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chromatic (983)

chromatic
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Journal of chromatic (983)

Wednesday April 02, 2003
02:14 PM

Open Source in Government

[ #11405 ]

Tomorrow, Oregon House Bill 2892 (also here) goes before the General Government Committee for discussion. If successful, it will then go before the Ways and Means Committee, then to the House floor for a vote.

I'm particularly interested in the discussion of open standards and document formats. Open Source and Free Software have several advantages here. The text of the bill mentions a few. Here's what I see:

  • Data will remain accessible where proprietary software might change document formats and licensing terms.
  • It is possible to switch vendors, as no one vendor can sell software to read documents of that type exclusively.
  • Citizens are free to choose software from several vendors to access public documents. It's possible they can run this software on their choice of computer at their choice of location -- home, work, a free lab, a library, a government office. This is immensely important: the cost or availability of a software package should not be a barrier to public involvement.
  • Where possible, the government should encourage development of resources for the public good. Support and development resources should go toward projects and knowledge that is freely accessible to the public, not locked away in one company or another.

Anything I've overlooked?

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  • Especially in the current environment, it's good to raise the point that open-source software is more auditable (and, some claim, more audited) than closed-source. You never know sort of backdoors and security holes might be in the proprietary software you install. The fact that many jurisdictions are now using proprietary software for voting machines (with no paper trail) and not even being allowed to look at the software is making me far more paranoid than I used to be.

    Of course, the other side has its
    • That's a very good point. I'm certainly all for transparency in government and government software. It's also mentioned in the bill. Other people will likely cover that in their testimony and supporting documentation.

      Is there a way to cover the auditability aspect of Open Source while discussing open standards and protocols? I'd like to stay within that narrow topic -- it helps to be laser-precise when talking to lawyers and legislators. :)

      • Is there a way to cover the auditability aspect of Open Source while discussing open standards and protocols? I'd like to stay within that narrow topic -- it helps to be laser-precise when talking to lawyers and legislators. :)

        Perhaps. Is there any chance you can get Whitfield Diffie on your side? (On second thought, he's a pretty great mind and a deep thinker, but he rambles almost incomprehensibly at times.)

        Diffie's argument revolves around a fundemental tenet of security: a secret is only as go

        • Changeability: that is a brilliant insight. Excellent refutation of biometrics for free, too. Unfortunately security-by-obscurity seems to be the first instinct of every layperson out there. Perhaps it's because their only experience of security is dealing with passwords. They know that they are supposed to be all tricksy with their passwords, so they have the sense that computer security == being tricksy. Perhaps one should meet that head on, explain that the ideal security system has no secrets at all
      • > cover the auditability aspect of Open Source
        > while discussing open standards and protocols

        HTTP Basic Auth clearly defines how your auth info is sent over the network, and so folks know not to use it for Important Things. If it wasn't defined, you might just cross your fingers and hope it was sufficiently secure. Instead, you know to use digest auth or basic auth over HTTPS.

        A DTD can clearly define the content of a document, and that document can be determined to be well-formed by freely available
        • Another worrisome thing MS Word documents can contain internally is text from previous versions that the user thinks has been completely deleted, especially if "Fast Save" is enabled (the default configuration, at least at one time).
  • The main advantages of open source to me is that if it breaks, or doesn't do something you need it to, it's possible to hire somebody to fix it.

    You also don't worry about support way into the future, it should be trivial to find somebody in 10 years time to work on it, there's no fear that the company you bought it from will cease to be.
  • I vague remember someone reminiscing a question that came up at some sort of government and technology event recently:
    • Raise your hand if you are using the same software you were using 10 years ago. (no hands go up)
    • Raise your hand if you have data that is 10 years old in your organization that is still meaningful to you. (all hands go up)

    Government data has a long life. Government is also funded by the people to serve the public good. Choosing proprietary document formats can impede the government

    • I vague remember someone reminiscing a question that came up at some sort of government and technology event recently
      You're thinking of Tim Bray. See "XML Confers Longevity" in this blog entry [tbray.org].

      --Nat

    • I won't mention that the world's most preferred SGML tools are open source

      And the nice thing is that you don't have to. Anyone getting into those will find them anyway.

      Sometimes I think if the open source community just keeps quietly creating better and better stuff, they will eventually win the war.

      --
      J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers