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- Adopt Public Software
Why Public Software?
Public institutions support the public ownership of resources since that is essential for enabling equity and social justice. Software is an important digital resource, and has a central role in the new ‘digital society’ being created. Hence the public ownership over software resources that are essential to participate in the digital world is essential. Public Institutions should therefore adopt and promote such ‘public software’ to create such an eco-system of universal access to basic software as well as community participation in its creation and modification. To help public institutions in adopting public software, IT for Change has established the “Public software Centre”.
The pedagogical argument for Public software
“Constructivist approach to learning”
The National Curriculum Framework (NCF) 2005, produced by NCERT emphasises that learning happens when the learner actively participates in the process of learning and not when the learner is a passive recipient of knowledge as a finished product. This is applicable to computer related learning as well. Software can be really learnt only when the learner actually is able to modify the code, write software, and develop applications.
To reflect the spirit of the NCF, our schools should provide learners with the opportunity to create and modify software. Expecting students to write software without having access to free software is like expecting students to write books without allowing them to read books. This is possible only through the use of free software and not through proprietary software. Secondly if our students learn only proprietary software, they will become dependant on it and also purchase proprietary software for their own individual or household use – this is largely the situation in India, where most households use proprietary software, since they have not even heard of free software. Private software vendors offer their software at extremely low prices to schools, because they want to make students dependant on their software and not explore alternatives. Thirdly, digital learning material created by the teachers and students (which the NCF regards as an important part of the learning process), created using proprietary software, will get locked into the proprietary formats of these applications and will require one to continue paying money even to open them and read them. Open standards and software exist precisely so that this is prevented. One needs to point out that proprietary locking, while free alternatives exist, is a ploy to continue milking the user for profits far into the future. We already have this unfortunate situation where teachers have made hundreds of presentations using proprietary software, to read which, each user needs to procure a copy of the software, thus making user pay for learning material created by the public school system.
The Indian Government has recently notified the 'policy on open standards in e-governance' by which proprietary standards should not be used in government.
Promoting local language resources through local language software
We may think that English is the 'natural' language of software. However software has no 'natural' language and the domination of English in software only indicates that there have been lesser efforts to extend software applications to other languages. We want to put in maximum effort to protect, grow and develop local languages in India.. This is especially important in Information Technology, so that its benefits are available to the entire community and not limited to English speaking citizens. Many countries are putting in lot of effort and resources into making software and software platforms as well as digital information resources in their own languages. For example, in Japan, France, Germany, China, Russia; Internet and other software applications as well as digital information have been developed in local languages. This form of local language software and applications development can be best done by local software engineers working with free software. In contrast, when proprietary software is used, changes can be done only by the vendor , and this means fewer people can be involved in this effort. More importantly, this causes our language software to become dependant on the market and business priorities of the sellers. Hence the public sector needs to lead the efforts in developing software and digital information in local language, and this can be done very well through the education system - in our network of schools, colleges and teacher education and support institutions. The countries mentioned above and Kerala have succeeded in creating their local eco-system for local language software and digital information.
“Samudaya” software – the social argument for free software Free software is created and modified by communities of students, volunteers, employees and entrepreneurs working together in a spirit of collaboration, while proprietary software is produced by business organisations only. Most of the free software has been produced in this collaborative manner by people acting in a spirit of contribution and collaboration across the world. Hence free software can also be called “Samudaya software”. Thus the use of free software is completely in line with the emphasis on development in public sector.
Promoting the local development through “Swadeshi” software Free software has other important economic benefits: development and independence. Although India has achieved political freedom 60 years ago, we are still suffering from economic colonisation. This is specially true in the IT Industry which is dominated by many foreign multinationals. When governments buys a software license, the license fees directly benefit multinationals based in foreign countries. However if free software is used, it can be further developed and customized by local software engineers, and local software enterprises and entrepreneurs can also provide support, consultancy, training, services etc. This means that money paid for such services remains in the local economy and also local IT capabilities are developed. This is a very critical consideration in the context of reducing imbalances in economic growth and livelihood opportunities. Public Sector has always been a place where local entrepreneurship has been promoted and using free software can promote local software engineer entrepreneurs. Kerala already has the vision of being the free software destination in India and the next such qualified state would be Gujarat. Free software can make the vision of the Chief Minister on 'IT' (Indian talent + Information technology = India Tomorrow) a reality.
