• United States
by Gretel Johnston

Open source debate heats up at conference

Oct 17, 20024 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsLinuxOpen Source

WASHINGTON — Open source advocate Bruce Perens, who last month left Hewlett-Packard after announcing his desire to become more active in promoting open source software, took an aggressive stand Thursday against Computing Technology Industry Association’s “software choice” campaign, saying it does not promote fairness, as CompTIA claims, and would lock open source software out of the government marketplace.

CompTIA has “carefully crafted a message that appears to call for fairness while actually supporting policy that would retain the status quo of a strong bias toward proprietary software,” Perens said during a panel discussion at a conference here on the use of open source software by governments. “They explicitly call for public entities to blind themselves to the merits of one intellectual property policy over another and they have the nerve to call that fairness.”

CompTIA’s Initiative for Software Choice is a lobbying effort spearheaded by CompTIA, a trade association with more than 8,000 computer and communications companies, including numerous small businesses and several prominent hardware and software developers such as Intel and Microsoft.

Both Intel and Microsoft are backing the initiative, whose goal is to prevent governments from passing laws that grant preference to open source operating systems like Linux. The initiative says governments should buy software that best meets their needs and shouldn’t discriminate between developers that choose to license their intellectual property and developers that choose not to charge licensing fees.

But Perens, who now has his own consulting company, Perens, accused the initiative of fronting for Microsoft, which he says benefits greatly from the “strong and pervasive legislation” in the U.S., including patent and copyright law, that places a preference on proprietary software over open source.

“The saddest thing about CompTIA’s efforts is that an 8,000-company organization allows itself to, in effect, become a mouthpiece for the vision of a single vendor,” Perens said. “The other side doesn’t find a real choice acceptable because on a sincerely level-playing field, open source would win most decisions.”

In defense of the initiative, Bob Kramer, executive director and vice president of public policy for CompTIA, said proposals mandating that governments buy open source software would hurt nearly all CompTIA members, including thousands of resellers and hundreds of application service providers.

“We are not a Microsoft puppet,” said Kramer, who jokingly introduced himself as Hannibal Lecter after being demonized by Perens.

The initiative’s backers are alarmed over the more than 70 proposals calling for governments to buy open source software in 24 countries, including many that mandate open source software and exclude proprietary software from the worldwide multibillion dollar government marketplace, Kramer said.

Of particular concern is the Digital Software Security Act (DSSA), which has been drafted in California, but not formally proposed in the state legislature, requiring government offices in the state to use software with freely available source code. The idea behind the legislation is to help protect the state against potential security risks and to avoid being locked into doing business with a single vendor.

Such preference laws are needless because “open source software competes very effectively in the marketplace,” Kramer said, pointing to facts and figures about Linux, the leading open source operating system, whose revenue is expected to equal 30% of the sales generated by Windows by 2004.

Countries in which open source software proposals have been put forth include Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Colombia, France, Italy, Peru, South Africa, Spain and Venezuela, Kramer said. “All are serious proposals and many have government support,” he added.

The discussion also touched on the General Public License (GPL) debate when another panelist, Ken Brown, president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public policy researcher in Washington, told the audience of largely government officials from the U.S. and countries around the world that Perens and other open source advocates on the panel were “trying to sell you a product that’s GPL.”

The GPL ensures that the software user has full access to the source code. It also grants users permission to modify the software as they see fit, as well as permission to redistribute both the original software and modifications. However, if an organization modifies a piece of GPL software to add something it wants kept secret, the GPL does not demand that the organization reveal it as long as they don’t redistribute the source code.

Brown said government buyers should demand to know why open source advocates promote GPL, citing a published discussion and speech in which open source advocates sing the praises of GPL.

“Don’t let these guys tell you, ‘You need us to make choices for you,'” Brown said. “Government has participated in a lot of innovative [technology] discussions in this country and around the world, you should be able to make your own choices.”