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Dev: keep government tech open source

We can't let large corporates "buy UK policy", says Richard Harvey

Linux admin Richard Harvey has made an impassioned plea for support in influencing UK government policy on open source.

The government is currently consulting on the use of open standards and open source as an alternative to proprietary software. Corporations that stand to lose out are lobbying the government in an attempt to discredit open source and open standards, he claimed on his Support Open Standards website.

“As the open source community, we have generally not responded to the consultation because we may have read it and thought ‘that’s really good’," said Harvey on the site. “We need to feed this back, otherwise this will become a one-sided debate. Don’t let large corporates buy UK policy."

We spoke to Harvey about why he feels the issue is so vital for the web design and development community ...

.net: Why did you create the website?
RH: When the open source community first heard the UK government wanted to use open source and open data standards, we thought: great! But no one knew how to feed this back, so I wanted to make it easy for everyone, including the open source community, to reply to the government consultation quickly and easily.

.net: Why do you feel it's so important for the government to use open standards and open-source software?
RH: Its about levelling the playing field and allowing all companies, no matter how small or large, to do business with the UK government, or reuse government data. Open standards means there’s no cost-of-entry barrier into this market with licence fees or SDK costs. Anyone can innovate with the data, adding value to a pre-existing product or by building something completely new, and you only have to look as far as http://data.gov.uk/apps to see examples of this. But locking data into a proprietary format will damage innovation.

.net: Is there the potential for the UK government to lead by example?
RH: The UK often leads by example where policy is concerned: not only do other governments listen and often follow, but so do industries. This would be a real boost to open source and open standards credibility throughout the world, and it doesn’t exclude anyone from taking part.

.net: What's the risk of the debate being derailed by corporations with large wallets?
RH: There is a series of round table events that are limited in size. The last event was packed out by lawyers and spokespersons in favour of proprietary formats. Don’t get me wrong: I can see value in paid-for software. But I see no reason why these companies can’t support an open format. The only reason to stand against this policy document is to maintain market-share and prevent others from innovating. Open standards promote a level playing field and allow companies to compete on who’s got the best product rather than who's got the bigger wallet.

.net: On open source, the anti-arguments sometimes centre around longevity and quality. How can and should the government protect its investments in terms of deciding what products and technologies to use?
RH: We need to look at the bodies that govern the standards and software that is proposed. If you take HTML5 as an open standard, you can see it’s got a good structure around it in the form of W3C. When looking at open source products there are also plenty of fantastic examples of commercially supported projects where you are free to use the software but can buy support as a safety net if needed.

My own response to the consultation includes recommendations about choosing software and standards carefully, and potentially setting up an advisory panel to aid with this. This should be a coalition of industry spokespersons, engineers and developers. You need a range of skills to make sure the right decision is made.

.net: What can our readers do?
RH: We are looking to help people respond to the consultation by making it easy. That's why I built the form on my site. I want to help put forward the community’s views on the policy document, and so I strongly encourage people to fill in the form, to help balance the argument and allow a sensible and considered decision to be made by the government.

I want to avoid allowing large corporates to dominate this discussion without the open source community being heard. We need to get the whole community involved, and so please take to the social networks and spread the message. We have until the end of April to provide feedback.

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