Free Software and (e-)Government

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 afterwards.

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 as open 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 jobs.

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 leadership.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian, March 3, 2005, under the title “Second Sight.”