[Reader-list] Free software

Tapas Ray tray at cal2.vsnl.net.in
Mon Dec 17 07:42:05 IST 2001

Hello. This appeared as an op-ed piece in The Statesman, Calcutta, yesterday. I thought some of you might be interested --

West Bengal keeps software window shut


IN mid-August, the Left Front government drew flak from anti-monopoly
software professionals in India and abroad for signing a memorandum of
understanding with Microsoft for an e-governance package and other things.
As The Statesman reported on 18 August, activists of the Free Software
Foundation of India (FSF-I) had sent a protest letter to the West Bengal
government and CPI-M Politburo member Sitaram Yechury.
Their main concern was that the system of copyright protection, licensing
and withholding of the "source code" (the software's blueprint), as
practised by large companies like Microsoft, was harmful to poor countries
such as India, since it would keep the government in bondage to these
companies, and exacerbate the rich-poor divide. They also warned of the
danger of security leaks through such software. Cheaper and widely accepted
alternatives to such "proprietary software," the activists said, were
available in the form of "free software" ("free" as in "freedom," not "free
of cost").
In this case, the users have access to the source code and are free to
modify the software to suit their needs, at any time and at no additional
cost. Free software can also be freely copied and distributed. Governments
in France, Germany, China, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil had supported such
software in significant ways.
"Computer users in India, as everywhere, deserve the freedom to study,
change and redistribute software," Richard Stallman, a leader of the free
software movement, president of the FSF in the USA, and formerly a scientist
at MIT's famed Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, told this correspondent
in response to an e-mailed questionnaire. "I don't know the details of the
West Bengal deal with Microsoft, but regardless of those details, it is
surely a mistake if you look at the long-term consequences."
West Bengal, he wrote, faced a choice between the path of dependence on
Microsoft - which would be increasingly costly - and the path of
independence and freedom.
This correspondent had sought comments both from Microsoft and Mr Yechury,
but failed to elicit a response from either. Repeated attempts to contact
the West Bengal information technology secretary, Jaya Dasgupta, were of no
West Bengal's Information Technology Minister Manab Mukherjee seems to be
perennially busy at meetings. As such, it is not known whether the agreement
with Microsoft is being implemented, if so at what pace, and whether the
Left Front government is giving the question of free software any thought at
all. Some software developers in the state complain of a lack of
responsiveness to these issues in government circles. The chief of
Tathya.com, Indranil Mukherjee, says that for three years, he has been
trying to convince state officials of the merits of "open-source" software,
to little effect. A senior police officer, however, is an exception. At one
point, he had been open to this idea.
(Incidentally, there are major differences between "open-source" and "free
software" proponents, though
both groups allow user access to the source code. Roughly speaking, the
"free software" people are more idealistic - "hardcore" in the words of one
Indian activist.
As for the "open-source" movement, Mr Stallman says it was founded in 1998
"specifically to reject the views of the free software movement".
Mr Stallman and his friends had started work on GNU, a "free" UNIX-like
operating system [OS], in 1984. Later, Linus Torvalds, then a student,
worked on a free operating system element, known technically as a "kernel".
The free "Linux" operating system currently being used by many in preference
to various versions of the popular Microsoft "Windows" OS is really GNU with
the Linux kernel.)
While West Bengal's Left Front government remains shy of free software,
Kerala has taken a step forward in this area. Its IT policy promises to
encourage such software to complement and supplement proprietary software,
to reduce cost. "The Government", the policy states, "welcomes research into
the use of open/free software in the context of education, governance, and
for general use at home, to make IT truly a part of the daily lives of the
people of the State". However, according to Professor CK Raju of the Kerala
Institute of Local Administration, Thrissur, the approach of the previous
Left Democratic Front government was similar to that of the West Bengal
government - it had opted for Microsoft and denied entry to others.
Prof. Raju says Cherkalam Abdullah, Kerala's Minister for Local
Administration, wants non-proprietary software to be deployed. The institute
has been sensitising elected panchayat representatives and activists, for
whom it conducts training programmes, to the merits of free software.
Several issues are taken up in these programmes. Among other things, the
participants are told that in many cases, proprietary software is not
supported after two or three years.
Instead, the supplier offers to "upgrade" it. The relevance of the free
software community's efforts in developing countries is discussed. A
scenario of government collaboration with this community is also discussed.
The freedom of choice of software platforms is compared with the freedom of
speech and expression, as well as press freedom.

(The author is Special
The Statesman, Kolkata.)

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