Free Software and (e-)Government
This article originally appeared in The Guardian
— March 3, 2005
by Richard Stallman
The UK government has funded the development of software useful for
e-government, and now doesn't know what to do with it. Someone had the
bright idea to hand it over to local councils, inviting them to turn
themselves into software companies.
The public have already paid to develop this software. Isn't it absurd
to make them pay, now, for permission to use it? Isn't it absurd to
restrict what they can do with it? Alas, such absurdity is not
unusual; it is standard practice for governments to deliver publicly
funded software into private hands, to companies that make the public
— and even the government — beg for permission to use it
Even worse, they impose frustrating restrictions on the users, denying
them access to the software's source code, the plans that a programmer
can read and understand and change. All the users get is an
executable, a “black box”, so that they cannot adapt it,
understand it or even verify what it does.
There is a sensible motive for this senseless policy. The motive is to
make sure that someone cares for the software, fixing the problems
that inevitably appear and adapting it to new needs. People used to
believe that having some company control all use of the software, and
keep all users under its thumb, was the only way to do this.
Today, we know another way: free software (also known
source or Foss). Free software means the users are free to use
this software, redistribute it, study it, or even extend it to do more
The word “free” refers to freedom, not price; think
“free speech”, not “free beer”. When there are
users that value support and are willing to pay for it, free software
means a free market for support, instead of a monopoly. Free software
also offers government agencies a way to fulfil their responsibility
to maintain sovereign control over the state's computers, and not let
that control fall into private hands.
Since 1984, groups of volunteers have developed and maintained
powerful and useful free programs — a few at first, then entire
operating systems such as GNU/Linux and BSD. Today,
the Free Software Directory
lists almost 4,000 free software packages. The UK government has already
decided to increase its use of free software; here is a perfect opportunity to
both use it and contribute.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should make the e-government
programs free software, set up a site to host their development, and
hire a handful of people to oversee the work. Then governments around
the world will begin to use this software, fix it, extend it, and
contribute the improvements back.
The whole world will benefit, and all the users will admire Britain's
-- Richard Stallman launched the GNU operating system (www.gnu.org) in
1984 and founded the Free Software Foundation (fsf.org) in 1985.