FOSS Government Policy/Overview
The Benefits of a FOSS Policy
Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) has a wider perspective than a software development methodology. It not only increases access, ownership and control of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), but also provides a framework for the usage and sharing of intellectual capital in a way that is applicable to many areas of development endeavour. FOSS can play an important role in the application of ICTs for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
This primer covers the main benefits of FOSS. At the national level, FOSS aids in the development of local capacity/industry, reduces imports, conserves foreign exchange, increases the security of the national ICT infrastructure (this is distinct from application level security), reduces copyright infringement and brings localized ICT tools to help develop local knowledge communities.
FOSS provides many socio-economic benefits. The most commonly cited are fostering the ICT industry through increased competition, lowering the ICT application cost and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), increasing access to powerful yet localized ICT applications, increasing security of ICT applications and providing vendor independence.
Yet for all these clear benefits, many nations find that without a national FOSS policy, the uptake of FOSS in the country is far too slow for their needs. There are a number of reasons why FOSS requires policy intervention, including limited marketing of FOSS, lack of attention to its many non-commercial benefits and the need to overcome entrenched legacy systems.
Policy Formulation Approach
There are several stages in the policy formulation process. Although, this primer does not address the process in totality, it does cover some points uniquely important to FOSS. The stages include:
Establishing motivations and assessing environment:
Establishing the motivations behind a FOSS policy and getting support from the top levels of government are critical as FOSS policies often touch many aspects of government and influence various other policies. It is also important to assess how existing national policies and regional initiatives affect the implementation of a national FOSS policy. Certain regions, particularly the Asia-Pacific and Latin American regions, are very active in FOSS initiatives and policies. Regional initiatives not only make it easier to implement FOSS policies but also make it imperative to consider the implications of being surrounded by FOSS-using countries.
Establishing goals and targets:
Once the necessity of a FOSS policy has been established, measurable and objective goals set the pace and tone of FOSS implementation. Targets and goals such as, “100 percent awareness of FOSS among CIOs” and “10 percent of all government IT personnel have FOSS certifications” set clear directions for the strategies to be developed at a later stage.
Apart from the strategies section of this primer, another excellent source of ideas and strategies for FOSS promotion is the existing FOSS community within the country and region. FOSS advocates have an in-depth understanding of the local ICT environment and are also familiar with both local and international initiatives. Any strategy formulation committee should tap the knowledge and expertise of the local community groups.
Stakeholder consultation process:
Stakeholder consultations result in policies that are well thought out and have buy-in from a broader segment of the society. The FOSS communities are used to a more open and transparent decision making process and tend to demand this. Policy-makers are cautioned that the typical FOSS discussion is very vocal and opinionated and often results in disagreements. Still, the open process has produced software, tools and knowledge that compare favourably with and, in some cases, are superior to those developed by the traditional proprietary development model.
FOSS Policy Strategies
Since, it is impossible to cover all the strategies that other countries have utilized in implementing their FOSS policies, the more common strategies are summarized in this primer. These strategies touch on multiple areas, such as capacity development; the policy and legal environment; procurement strategies;research; and software industry development. Key factors, such as the level of ICT industry development in a country, also affect whether strategies should focus on building capacity or migrating infrastructure.
Cross Sectoral Concerns
There are also various other policy areas interrelated with FOSS policies. Among these are two aspects, commonly referred to as “Intellectual Property” – patents and copyrights. Software patents today pose the single greatest threat to FOSS. In the United States and other countries where software patents are common, proprietary software companies that are unable to compete with FOSS in terms of added innovation and value, can resort to using software patent to cripple or even halt FOSS adoption in a country. To a much lesser extent, recent changes to copyright laws or legislation that affect copyright laws in developed countries can reduce the effectiveness or outlaw certain classes of FOSS. Even consumer protection laws can affect FOSS, albeit in a limited way. Thus, it is important for any country implementing FOSS policies to make a careful survey of their existing policies and regulations.