Libertarians, Free Software, and Government Contracting

by on January 26, 2009 · 19 comments

Don Marti has some choice words for Braden’s post on Scott McNealy and government open source contracting:

Let’s say that one of those Rent-to-Own stores that sells electronics under a confusing, one-sided contract got a big idea. Hey, we’re going to get a piece of the government market for LCD monitors!

Wait a minute, though. The government has a competitive bidding process for electronics, and no bureaucrat is going to commit to paying two grand for a $300 monitor. Even if you could bribe him, somebody is going to look at the books eventually.

Looks like life is tough for our fine-print-slinging rent-to-own sales weasel. But all is not lost. Next step: hire a fake-Libertarian rent-seeking lobbying operation out of Washington, D.C. Now you can re-cast the corporate welfare you want as having the freedom not to get your rightful corporate welfare, I mean property, taken away from you.

Put some Libertarian-sounding spin on the rent-to-own monitor plan, and now it’s: There’s a Regulatory Mandate to buy only Open Bid Monitors! Why can’t we have Fair Competition betwen the Open Bid model and our business model?

I don’t think the name-calling is necessary, but Don does raise some interesting points. My thoughts:

  • I don’t think there’s really a matter of libertarian principle on either side of this debate. When the government is buying goods and services for its own needs, its primary obligation is to be good stewards of taxpayer funds. So if the evidence showed that buying free software tended to be a consistently better deal than buying proprietary software, it might make sense for the government to decide it was always going to buy free software.

  • I don’t think the “regulatory mandate” language makes very much sense. Ordinarily, when libertarians talk about “regulatory mandates,” we’re talking about mandates that get imposed on private parties who are minding their own business. But there’s no getting around the fact that when government purchases software for its own needs, it has to “mandate” the criteria for purchasing the software. And licensing terms certainly seem like fair game to me.
  • Freedom matters. That is, the advantage of free software isn’t simply that the government saves on licensing fees. When you adopt a proprietary software product, you’re locking yourself into that vendor’s products and services. If the vendor screws up, you can’t just fire the vendor and hire someone else to maintain the infrastructure. Firing the vendor means, at a minimum, switching software, and may require switching file formats.
  • If the government is the primary customer for some category of software product, the case for requiring open source solutions is considerably stronger. The point of proprietary business models is to allow the vendor to spread the initial cost of development over multiple customers. But if the only customer is the taxpayer, then choosing a proprietary software product simply amounts to the government putting itself (and by extension, taxpayers) in a weaker position in future contract negotiations. Voting machines are a good example. There isn’t much of a private market for DREs, so it’s hard to see the argument for accepting bids from vendors who won’t provide access to source code.

With all that said, I think there are solid practical reasons not to exclude proprietary software from government contracting across the board. If a product like Office or Photoshop dominates a market, it doesn’t make sense to exclude that product from consideration. The government is a small part of those markets, and insisting on open source products is more likely to simply leave the government with inferior software and/or higher costs.

There’s also a basic Hayekian point that a certain amount of decentralization is critical to the success of any large organization. The head of IT for a large government agency isn’t necessarily going to know about all of the software being used within his agency, and excluding proprietary software from considerations could cause significant hardships for units within the agency that depend on particular proprietary software products. It probably makes more sense for the head of IT to make sure that the relevant decision-makers clearly understand the benefits of open source software and the problems of lock-in, but leave the final decision up to people doing the actual work.

  • NZheretic

    Trust but verify
    http://itheresies.blogspot.com/2004_10_01_archi
    “[12] Governments, organizations and individuals are becoming increasingly concerned about software compatibility, conflicts and the possible existance of spyware in the software applications they use. If you have access to the source code, then you can check it and compile it for yourself. This is not an option for closed source proprietary applications, and not everyone has the resources to check each line of source code. One solution for these issues is to employ a trusted third party, separate from the application developer, who is tasked with maintaining a trusted build environment, to build the binaries from source code. The Trusted Build Agent (TBA) would hold the source to each build in escrow, releasing the source code for only open source licensed code. Competing businesses providing a TBA service in a free market would compete with each other in not only price and level of certification, but also on the ability to detect hostile, vulnerable, incompatible or just plain buggy source code. You could request a trusted build from multiple TBAs test the ability to detect defects. Defects would be reported back to the application developers, along with any patches and suggestions that provide a fix. To a lesser extent, most Linux distributions and other operating system vendors that build and redistribute open source licensed code already provide this role.”

  • MikeRT

    With all that said, I think there are solid practical reasons not to exclude proprietary software from government contracting across the board. If a product like Office or Photoshop dominates a market, it doesn’t make sense to exclude that product from consideration. The government is a small part of those markets, and insisting on open source products is more likely to simply leave the government with inferior software and/or higher costs.

    This may come as a real shock to Marti, but the federal government is already using a lot of open source software where it makes sense for them. They're just not going to mandate it because they have a more important mission than ensuring open source warm fuzzies.

  • MikeRT

    If the government is the primary customer for some category of software product, the case for requiring open source solutions is considerably stronger. The point of proprietary business models is to allow the vendor to spread the initial cost of development over multiple customers. But if the only customer is the taxpayer, then choosing a proprietary software product simply amounts to the government putting itself (and by extension, taxpayers) in a weaker position in future contract negotiations.

    This is also not necessarily true, and I will give you an example. There is a lot of inertia against PostgreSQL and MySQL because there are not many DBAs and developers who know how to use them in metro DC compared to Oracle and SQL Server. What Marti doesn't seem to realize is that a significant portion of all major federal software development is clustered in Metro DC, and the federal government is limited to what it can hire and bring to this area.

