Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Friday, November 27, 2009

FOSS (free and open source software) for the comman man

The Maharashtra government recently announced a MOU with Microsoft Corporation ( to enhance the adoption of information, communication and technology in schools across the state. Government schoolteachers will be trained exclusively on its software products, with the government paying part of the training costs. Public funds will thus be used to promote a monopoly’s proprietary products, whereas the public good could be better served by training teachers on available equivalent FOSS (free and open source software) applications that are freely shareable. I also wish to debunk the popular impression among bureaucrats that they need to be neutral regarding proprietary software and FOSS, for FOSS is not merely a technology issue it has significant implications for equity and democracy in society.

The community and the corporate

Imagine a village that has a drinking water shortage. While there is a shop in the village that sells bottled (‘mineral’) water, it is obviously not within the reach of most villagers. A group of villagers has come together to dig a public tank that will provide water to all, treating it as a community resource. How should the government support the effort? Imagine if the government were to tell the villagers that it would need to be equidistant between the two sources of water -- the public tank and the bottled water -- and could not ‘discriminate’ between the two in providing its support. This would clearly be anti-people and unacceptable.

In actual practice too, government would support the community creation of public resources. Under the landmark National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) aimed at providing employment, the creation and maintenance of public waterbodies is a popular project. Government is unlikely to provide any direct support to the sale of bottled water, other than of course to regulate its sale. While the shop and the bottled water it sells do have their place in society there is little ambiguity that the government will support and participate in the community effort to provide clean drinking water through public tanks, and that it cannot take a ‘neutral’ stand on the two sources of drinking water.

Now let’s take the case of software, the basic resource that runs computers and the Internet and is at the core of information technology. On the one hand, we have proprietary software that is made available for ‘use’ on a ‘per use royalty’ basis. For every copy of the software purchased, a licence fee has to be paid. The buyer cannot make copies of the software (making copies is easy in the case of digital goods like software), even for his own use in multiple computers. On the other hand, we have free and open source software (FOSS, for short) which guarantees four freedoms:

1 Freedom to use the software.

2 Freedom to study the software (since the actual software program or source codeis publicly made available).

3 Freedom to modify.

4 Freedom to share/distribute.

Proprietary software does not provide the last three freedoms; the seller usually hides the source code. The word ‘free’in FOSS refers to these four freedoms, not to the cost being nil, although FOSS applications are often also available at no cost as they can be freely shared. Hence, like the community pond, FOSS is created by the people (produced by a community of software developers across the world volunteering their services for the public good), of the people (owned by society at large, not by private entities) and for the people (distributed freely to maximise public welfare).

Since FOSS applications are developed and maintained by communities of software developers working for the public good, their efforts require societal support, especially that of government. Governments must clearly support and adopt FOSS in order to promote the equitable and democratic spread of ICT.

Software as the building blocks of our information society

Comparing software to drinking water may strike one as a little far-fetched. But it is widely accepted that we live in an increasingly digital world in which software plays a critical role, whether in booking train tickets, banking, using search engines to get specific information, communicating with friends, use of the Internet by political parties and NGOs for their campaigns, participation of individuals in virtual professional and social networks, accessing public services over the Internet, etc. Software structures our social interactions and is increasingly important in knowledge-creation; hence its free and easy availability becomes essential to society. This would be even truer of software that runs personal computers -- our gateways to the information world. It’s in recognition of this that the Indian government has a programme (common service centres) that aims to provide Internet access through computers to 250,000 villages.

Governments therefore cannot afford to treat software as a mere technology issue and be ‘neutral’ to the dichotomies of proprietary applications and FOSS, ignoring their social, political, and economic dimensions.

There have been sporadic efforts by government and public institutions like NIC (which develops software for governments, often as FOSS), NRCFOSS (which works with educational institutions to adopt FOSS), CDAC (which has released GNU/Linux operating system distribution and the Open Office suite in Indian languages) to adopt and promote FOSS in India. The department of IT, Government of India, recently released ‘Draft Open Standards for eGovernance’, which provides an enabling environment for FOSS and emphasises free and open public standards. However, unlike many countries that have clearly declared national policies supporting the adoption of FOSS, India still has to take a firm stand on the issue.

Political parties

Political party support for FOSS is important as it can shift governments from their current ambivalent stand. Like most individuals and institutions, political parties have not put FOSS on their agenda, viewing software as largely an esoteric technology issue. The recent general elections made a break with this, with parties on both the left and right end of the political spectrum -- namely the CPM and the BJP -- announcing their support for FOSS. This is an appreciation not merely of the technical advantages of FOSS but also of the immense value for society from the principles of open and collaborative creation of knowledge and its critical role in a democracy.

