April 4, 2003 spout

Oregon & Open Source

Friday, Apr 4, 2003

I had an interesting experience yesterday when I was asked by Mike Sax to come to the Oregon capitol building to testify against HB 2892, known as the Open Source Software for Oregon Act. In general, the bill talks about the benefits of open source, open standards and open data formats, most of which I didn’t have any issues with. However, I got up at 6a and drove an hour down to Salem because of the following clause:

“(2) For all new software acquisitions, the person or governing body charged with administering each administrative division of state government, including every department, division, agency, board or commission, without regard to the designation given the entity, shall:

(c) Provide justification whenever a proprietary software product is acquired rather than open source software;

By requiring state government employees to write a special justifications, this bill erects artificial barriers to adopting commercial software, above and beyond the fact that commercial software requires an initial payment (which should be more than enough of an edge for open source software).

If you’ve never been to a government bill committee hearing, I highly recommend the experience. I was in a little hearing room with a bunch of other folks, all interested in this particular bill. I signed my name on the list of folks against” the bill so that I would have a chance to testify. The chairman called first proponents of the bill and then opponents up to the microphone three at a time.

Some of the the proponents were teachers and school staff that had put Linux and other open source software to good use in combination with old computers used as thin clients against a back-end server (using X-Windows, I assume). They claimed that they solved themselves all kinds of trouble because open source software was “immune to viruses and security problems” (now *that’s* effective propaganda! : ). Some of the proponents were embittered IT staff and new college grads looking to bring some old-fashioned democracy back into a country that had been recently taken over by corporations. It was all I could do to avoid pointing out to them that that the country had been taken over by corporations shortly after Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations” in 1776 and the budding US government adopted the ideas therein to fund their new country. The basic story of the proponents was that open source was good, so it should be mandated over closed source.

The opponents, on the other hand, were largely suit-wearing fellows from large groups of commercial software corporations (one of which didn’t hesitate to remind the esteemed committee that it’s member companies had paid $135M in Oregon state taxes last year). Their arguments were that undoubtedly open source software was clearly already being used by government bodies, that there was no rule against it and that their should likewise be no rules against proprietary software. Only Mike, owner of a small Oregon-based software company, and me, owner of nothing at all of interest, represented the little guy” on the opponent side (we stuck out because of the lack of either a neck tie or a suit coat).

19 copies of my written testimony were submitted without comment at the request of the chairman who assured the audience that all testimony would be read. My verbal testimony was limited to pointing out that shackling proprietary software was bad engineering” because it could easily cost the state of Oregon more money in the long run; maintaining source code is a lot more difficult than maintaining commercial software for normal humans. I also pointed out that being open source did not prohibit viruses or security problems; the first computer virus ever was written on a Unix, the predecessor to Linux and that they share an identical security model. To be fair, Unix wasn’t open source, but I stretched the truth less than the open source guys, so I didn’t feel too bad (Unix was source available” at the very least  : )  And finally, I let the committee know that open source didn’t mean open standards or open data formats and that, in fact, those were things that commercial software companies had done the most to bring into greater use over the years.

Having never done anything like that before, I wasn’t sure how well I’d done, but one of my fellow panelist (a procurement officer from another giant suit-wearing organization) wrote nice job” on his pad of paper while his colleague preached the wisdom of amending the language” of the bill to be more practical.”

At the end of the hearing, the chairman of the committee called out some names of the most credible, suit-wearing fellows from each side of the debate to form a working group to come up with a bill that the committee could actually consider submitting for a vote. The sub-text was that the bill as it currently stood was pretty silly; it didn’t allow any greater freedom to pick open source software but it did limit the ability to choose proprietary software, which wouldn’t make those Oregon software company tax payers happy. This seemed a most sensible conclusion to me and gave me confidence that our government isn’t so screwed up after all.

When the room was cleared, I was assaulted by one of the open source proponents, reminding me that Unix wasn’t open source and that Linux would never have any such problems (which makes the presence of virus protection software for Linux seem like a very poor business decision). I was also cross-examined by a tall, thin, balding, old-ish man with the longest grey beard I’ve ever seen in person. He seemed very knowledgeable and was very interested in the details of my opinions. He reminded me of nothing more than a fallen Richard Stallman in 30 years and added to the surreality of the morning.

On the way back to our cars, Mike thanked me for coming and asked if I was glad that I’d come. It surprised me to learn that I was. Not only did I feel that my “just a guy” presence helped the suits make their case, but I felt like I was doing my duty as a citizen. Who knows, this experience might bring out the politician in me. I’m sure I could do at least as well as Jessie Ventura. : )