    So really, let's take the case of Oracle. I'm not a big fan of it myself, but if I am a federal PMO, who am I going to go with? The database vendor that I can get 5 resumes in 5 minutes for supporting it, or the database vendor who I will have to spend 5-6 months putting someone through a background investigation just to get them able to work in my office?

  • http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~tblee Tim Lee

    Yeah, I don't think it makes sense to institute an open source requirement on a government-wide basis–the federal government (and most state governments) are just too complex to foresee all the necessary exceptions and caveats. But if you're the bureaucrat in charge of drafting the RFC for a particular state's voting machines, there's a pretty strong argument for putting an open source requirement in there.

  • MikeRT

    Don Marti also assumes that a lot of the software that the federal government uses actually even has open source competition in the first place. There is a lot of enterprise software it uses which, to my knowledge, there are no serious open source competitors against.

  • mempko

    There are other considerations for software besides costs. The reason governments HAVE TO use open source software is out of principle.

    Documents the government creates are owned by the public by definition of a republic. Free software like the government is owned by the public. If the government uses proprietary software, then it does not have full control over the documents it creates.

    This poses significant problems for the public to be able to read documents, and Archive documents.

    Proprietary companies may discontinue support for and older version of their proprietary format.

    The author is only thinking with his economic glasses on which limits his judgment. The long term benefits of free software outweigh the short term costs.

  • bradencox

    Tim, thanks for your post. We're all mostly in agreement here that there's no “one best way” and that we don't need politicians to mandate the needs of government IT departments. This is not a libertarian perspective, just one that acknowledges the need for case-by-case cost/benefit analysis in procurement.

    However, I do think that the “lock-in” argument used by open source proponents has been overstated. In the government space, I'd bet that 90%+ of software procured is work for hire projects and not off the shelf. When it's work for hire, the risk of vendor lock-in exists no matter what the license, because those that help build the software can have an advantage servicing and upgrading it. So how do governments and other customers deal with this? Escrow the source code. Or put in the RFP a requirement for the source code. For certain projects access to source code might be critical, for others, perhaps not so much. No blanket rule should exist, particularly one that's driven through political channels.

    I respectfully disagree with those that think open source should be required in government as a matter of “principle.” This line of thinking fails because it falsely assumes there's a defining principle within open source that does not or cannot exist with more proprietary forms of software. Again, if an agency puts out an RFP and wants access to the source code, it can place this in it's request. If it needs to ensure access to documents by its citizens, there are a number of ways it can do so. There's just no one size fits all.

  • MikeRT

    Documents the government creates are owned by the public by definition of a republic. Free software like the government is owned by the public. If the government uses proprietary software, then it does not have full control over the documents it creates.

    Creating documents is only a subset of what the software that the federal government uses does. Are you going to seriously argue that the software for missile guidance systems should have to be entirely open source too?

    The author is only thinking with his economic glasses on which limits his judgment. The long term benefits of free software outweigh the short term costs.

    No, they don't. If the military doesn't have the best software, proprietary or open, it risks losing a war which is far more costly than the loss of some public records. Like most OSS zealots, you think that the federal government is mostly a big business, when in fact a lot of the software it uses must be best-of-breed by sheer fact of the cost of failing to complete the mission.

    Only a mindless ideologue would throw out the proprietary software that is at the heart of military systems and mandate open source software in its place because only an ideologue would fail to accept the consequences of placing principle over pragmatism in such a situation.

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    I respectfully disagree with those that think open source should be required in government as a matter of “principle.” This line of thinking fails because it falsely assumes there's a defining principle within open source that does not or cannot exist with more proprietary forms of software.

    I believe you are mixing up attributes of open source and free software. They are very different animals.

    Mandating open source is just another way of mandating peer review. Many scientific journals require peer-review, so why shouldn't the government mandate that for software?

    Here's another way to paraphrase what Scott McNealy said:“The government should utilize peer reviewed software where ever possible. Peer reviewed means that the source code should be throughly reviewed by an open, transparent process that ensures access to that software program's source code by a broad community of developers who would, by virtue of their experience, education and/or training, be competent to review such software.”

    In the government space, I'd bet that 90%+ of software procured is work for hire projects and not off the shelf. When it's work for hire, the risk of vendor lock-in exists no matter what the license, because those that help build the software can have an advantage servicing and upgrading it. So how do governments and other customers deal with this? Escrow the source code.

    The risk of vendor lock-in exist no matter what the license??? Right. If something is GPL'd it is obvious, from the fact that the source code is published that there would be less of a vendor lock-in then with GPL code. Just look at the way CentOS, for example, one of many Red Hat clones competes with Red Hat with exactly Red Hat's source code. Guess what? Red Hat has to provide better service…

  • http://enigmafoundry.wordpress.com eee_eff

    Creating documents is only a subset of what the software that the federal government uses does.

    So, Mike are you conceding the point that document creating software should be free software?

    If the military doesn't have the best software, proprietary or open, it risks losing a war which is far more costly than the loss of some public records

    I can agree with that, but I would make the case that open source, as a pragmatic methodology for creating software which necessarily involves a peer-review process, produces better and more error free code than a proprietary model can. Peer-review is a requirement for publishing a scientific paper, so why shouldn't it be a requirement for software?

  • MikeRT

    So, Mike are you conceding the point that document creating software should be free software?

    That's a very intellectually dishonest jump there.

    I can agree with that, but I would make the case that open source, as a pragmatic methodology for creating software which necessarily involves a peer-review process, produces better and more error free code than a proprietary model can. Peer-review is a requirement for publishing a scientific paper, so why shouldn't it be a requirement for software?

    Peer-review has also been found to be overrated in its value to good science.

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  • seansimekball

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  • seansimekball

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