Free software does not forbid selling and buying copies, but it means that the school system, after acquiring a copy, is free to make more and redistribute them - for instance, to all the schools. The schools do not need to pay for permission to use these copies. This creates the opportunity for great cost savings. In developing countries like India, there is really no reason to spend public money on proprietary software when equivalent free software is available.
For instance, in the state of Gujarat where if each of the around 40,000 schools had 5 computers for each class, then we would spend - 40,000 * 5 * 25,000 = 500,00,00,000 (Rupees 500 crores) on basic private software (a popular operating system and Office applications suite). On the other hand, if the option of free software is selected, then this entire money could be used for other priorities such as basic infrastructure, hardware, research into hardware innovations. If we take the entire Indian Public school system, comprising of over 1.3 million schools, the amount that we can avoid diverting to proprietary software can amount to more than 25,000 to even upto 100,000 crores.
Since Governments function on the same principles of free software - transparency/openness, putting public and community interest over private interest, public software should be actively promoted within the public (Government) system and specially the education system. Proprietary software functions on principles of competition, non-transparency / closed nature and 'for-profit' and these are more aligned to the business world than to the Government sector. Hence while Proprietary software has an important role in the business world, the public sector should prefer and promote public software.
The IT policies of the Government of India and of some state governments specifically recommend that free and open source software should be the preferred option for Governments, but this recommendation needs to be comprehensively implemented. We submit that the Education department must make a clear choice in favour of free software in its pioneering and ambitious program to adopt ICTs in schools. In fact this choice should be made while purchasing computers for all Government departments. Most hardware vendors promote proprietary software since they have business benefits from this and do not even offer a choice to the buyer to opt for free software. Government offices when procuring computers must specifically ask for and insist that the computers be capable of operating with 100% Free software.
This criteria is also required from the 'least cost' (L0) principle of procurement, since free software will save a significant part of the total purchase costs. In fact, the price of proprietary software (operating system and Office) can amount to about 20-40% of total cost of computers purchased, and this can be saved with free software options. However, the government should protect itself against computer hardware vendors who impose the use of non-free software even when that non-free software is available gratis(no cost). When Government takes a policy decision to use and promote Swatantra software, it will give a huge boost to the development of locally made software, local language software applications and learning software in our schools. Secondly the 'dependence' mindset on proprietary software can easily be broken through Government policy and program that promotes and popularises free software. Government should actively promote Samudaya software efforts and encourage use of Swatantra software within the public systems.
In Kerala and in other states, Governments have worked with civil society organisations associated with the Free software movement to create local networks of software developers, trainers and support staff. If we look at Gujarat in specific the Free software movement has sown its seeds quiet well (for example the GNU/Linux operating system has already been developed in Gujarati by Gujarat based organizations) and there are many organisations who can work to support the efforts of the Government in promoting the use and creation of Free software, local language software.
A few examples - Free Software Users Group, GNU/Linux Users Groups, etc. The free software community also has links with similar communities in other parts of the world and the global free software community working on developing and maintaining free software is quite strong. There are also several large and small commercial enterprises which provide services to users. However as mentioned earlier, the Government has a very crucial role to play in supporting the work of such communities in building a world where software and knowledge is free. Since Government is the protector of public interest, it must also strongly support the initiatives to build the ecosystem for free software, such that user support, training, development facilities are available throughout the public sphere. Such support should be at both policy and program levels. In terms of policy, Government must require the use of free software as a default, and procuring private software must be allowed after a considered conclusion that free software alternatives are not available. In terms of program, Government departments must insist on free software for their own use. This can easily start with the personal computers and laptops procured by the Government, since robust free software alternatives are available.
However there are also several obstacles in the adoption and promotion of free software, including by the public sector. These include issues relating to support and maintenance, user training as well as 'user friendliness' of the applications. However a much larger obstacle is the general lack of awareness about the concept of free software and existence of free software applications. Just as Xerox is equated to photocopying, software for most users only means Microsoft Windows or Microsoft Office. People of course now buy 'Xerox' machines that may be manufactured by Canon or other companies, in the case of desktop software, people only are aware of Windows and MS Office. Hardware (Personal Computers and Laptops) vendors also usually bundle Windows with their systems and do not offer a choice to the customer (this is actually a malpractice that is anti-competitive). Customers hence are not told about possibilities of opting for free operating system and office applications which can reduce the cost of purchase. Also not all features of one application are available in another and if a person is used to one application, there is a huge inertia to move to another application. Also there is a impression amongst many users of proprietary software that free software applications are not user friendly, support and training is not available, drivers are not available and some applications run only on proprietary software platforms. These impressions are not entirely true, though many of them pertain to the larger issue of the creation and sustanence of a 'eco-system' for free software. It is also ironic that many of the users who believe proprietary software to be superior have never used free software. It would be fair for a user to use a comparable free software application as well for sometime before concluding about its user friendliness
The social, political and economic externalities of adoption of Public Software by society are enormous. Since Public Software is 'software by the people, of the people and for the people' , it represents democratic values. Hence Governments have special responsibility to both adopt and promote Public Software. Government efforts are necessary and even sufficient to build the Public Software eco-system that can lead to the thriving and universal adoption of Public Software as a principle of software. Realising this, many Governments have adopted policies that clearly promote Public Software, both within Government as well as in public institutions. The section on Policy gives several instances where Governments have clearly supported Public Software, this includes many governments in India. In addition, the actual software deployed in governments also can be Public Software.
Since Governments function on the same principles of free software - transparency/openness, putting public and community interest over private interest, public software should be actively promoted within the public (Government) system and specially the education system. Private software functions on principles of competition, non-transparency / closedness and 'for-profit' and these are aligned to the business world than to the Government or non-profit sector. Hence while private software definitely has an important role in the business world, the public sector should prefer Public Software. Given the similarites in the nature of the public sector and Public Software, we can even term Public Software as Public Software or Sarvajanik Software.
Secondly, government cannot purchase software whose source code is not provided to it. This has security implications. The vendor can insert code that can monitor the activities of the Government staff using the software and this can be a security threat to the Government. For this reason, the defence department of the US and many countries will not purchase private software and insist on open source. This threat is not an empty one – recent newspaper reports said that the World Bank has debarred a software vendor from contracting with them, since the vendor installed spy software in the projects they did for the World Bank. It is reported that spyware was also installed in software used by nuclear reactors in Iran, which could have caused a nuclear disaster, if not detected.
Government need to clearly adopt and promote Public Software. As a first step, Government should launch a publicity campaign creating awareness of Public Software and its advantages to society and the economy. This is similar to public interest advertisements that provide vaccination to children, or encourage out of school children to join public schools etc. Such publicity will clearly promote public welfare. In addition, the Government should encourage and support the creation of a thriving eco-system for Public Software by
- Mandating that all Government software should be Public Software. Proprietary software should be prohibited. In case of popular software on the desktop/client side, this is easily met by opting for robust and superior quality Public Software applications already available. In case of server side products too Public Software software options are available and popular.In case of custom applications, Government should insist that the vendor should develop the application using Public Software platforms and the source code of the application itself should be owned by the Government and not by the vendor. This will also allow the Government to freely distribute and share the application with other governments and other institutions.
- Encourage government training insitutes to offer Public Software on the curriculum
- Mandate that Public Software should form part of the curriculum of colleges, as a part of ICT curriculum. This will create a body of people familiar with Public Software production
- Encourage college students to have localization projects. Support collaborationbetween colleges/universities and companies that work on Public Software platforms.
- Prohibit the use of proprietary software on all website of the Government. All websites should be operable without issues using Public Software web browsers such as Firefox. Having a website or a download on the website which forces the user to purchase proprietary software is wrong. For e.g. if a web page can only be opened in Internet Explorer, it forces the user to purchase windows. Whereas if the site can open in Firefox or a similar Public Software browser, the user is not forced to purchase software.
Government offices must specifically ask for and insist on Free software when procuring computers, most hardware vendors tend to promote private software since they have business benefits from this and do not even offer a choice to the buyer to opt for free software. This is also required from a 'least cost' (L0) principle of procurement, since free software will save a significant part of the total purchase costs. In fact, the price of private software (operating system and Office) can amount to even about 20-40% of total cost of computers purchased, and this can be saved with Free software options.