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05 December 2011

Inexplicable benefits

On the 23th of November the French government announced a 2 million € procurement programme for technical support on its growing open source software infrastructure, today encompassing dozens of thousands of computers spread by ministries, courts, security forces and other central administration services. Days later at the Portuguese Parliament the communist party (PCP) put up for voting a proposal to prevent the acquisition of any new commercial software license, for which an open source or free distributable alternative exists. According to estimates by the communist parliamentary group, this proposal would translate into savings of some 70 million € in 2012 alone, subtracting to the 100 million € assigned in the state budget for the purpose. The proposal was rejected with the votes against from the government coalition of liberals (PSD) and conservatives (CDS); the socialist party (PS) abstained. The arguments vented by the media for this rejection where three: difficult transition for users and platforms, technical support costs and security. It is worth reflecting somewhat on each of these arguments.

The transition would be difficult if the proposal contemplated the substitution of existing software by alternatives, but such isn't the case, only the acquisition of new licenses is concerned. Defeated the argument, it is important to note that the adoption of software invariably requires some sort of adaptation, be it on interoperability grounds or on user training. Nevertheless this adaptation always exists, regardless of the nature of the software, open source or commercial. Just as buying a washing machine requires its plugging to the plumbing and a read of the instruction booklet before use.

Regarding support costs the situation is similar, the adoption of any computer software should always go through three phases that imply costs, not with technology, but with knowledge. In first place comes the requirements analysis phase, along which the needs of the adopting institution are identified in detail and specific functionalities may be developed. On a second phase comes user training when the software is also evaluated in face of a context close to reality. And lastly comes the famous support phase, during which technicians follow the daily usage of the product, answering needs not anticipated earlier or adapting the product to new requirements. All of it is part of the regular software development process, once again be it open or closed source.

But this costs argument is the first indication that there's something definitely wrong in the way Portuguese parliament members relate to computer technology. Regardless of numbers, there is a fundamental difference between money paid to multinational companies for product licensing, that rapidly flows abroad, and the money spent on local IT companies, which sooner or later returns back to the state budget through taxes and savings products. This is the main motivation that has lead most of the other European states to support open source software, one way or another introducing this technology in their economies. It is hard to believe that the majority of parliament members in Portugal do not understand this difference.

The security argument has made of the Portuguese Parliament a preferential jesting target in the computing world. The emergence of open source software has been in great measure prompted by the increased security it represents, for a simple reason: it is completely transparent to the user the sort of operations the program executes on information. With closed source software how can the user guarantee that his/her data are not seized, altered or otherwise illicitly used? In computing fora it is frequently questioned if a state can possibly guarantee its sovereignty and independence if its security and military forces operate with technologies based on closed software fabricated abroad. On this subject it also worthy to point the success that the open source operating system Linux has had in the domain of network and server security. The equipment you have installed in your home to access the internet has a probability of 90% to be running with Linux; your favourite search engine, your favourite video website or you blog have equal chance of being supported by Linux systems.

Certainly 70 million € wouldn't have a decisive impact on the budget deficit, which goes in the order of thousands of millions of €. But what does a public worker, that lost 25% of her/his salary in just 2 years, feels when millions of € continue to flow every year to large foreign companies? Unfortunately, this sort of inexplicable benefits that both central and local administrations concede to certain companies is not something new for the Portuguese. These are perhaps the visible symptoms of something much more deep, to which is linked a gigantic parallel economy that slowly consumes the state resources and widens inequality. In the financing agreement celebrated between the Portuguese state and the triumvirate IMF-ECB-EC there is no reference to the usage of open source software, nor would it be expectable for such document to go into such details, but neither there is any direct incentive to fight the sort of non-transparent practices here discussed. This is one of the reasons why it will be so difficult for the austerity recipe to work in Portugal.

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