theonlinecitizen

a community of singaporeans

Government should use free software

Posted by theonlinecitizen on April 24, 2007

By Koh Choon Lin

The Government is increasingly dependent on computer software to operate. Singaporeans access important services like SingPass via the Internet, leading the makers of software exerting substantial control over how the Government operates.

Most software currently used by the Government is like a black box. It is proprietary, which means that the Government is not allowed to look inside to see how it works. Proprietary software comes with restrictions preventing it from being copied without permission.

The Government placed its fate in the hands of a few entities when it accepts these restrictions on the technology Singaporeans depend on for everything from social services to our CPF savings. Government needs to serve the public interest and has an obligation to remain independent of such control.

If the Government chooses a proprietary program – for example, to build its websites, this often translates that Singaporeans will have to install a compatible proprietary program on their computers in order to use it. Thus, the Government locks Singaporeans into a relationship with a particular company and takes away their freedom to choose something different.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The Government should begin using free “as in freedom” software. Free software is software that permits users to use, distribute, study and change the software for any purpose. There are thousands of free software available. Free operating systems like GNU/Linux are fully capable of replacing the proprietary alternatives from Microsoft. Many organizations, including MINDEF, are now using free software like OpenOffice.org.

Free software is also generally more secure. The Government can test and inspect the software directly, and benefit from the fact that people all around the world are inspecting the same software for problems, as the source code is available. When problems are discovered, they can be fixed much more quickly because the fix do not have to wait on a single vendor.

Instead of handing the technological machinery of Singapore to small groups of entities and locking Singaporeans into dependent relationships with these groups, the Government should use publicly available and freely licensed software. This is the only way to preserve the independence of the Government from private interests.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2006 National Day rally, “The Government has to adapt to the digital age.” If it is to continue as a lead advocate for personal freedom, the Government must recognize the negative impacts of its current software policies.

The Singapore GNU has also released a paper on privacy issues regarding Wireless@SG. Click here to access the pdf file.

About the author: Koh Choon Lin is the executive director of the Singapore GNU Group which is a socio-political group.


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6 Responses to “Government should use free software”

  1. cyclone said

    i agree with u, but i really don’t like openoffice, it hangs too many time on me and its slow because its java-based.

    slow to open, to save files, to open functions, to even create a table for a presentation. first-hand experience from everyone in the organization mentioned in the article.

    it really sucks…

  2. Mic said

    Cyclone,

    I have the same “problem” but the recent version 2.2 seems to have solve the “problem”

    also note that when running GIMP in windows, the speed is visibly slower than running in Linux

    Mic

  3. Anonymous said

    Hmmm

    Open source software will always remain inferior – unless there is some sort of huge non-profit foundation to support (pay) good money to talented developers. Otherwise talented developers would rather work for profit making software firms. I am sure there are some organiations like this now, but it would take quite some time before we can start to see top quality stuff.

    Anyway, it’s time somebody breaks microsoft’s near monopoly.

  4. Koh Choon Lin said

    Whether free software or proprietary software is superior remains debatable. We in the free software community do not care about the technical issues of software, like how nice it looks or how long is the uptime. That is in the realm of the open source movement. We do not even care how much does free software cost, since freedom is the issue, the whole issue, and the only issue.

  5. UY said

    Why do you worry? The govt does not care much about spending money on IT. The money spent is probably peanuts to them since they will probably quote a much higher figure of return, like the GDP, to make everything seem tiny. The science of relativity.

  6. Koh Choon Lin said

    Hi UY!

    I am not worried about money but about freedom. Supposedly the government makes CPF, SingPass, etc.. workable on the Microsoft platform or has store its files in Microsoft Word format that free software cannot read (US’s FTA agreement with Singapore may bring in the DMCA), this is a clear instance of discrimination against GNU/Linux users. Moreover, the secret file formats also means that the government itself may not be able to read its own files in the future!

    Regards
    Koh Choon Lin

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