German government should make its software available as open source, committee advises

A government committee recommends a change in German law to accommodate software

Germany should change a law to enable public administrations to make their software available as free and open source, a German parliamentary committee has advised.

German public administrations currently are not allowed to give away goods, including software, said Jimmy Schulz, a member of Parliament and chairman of the Interoperability, Standards and Free Software Project Group in an email Thursday. The current law prohibits governments from being part of the development process in the free software community, he said.

"This is a clear disadvantage because it cuts off all benefits obtained from free software, such as being cost-efficient and state-of-the-art," he said.

Besides a recommendation that the government should explore whether the law can be changed for software, the group also called for the use of open standards in order to make sure that everybody can have access to important information, Schulz said. "We also called for public administrations in general to make sure that new software is created as platform independent as possible," he added.

While the project group is not in favor of giving priority to one type of software over another, it said in its recommendation to the Parliament earlier this week that free and open source software could be a viable alternative to proprietary software.

Although free software should not be favored over proprietary software as a rule, the federal government should follow the example of the city of Munich and use more free software in general, the group recommended.

Munich is often seen as the German textbook example of open source implementations. The city is currently completing a migration to its own Linux distribution called LiMux. Choosing open source software over a modern, proprietary Microsoft-based IT infrastructure has saved the city over ¬11 million (US$14.3 million), the city council announced in November.

Not every German migration to an open source IT infrastructure has been a success, though. Compatibility problems and under-performing spreadsheet and presentation programs in OpenOffice frustrated city employees in Freiburg, Germany, so much that the city council decided to dump the suite and go back to Microsoft Office only a few weeks before Munich announced its savings.

Open source advocates called for the city government to give updated versions of OpenOffice or its LibreOffice counterpart a chance and they pointed to Munich's success with open source adoption. But those entreaties failed to sway the Freiburg government.

It could also take a while before the German federal government follows in the footsteps of Munich, said Schulz. The recommendations made by the inquiry committee now need to be discussed and adopted by the entire Parliament to become an official document of the German Bundestag, he said. This is set to take place in March or April.

The German Parliament is not the only European government looking to open source as an alternative to proprietary software.

"Free software presents an opportunity we should seize for the modernization, the effectiveness and the transparence of the state: Free software can be a driving force in ensuring wider access to public data," wrote Fleur Pellerin, the French minister for SMEs, Innovation and the Digital Economy in an answer to parliamentary questions on Tuesday.

"Free software facilitates the development of e-government: that's one area in which the ability to view and modify its source code leads to interoperable systems, a key factor for e-government. Free software also gives the state more control over its IT spending," she wrote. The free software model is of "strategic importance" to European governments and companies, she said.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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