Linux,” and various other parts of the government have been quietly switching to open-source for years.

In Europe, however, the resistance to proprietary, commercial software in government isn’t solely a privacy issue. Often, there are stiff legal checks on the ability of government organizations to make a purchase without careful study to ensure that a given solution is the best available option. Jay Lyman, a research manager at 451 Research, told Network World that this is one element pushing in the direction of open source.

“I think we may see a more pronounced presence in Europe in large part because of the nature of their politics and procedures, which already had some built-in resistance to monopoly technology suppliers,” he said.

More than that, open source can even simplify some of those politics and procedures. Eric Ebert is a marketing and communications manager for Axonic, a German open-source software company. He said that it’s bad enough getting certification to offer products to the government in the first place.

“When we started working with the government we were given a rather long list of things to provide and papers to fill out,” he said. “We had to offer a service contract for support. We had to offer a three-month long test phase, because it had to go through all of the approval channels.”

But at least in Germany, Ebert said, the red tape around getting the government to spend money on a product is even worse, and some free-to-use open-source products can short-circuit part of the process.

Broadly, then, Europe’s embrace of open-source software seems to be spurred by a desire for independence – whether it’s a general desire to keep tech spending low, or avoid becoming dependent on a big vendor’s products, or even privacy concerns, the idea is to retain the upper hand.

“At its core, it’s a question of control – it’s about being able to control your infrastructure, and I think that’s a very legitimate concern, especially for public authorities,” said Brunet.

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