Operation ‘Open Source’ — A Challenge for Governments and Citizens of the Information Society

Andrzej Kocikowski


The main purpose of this paper is to argue that one of the great challenges facing both citizens and governments of the Information Society is the necessity to undertake multi-directional activities to energetically promote universal use of software (both system and application software) created according to “open source” policies. The paper will propose a solution to some deeply frustrating and potentially harmful experiences common to ICT users, including computer professionals and “ordinary users” alike. Although the problem has a global range, my focus will be primarily on Europe, and especially on the European Union.

Ideally, the above-mentioned activities should constitute a long-term and complex undertaking that — after being accepted by national governments — would find a prominent place among aid programs of the European Parliament and other institutions fulfilling similar functions. Such a project and its justification will be the focus of my paper.

Before moving on to the details, I will explain to the audience that, in my view, the most noble conception of the term “open source” is a philosophy expressed by numerous computer programmers all over the world, who believe that software should be distributed as open and easily modifiable code that is accessible free of charge to anyone. I have the highest respect for the people who created this conception and those who accept it, who – thank goodness — are many. Of course, I am also fully aware that this idea–to which they have given a big portion of their lives — will probably never be widely accepted.

Another meaning of “open source” is a slightly less noble idea: computer programmers receiving fair pay for their work instead of giving it away for free. This is the meaning that I will use for the term “open source” in this paper.

Why would citizens of the Information Society, their governments, and the representatives of both – the European Parliament — support the promotion of increasingly universal use of open source software? As in any other case, here too the reasons are many and of various importance. I will try to discuss most of them in my paper. In this abstract I will mention just a few.

First, I am convinced that open source software can be less expensive, safer, more productive, more elegant, more user-friendly, and so on, than software offered by for-profit corporations. Can this conviction be proven? Yes, although not in just a few words. For example, regarding the important issues of quality and security, it is much easier to discover problems resulting from a simple mistake, or a wrong use of particular tools, or negligence or (as Gene Spafford calls them) “programmed threats” in open source software than in any other kind. My conviction is justified by the existing similarity between computer programs and scientific theorems. A computer programmer basically assumes that if certain conditions will exist then certain effects will take place. Indeed, every line of code is a step in the “proof” of a particular theorem. Basic knowledge in the methodology of science states that the best way to judge the value of a theorem is through the process of intersubjective verification. That means that many individuals — a great many, if necessary – comprehensively examine the “proof” for correctness. I believe that this kind of (essentially social) control of the correctness of software code cannot be replaced even by the best organized control within a profit-oriented corporation that creates programs “behind closed doors.”

A Case in Point: The Infamous Story of Enron. Enron, with its alleged “model” control system, elaborate employees’ training programs and assessment, was a “poster boy” in business ethics textbooks — and in secret background money making through “creative bookkeeping”! Is there any better proof that lack of an “open door” policy and social control enables a significant discrepancy between declarations and reality?

Secondly, a total or near-total monopoly in the software market, like a monopoly in the production of oil, natural gas, etc., or — in a different context — like a political monopoly, seriously threatens freedom and democracy. In the Information Society computer software is a strategic good; especially the kind of software that controls the functioning of the global net. Hence, there is a great necessity to protect it from domination by any monopoly.

Thirdly, the creation of open source software that is fairly paid-for can benefit the economy of many countries. National governments or international organizations like the European Parliament could finance well-thought-through assistance programs to support the work of computer programmers, a great many of whom — for financial reasons — cannot afford to join the somewhat exclusive open source club, in the first meaning of the term “open source.” Instead of working in fast-food restaurants, scores of talented young computer programmers could make a living, for example, by testing professionally created open-source software.

So, are there any fundamental reasons why the task described in the main thesis of this paper should be pursued? Yes, there are. Governments should finance the creation of good software the way they finance the construction of highways used by all, schools attended by our children, museums and libraries in which our cultural heritage is preserved, hospitals, and so on. In addition, as mentioned before, free, safe, more efficient, more elegant, more user-friendly software is as much a strategic product as some natural resources.

I repeat: control over the global information infrastructure should not rest with any monopoly. Open source software is the only reasonable alternative to any software source that — with the help of trade secrets or intellectual property ownership — tries to dominate the global market (and also our PCs!) thereby threatening freedom and democracy.