Does the proposed eGov Standards Policy benefit all or only a chosen few?
As a wider audience comes to accept new technology, so the technology itself grows. The recent debate in India on the eGov Standards policy has been a point of contention for some time. I would like to start our discussion on this topic by posing two questions:
Question 1: Should government mandate single standards for a given technology domain?
The obvious answer would appear to be “Yes”, but the considered answer is actually “No”.
The stipulation of a “single standard” would unnecessarily restrict the technology choices for the Government and would result in the exclusion from Government projects of Indian ISV’s who do not conform to the standard. In the Indian IT ecosystem, not many software companies offer their products for free. This is not only an Indian phenomenon, but a global one too. Software is not generally free.
Question 2: Should royalty free IP in standards be used in eGovernment solutions as suggested in section 5.1.1?
Once again, the obvious answer would appear to be “Yes”, but the considered answer is actually “No”.
If everything is free, who will pay the bills? We all know that in life there is no such thing as a free lunch. To build a sustainable standard takes time, people and money. The Ethernet standards, developed in the IEEE in the IEEE 802 series, provide us with a good example of this. If everything has to be royalty-free, how is the inventor to be paid for his efforts? It is simply impractical to expect everything to be free.
Open Standard vs. Open Source
The real eGovernment debate revolves around understanding the true meaning of “Open Standards”. Wikipedia is a great source on the subject and provides various points of view.
A clear understanding of the differences between Open Standards and Open Source is necessary. Open Standards can be used both in Open Source and paid technologies. For example, UNICODE is standardized under RAND terms and is used in both Windows and Linux. Sadly, Open Source has become a tool of exploitation in hands of the few who usurp the claim on Open Standard.
For Government procurements, the lowest bidder is generally awarded the contract. The “artificial” imposition of a single royalty-free standard would preclude Government Departments from selecting solutions on a value-for-money basis. Many eGovernment Interoperability Frameworks across the globe do not impose such stipulations for the very reason that they have adverse effects on interoperability.
A number of organizations offer their software for free, but profit by charging surreptitiously for support. To my mind, it is better to be upfront and open about the real costs. Many have found themselves locked into agreements, only to be shocked by the actual long-term costs. This is what most Open Source implementations end up doing.
By towing the “free line”, effectively the Government is siding with the Open Source philosophy and killing vendors who charge for their software upfront. This is not in the best interests of the emerging software economy, nor the development of intellectual property.
The debate on standards is NOT purely academic in nature. If this standard is passed, Open Source commercial vendors stand to gain millions in Government contracts. Please refer to section 7.4 on this point. The debate is also NOT about what is good or bad. It is really a debate on how the proponents of a single standard will secure their profits from the Government.
The proponents of a single standard have a loud voice, and they appeal loudly to higher authorities and institutions. I believe that this should come to and end. The real issue, i.e. the confusion between Open Standards and Open Source needs to be clarified before a crucial error is made.
Suggestion for Better eGovernment Standard Policy
As we have seen, the term “open standard” means different things to different bodies. While I support the Indian Government’s goals to achieve interoperability for e-government, I recommend the following amendments to the eGov Standards policy:
- Remove section 5.1.4, because to prove that a particular standard is better than all other existing standard is virtually impossible to do objectively.
- Remove all preferences in section 5.2 for Open Source as they only favor commercial Open Source companies.
- If preference needs to be given at all, give them to software developed in India by Indian companies. As an added advantage, the Government can more tightly regulate these companies.
- To let the taxpayer’s money be utilized most effectively and to meet the objectives detailed in section 3.4, the committee should think of including a “lowest cost preference” clause in section 5.
- Define Open Extensions and/or Open Subsets clearly.
I sincerely urge the intellectuals of this country to climb down from “socialist” viewpoints and ensure that the IT the ecosystem is best leveraged to the benefit of the nation.
To better e-governance!
Reference : Pinal Dave (