Norwegian Free Software Center Opposes Government Pro-FOSS Policy

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 17, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

If a government proposed a pro-free software policy, who would you expect to object? Probably, proprietary software companies and conservative business interests. But in Norway, among the first to object are members of the local Free Software Center. To say the least, their position raises several political issues for advocates of free and open source software (FOSS).

I don't speak Norwegian, and I am relying upon my shaky grasp of related languages and online translation to translate the page in which this objection appeared.

However, to the best of my understanding, in an opinion piece entitled, "A political preference for free software -- no thanks!" developer Christer Gundersen and director Heidi Arnesen Austlid of the Norwegian Free Software Center write that a political preference for free software "is something we do not need, nor shall be for or against. It is not a political cause that you need to take a position on."

Gundersen and Austlid's argument appears to be that a pro-free software policy in government will only create "more politics" and in any case is not needed. The use of free software, they argue, is already increasing at all levels of government in Norway, and companies are showing an increased interest in it anyway. Since "the vast majority of public enterprises use both closed and free software," free software is already a contender, and can stand on its own in open competition for "the best solution". If it is not the best solution, they seem to suggest, then choosing it would not be in the public interest.

Strange and flawed arguments

To understate the case, this seems a peculiar line of argument for a group that calls itself the Free Software Center. Not a political cause? The Free Software Foundation has repeatedly made clear that, so far as it is concerned, free software is a profoundly political cause, touching on such issues as freedom of speech, privacy, consumers' rights, and transparency in government. Moreover, taking a position on such issues is essential, because they potentially affect every aspect of our daily lives.

But, given Gundersen and Austlid's emphasis on competitiveness, perhaps the peculiarity is partly due to a translation error. Possibly, a more accurate translation would be Open Source Center. After all, is open source advocates whose main concern is software quality.

From a free software position, the public interest is served, not by the government using the best software, but by the government using software that anyone can examine. In this way, the public can have a far better chance of knowing what information is being collected, and whether it is stored securely. These are important issues, yet Gundersen and Austlid do not even mention them.

Yet, even if you accept that the piece is written from an open source rather than a free software position, its argument contains its share of logical flaws.

For one thing, as Haakon Meland Eriksen points out in a comment, why would a pro-free software policy reduce competition? Any company would still be able to bid for government contracts -- it would simply have to do so with a free software solution. The fact that development houses already oriented towards free software would have an advantage would be no more discriminatory that the fact that security companies would have an advantage in a contract to supply guards.

As a side benefit, the policy would increase the number of companies developing free software. Just because free software adaption is on the rise does not mean that more can't be done to speed it along.

In fact, there seems to be a complacency in Gundersen and Austlid's argument -- an implication that the dominance of free software is somehow inevitable. If you do not look into history, that sort of complacency is easy to fall into (I've done so myself, from time to time). Since free software obviously belongs to The Forces of Good, naturally it is destined to win -- besides, its momentum is obvious.

Yet free software did not reach its current position due to fate. It did so partly because of its usually high quality, but that was not the only factor -- excellence is notoriously easy to overlook, especially in a market economy.

Instead, free software has succeeded because supporters have promoted it, both informally to friends and family, and more formally within businesses and governments. Free software is not in its position today because its community stood and waited for a wave of inevitability to overtake everyone else. It is a contender today because community members have pleaded and lobbied and advocated for it, and organized themselves to educate others.

Having got so far, why not take another step and support a pro-free software policy in government? The fact that the Norwegian Free Software Center has decided not to do so seems an abandonment of its entire reason for existence.

Gundersen and Austlid cannot even say that the public interest is more important than promoting free software. Whether a piece of software is "the best solution" has nothing to do with whether it is free or proprietary. It is simply a requirement -- and, being one that encourages government transparency, one that is very much in the public interest. If there is an argument against transparency being in the public interest, I have yet to hear it.

In Microcosm

I may be missing something, but it looks to me as though the Norwegian Free Software Center is not only abandoning its mandate, but working against it. There is no evidence to justify crying conspiracy, and no doubt Gundersen and Austlid are sincere, yet you have to wonder how they could argue against the very cause they are supposed to promote.

However, that is not the reason that I have spent time discussing their argument. With all respect, Norway is a single small country, and, living halfway around the world from it, I am unlikely to be affected much by what happens there.

All the same, Gundersen and Austlid's arguments are worth examining for their own sake. One day, those of us outside Norway may be lucky enough to hear our own federal, provincial or city governments propose pro-free software policies. If we do, then we will undoubtedly hear similar arguments against the policies, and need to start thinking about how to debunk them.

Unless I am mistaken, though, the only difference will be that the counter arguments that we hear will most likely come from the critics and enemies of free software -- not those who are supposed to support it.

(My thanks to Haakon Meland Eriksen for pointing out this topic to me)


  • English translation

    I have made a very rough English translation available here:

    It is also available on Free Software Foundation Europe's discussion mailing list.

    I intend to comment on this at later point.
  • Four questions for the Norwegian Free Software Centre

    It would be interesting to know what the centre's positions are on these four questions:

    1. How can it be a problem if the government demands an assessment of the license terms on par with other parts of an offer in a procurement for software in the public sector?

    2. How is a supplier excluded from the public sector as a market if the public sector prefers Free (as in freedom) software when everyone is allowed to offer Free Software?

    3. How is a pro-FOSS policy for the public sector a problem for achieving greater reuse and sharing of software and limited public funds?

    4. What is the centre's official position on the views expressed by EU's commissioner with responsibility for the Digital agenda, Neelie Kroes, in her address at Open Forum Europe 2010, and would the centre accept a pro-FOSS policy formulated this way? Here is what she said:

    “For me, it is a fundamental tenet that public administrations spending tax-payers’ money should opt for the least constraining solution that meets the requirements for a given need. Such a rule, as the default, would shield public authorities from the dangers of long-term lock-in. It would also ensure competition between suppliers for follow-up contracts and for services. Opting for closed solutions would be possible, but on the basis of a clear justification, rather than because it was the easy option.”

    (I noticed you called it the Norwegian Open Source Centre, but in Norwegian the centre's name is "Nasjonalt kompetansesenter for fri programvare", and it was a key point to use "fri" and not "open" when the centre started three years ago to avoid confusion the issue, which is freedom.)

    Yours sincerely,
    Haakon Meland Eriksen, Drammen, Norway
  • Regarding our view


    My name is Martin Bekkelund, and I work as a Business Developer for the Norwegian Open Source Competence Center. To make things clear, I start off with a question:

    Should closed or proprietary software be excluded from the competition when public sector is acquiring software?

    We in the Norwegian Open Source Competence Center says no.

    Consistent exclusion of some groups is unfair and prevents a free market.
    Consistent exclusion may exclude better solutions.
    Consistent exclusion may exclude cheaper solutions.

    Even though history has shown us that closed or proprietary software leads to vendor lock-in, we know of several vendors that per definition delivers closed or proprietary software, but where the customer still gets to own both the solution as well as the data.

    Best regards,

    Martin Bekkelund
    Business Developer
    Norwegian Open Source Software Center
  • The Norwegian Center for Free Software is pro-FOSS, but against a public pro-FOSS policy

    Thanks you for a nice entry on this issue, Bruce! I would like to point out that the Norwegian Center for Free Software is funded by the government and has for the past three years done a lot of good work on the benefits of Free Software and has hosted three large international conferences on Free Software in Oslo. They are very much pro Free Software, and that is why their stand against a pro-FOSS policy surprised me. I disagree with them, and this led me to look into their argument.

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