The Indian left is a traditional supporter of FOSS. The Kerala government employs FOSS and even has a comprehensive policy for the adoption of FOSS across all public enterprises. The IT@Schools programme, which is ahead of similar attempts elsewhere in the country, is fully based on FOSS. The government also acknowledges that use of FOSS has saved Kerala crores of rupees and helped spread ICT in the state. The CPM’s election manifesto clearly supports “promoting FOSS and other such new technologies which are free from monopoly ownership…”.

Kerala and FOSS

The nature of adoption of FOSS in Kerala is worthy of emulation. It has been a participatory process involving teachers unions and civil society organisations collaborating with the state government. The actual ICT training has been taken up by teacher-training institutions themselves which are responsible for building the capacities of a large number of teachers within the government system. This ‘integrated’ model of ICT training has led to it becoming deeply embedded within the education system. Other states use the ‘outsourcing’ model in which the training of teachers and students is taken up by technology vendors whose core competency is not education. Here, even after years of hand-holding under public-private partnership models, most teachers view the programme as external to the school; it therefore does not become institutionalised. This is unfortunate as the public education system has strong teacher education structures at the district, block and cluster levels. Unlike Kerala, other states have not used these to build the capacities of teachers to use computers and integrate computer-aided learning into the mainstream learning process at schools.

Increasingly, the growth and development of language will depend on its digital presence. The dominance of English has increased since most knowledge on the Internet is in that language. For example, the popular ‘free’ encyclopaedia on the Internet -- Wikipedia -- has more than 27 lakh articles in English whereas Hindi has around 25,000! FOSS has helped the spread of ‘Malayalam computing’ in Kerala, as local enterprises and schools become more familiar with FOSS applications and start making software modifications and extensions. FOSS is also slowly helping develop FOSS-based enterprises in the state.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party in the last and current Parliament, released an IT ‘vision document’as part of its election campaign. The document suggests that the government standardise open standardsand open sourcesoftware. The document also recognises the role of FOSS in active promotion of the domestic IT industry. Overall, the document seeks a departure from the current largely market-driven investment by providing access to the nascent information society, to public policy, a public investment-driven one which seeks universal access and participation, with special provisions for the marginalised. The document also emphasises the role of such investments in providing socio-economic impetus in the current recessionary scenario.

The Congress manifesto, on the other hand, made no mention of FOSS and was itself in the .doc format which is a proprietary format, meaning information on this format is not publicly available. When a society uses a proprietary format to store its own knowledge, it can be dangerous. If the vendor is not available or willing to support the specific proprietary format (which happens, as newer releases of software and document formats are made available by the same vendor), the knowledge and cultural resources of society, which belong to everyone, are lost. Also, the use of proprietary formats often compels users to buy the next software upgrade even if they do not need it, simply because older applications do not open the document formats of newer versions.

It is a moot question whether forcing voters to buy expensive proprietary software to read its manifesto is aligned to the party’s espoused support for the aam-aadmi!


This kind of indifference is also typical of bureaucrats in most states. Bureaucrats, especially those in the IT or e-governance ministries, espouse ‘neutrality’ between FOSS and proprietary software even though many of them accept the fact that governments could save crores of rupees by adopting FOSS at least on the large number of personal computers they buy. They also insist that users in government departments should ‘choose’ what they are ‘comfortable with’. It is obvious that ‘comfort’ comes primarily from usage, and, being conditioned to proprietary software, users may find FOSS alternatives difficult at first. In a developing country, spending crores of rupees of public funds on proprietary software when FOSS equivalents are freely available is an avoidable waste and a clear violation of the ‘least cost’ principle that governments usually follow in their procurements.

A second kind of ‘neutral’ response from bureaucracy is to ask FOSS supporters to provide software on the same terms as do proprietary software vendors. Typically, the bureaucrat will demand the same kind of support across the entire state as the large technology vendor provides, saying: “X company can provide free training for the next one year; what can you do?” The problem with this expectation is that while the proprietary software vendor will have the necessary resources (acquired through software licence fees) to make support available immediately, it is harder for the other side to comply.

