Councils push open source

'Affordable' software crucial for community ICT use

New Zealand’s local authorities have come out in support of open source software to encourage more IT use in the community.

In their collective response to the government’s draft ICT strategy, local authorities point to government’s broad agreement with the principles of last year’s Worldwide Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

The councils draw attention to one of these principles not specifically mentioned in the strategy, Section 27: “Access to information and knowledge can be promoted by increasing awareness among all stakeholders of the possibilities offered by different software models, including proprietary, open source and free software, in order to increase competition, access by users, diversity of choice, and to enable all users to develop solutions which best meet their requirements.”

They urge consideration of such “affordable” software in any incentives that government might put in place to encourage community IT use.

“Such an adoption would not be anti-competitive,” the councils suggest. “The intellectual property issue with open source software is somewhat similar to that for generic drugs and New Zealanders should not need to pay top dollar for software functionality that is available in the public domain.”

The WSIS statement is itself a watering down of the summit’s original stronger support for open source. “Open source [or] free software shall be adopted by all public authorities and bodies,” an early draft said. After pressure from unknown quarters, the wording was modified.

The councils' response document repeatedly suggests that local authorities’ contribution to assisting community involvement with ICT is under-recognised and under-resourced. It points to councils’ role in the Probe broadband incentive and their potential for providing public information online through council offices and libraries.

Most local authorities have to charge for internet access by the public, they point out. “Funding is … needed from government or other partners to remove the cost barrier for citizens.

"Local government is currently facing significant affordability issues — particularly relating to increased levels of service, new responsibilities required by government, and in some areas the withdrawal of services provided by central government," the councils say. "It is our view that some key elements of [the government] strategy will not be effective if local government is not adequately resourced to deliver the responsibilities identified."

The councils stress the need for continued work on broadband and point to the "relative lack of competition" in current telecommunications infrastructure. This is a factor not addressed in the strategy, they say, and will have major impact on the evolution of ICT, particularly in rural areas.

The government agencies leading the strategy evolution, and the funding process, have a strong emphasis on economic development and employment, they suggest, and this may led to neglect of purely social objectives.

Moreover, they say, "it is our view that the strategy does not sufficiently deal with the participation of citizens in democratic processes, whether they be central government or local government. Active citizen participation is an important ingredient of a healthy society and the strategy needs to recognise this and suggest initiatives for improved participation.

"This is much broader than e-voting and could include formal and informal consultation processes."

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