MP criticises SSC open source guidelines

Repeated use of the word 'infectious' raises eyebrows

Green party MP Nandor Tanczos has taken the State Services Commission to task over the language used in its newly released guidelines for agencies considering using open source.

Tanczos, an open source advocate, took the paper’s authors to task in a phone conversation with Computerworld and later a media statement, for using the word “infectious” to refer to the way the same licence conditions could transfer from open source products to subsequent products that incorporated or used that software.

The guidelines also use the word “quarantine” to describe precautionary separation of code to lessen these effects.

This is “loaded” language, Tanczos says, and must raise suspicion that the SSC is really trying to deter government agencies from using open source by begging comparisons with disease and computer viruses.

“We didn’t use the word ‘viral’,” says author John Elwood at Govis. “That was one term we deliberately avoided.” “Infection” was just the most convenient shorthand way of describing the way the terms of an open source licence could shift to a derived product which might include some commercial code that the develop wanted to keep confidential. No negative implication was intended.

At the Govis open source conference, held last week, Elwood tried to make light of the issue by saying infection can have a positive side; “laughter can be infectious.”

The SSC and other influential bodies in government certainly do not wish to deter agencies from adopting the technology, says Edwin Bruce, manager for e-government projects at the SSC. On the contrary, they are trying to encourage adoption, and to fail to point out risk would not be serving that goal well.

Tanczos criticises the line in the guide which refers to use of contractors and says that if no suitable conditions can be placed on their use of open source software in development, then it might be as well to ban it altogether. That, he says, might exclude open source software from a large slice of government projects to the detriment of development speed and cost.

He also points out that the guide was framed with the assistance of law firm Chapman Tripp, which has acted for Microsoft. One Govis delegate sarcastically intoned “conspiracy!” in an earnest voice on being told this. Others said it would be hard to find a prominent law firm that Microsoft had not used at one time or another.

By bringing the dangers to the fore and suggesting complete exclusion of open source as a last resort, Computerworld suggested to Tanczos, was the guide not simply adopting a “precautionary principle” similar to that the Greens advocate for innovations such as genetic modification (GM)?

The consequences of open source adoption are predictable and analysable, Tanczos replied; those of GM are not.

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