Issa open source language comes under criticism

Bill could promote federal agency application forks

Draft legislation proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to overhaul federal information technology has drawn opposition for its section on open source software adoption.

The draft (.pdf) would require the Federal Chief Information Officers Council to issue guidance that mostly reaffirms open source's status as a commercial item under federal acquisition regulations, but it would also create a governmentwide open source software approval process to address "issues such as security and redistribution rights."

The Federal CIO Council guidance would also establish standard service level agreements for support and standard contract language.

The section violates the principle of technology neutrality, say vendor groups, which sent a Nov. 30 letter (.pdf) to Issa.

The government shouldn't promote IT products or services "based specifically upon the licensing, contracting, or business model used to develop them," the letter says; it was signed by executives from TechAmerica, BSA | The Software Alliance, the Coalition for Government Procurement and the Information Technology Industry Council.

During a Dec. 3 event in Washington, D.C., hosted by NextGov, Issa said some of the criticism is misplaced, since the proposal wouldn't promote the government to "go out and grab open source software and do what the private sector does--just the opposite."

One intention of the bill, he added, is to define the government as one entity for purposes of code redistribution. The most common open source licenses require users who make improvements to open source software to make generally available to the public their updated code, should they distribute that code to anyone outside their organization.

Some legal ambiguity exists about whether code modified by one federal agency can be distributed to another agency without triggering the public redistribution requirement, although in practice, open source practitioners say they don't encounter that problem. Hoarding code splits government-used open source applications away from the wider open source community and so isolates agencies from improvements made in that community. That practice, known as forking, in effect creates government-specialized software, a state of affairs adoption of open source software is meant to avoid in the first place.

Nonetheless, Issa said the government shouldn't "exactly match private sector open source, because government is different."

Issa's bill--which would also strengthen the role of headquarters CIOs and modify federal IT acquisition practices through creation of "assisted acquisition centers of excellence," has drawn praise from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who shared a stage with Issa during the Dec. 3 event.

"I'm hopeful and I think Chairman Issa's draft bill gives us a framework that we're still working on," Connolly said.

For more:
- download the draft Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (.pdf)

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