Once it is set up, though, FOSS provides benefits that are exponentially greater than the cost of establishment. The system has immense economic (both in terms of reduced software procurement and support costs and in promoting the establishment of FOSS SMEs --small and medium enterprises -- that provide local employment and entrepreneurship), social (supporting local collaborations) and political (reducing government dependence on specific vendors, many of whom are transnational) benefits. Kerala has consciously opted for this route of creating a FOSS environment and is already benefiting from both lower costs of setting up ICT infrastructure and spawning local SMEs that use FOSS.

Support to small-scale industry

Since FOSS-based enterprises do not license software but provide training and support services, they tend to be much smaller than proprietary companies that earn significant licence fees. While India’s policy has always been to support small and medium enterprises and give them preferential treatment over large industries, in the case of software government tenders often impose huge minimum limits of turnover which favour large companies over SMEs. Such high floor limits are inequitable and unjust; it is the government’s responsibility to promote FOSS SMEs and regulate restrictive trade practices that large technology monopolies indulge in with impunity (such as ‘persuading’ hardware companies to bundle only their software products with the hardware, ‘dumping’ their software at low or zero prices when they fear competition from FOSS). The irony is that the same bureaucrat who strongly supports community pond-building/maintenance as a secretary in the panchayati raj department, or favours small-scale industry as a secretary in the industries department, will insist on remaining neutral when it comes to proprietary software and FOSS, as IT or e-governance department secretary, ignoring the government’s duty in protecting the common good.

Bottlenecks in the adoption of FOSS

Our own research efforts indicate two bottlenecks in the adoption of FOSS. The first is basic awareness about FOSS itself. Though many people have heard of Linux, most technology users are unaware of the philosophy behind FOSS, its practical benefits and the various FOSS alternatives available today. The government therefore needs to popularise the adoption of FOSS, which can be done by supporting FOSS awareness and promotion campaigns just as there are government campaigns for polio vaccinations or literacy or consumer rights. FOSS is basically public software, and itneeds public/governmental support as much as public health and public education do.

The second obstacle is the apprehension that FOSS represents na├»ve idealism and does not work at a practical level. While it is true that FOSS applications are not available in all areas, requiring some governments to procure proprietary software, this is not the case with respect to most basic software applications including those that are on personal computers. Large organisations in the public and private sectors use FOSS. LIC has been using a GNU/Linux operating system for years, and several large banks like ICICI Bank are employing Open Office. A number of engineering colleges too use the GNU/Linux operating system and FOSS applications as these may be studied and customised by students in computer science programs. FOSS applications are used in several high-end applications as well, and most Internet applications are powered by the FOSS quartet ‘LAMP’ (Linux operating system/Apache Web Server/MySQL database/PHP scripting language). Millions of people use GNU/Linux (Ubuntu is becoming more and more popular) and Open Office for their desktops, instead of proprietary alternatives. Apart from the basic office automation software, Ubuntu GNU/Linux (and other GNU/Linux distributions) comes bundled with thousands of FOSS applications that are not available freely with proprietary operating systems, such as those for image editing, audio-video editing, PDF file editing, etc.

With regard to the second apprehension, the adoption of FOSS in the public sector would help break the myth of ‘non-usability’ and encourage more people to adopt it. For a start, all government websites could be developed in a way that they can be accessed by FOSS web browsers without any problem (in many cases, government websites work well only with Microsoft Internet Explorer which is a proprietary software application). Using document formats that are not proprietary would also support greater use of FOSS applications. Government should stipulate FOSS in their computer procurements and IT projects, acquire the source code and release it as FOSS to society. FOSS is not only a technical or technology issue, it is also a political one. Political parties seeking to represent people’s aspirations and interests must come out clearly in favour of adopting and promoting FOSS. Bureaucrats in the IT, e-governance and other ministries must use the same principles in their technology policies as they do in other developmental spaces, and promote FOSS on socio-political and economic grounds.

By Gurumurthy Kasinathan is with IT for Change, an NGO in Special Consultative Status with United Nations’ Economic and Social Council. He uses the following FOSS applications on his computer:

Ubuntu GNU/Linux 8.04 (operating system). Open Office 3.1.0 (office automation). Mozilla Firefox 3.0.10 (web browser). Mozilla Thunderbird (email client). VLC player (media player), GIMP image editor ( photo editing),PDFEdit 0.3.2 (PDF editing, which is normally not available on Windows machines), pidgin (chatting), K3B (burning CDs and DVDs) etc.

For more information on the sociocultural, political and pedagogical dimensions to FOSS, visit


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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