Free software best suited for UI card project


There are compelling arguments to support the use of a free software, but advocates of free software doubt if the government would decide on one, given the money involved and the weight the companies owning proprietary software carry. But use of proprietary system, they feel, would be tantamount to compromising national security.
According to advocates, a software product would qualify to be ‘free’ if users have the right to run, study and modify, right to share and right to improve it.
“A software can be termed as secure only if the freedom to  examine or modify the code lies with its user, in this case, the Government of India,” proclaims the Free Software Movement of Karnataka (FSMK), a body that supports use of free software and propagates its usage in various spheres of activities.

Naturally, the movement finds Microsoft’s proposal to undertake the project ‘disturbing.’ While on one hand — a write up in the FSMK newsletter claims — Microsoft’s involvement would sabotage a state’s, and by default its citizen’s, right to control the software on which the most crucial data would sit, it also paints an alarming picture of the IT giant’s associations with the US government and slips in the suggestion that it would let the Americans sabotage the whole network as a part of a cyber attack if things come down to that.

If we exclude certain extremist portions of the FSMK’s case against Microsoft, especially the erroneous portrayal of the IT company as an arm of the US government and a dirty capitalist establishment, much of its argument makes sense. Especially when it casts doubt on the wisdom of using a proprietary platform becoming the underlying foundation for one of the most important IT assets of the nation, it certainly makes sense.
And what about the cost? Software vendors are known for charging huge license fee and keep charging for each upgrade. On top of it lay the maintenance fee, which the vendor is more or less ensured given that the database must be up and running virtually all the time and must remain accessible and secure to all users.

A recent study by Prof Rahul De of Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, (IIMB) has revealed that free and open source software gives huge cost benefits and virtually eliminates the need for piracy. The study, the first independent research of its kind, suggests that open source systems do not require anti-virus since it has less number of bugs and its vulnerabilities are fixed faster by the developers in the open source community. Prof De estimates use of open source would save about Rs 2,000 crore spent on anti-virus software to guard the system.

Adoption of open source in education sector, the study reveals, has largely been due to the need for regional language software/content and the possibility for innovation. IT at School, the biggest open source educational initiative taken up by the Kerala government, has created a large eco-system for open source systems in the state. The 200 master trainers selected and trained by the government, have in turn trained about 5,600 IT school coordinators, impacting about five million students.
The possibility of school pupils modifying and coming out with their own software has been described as by far the biggest ‘intangibles’ from using open source solutions.
So, if the UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India), is actually looking for a open source success story, it is likely to find one in government of Kerala. But there are doubts among free software movement advocates on the government-constituted body’s independence to take the right decision.

“If you ask those working in the industry (for several top software and service firms) they would admit using several open source tools and components,” said one FSMK core member. “But the point is, while everyone appreciates use of free software, there is a discomfort the moment the users form a movement to stop the software rights of people being ransacked by a few like Microsoft. When you openly call for rights, you are termed a Communist irrespective of the fact that Communists across the world were never found to be the true followers of the ideals.”
This month, the FSMK, along with an academician involved in the Universal Identity card project, is presenting a memorandum to the UIDAI asking for the agency to build the citizen database it would manage on an open platform.
The campaign also coincides with ‘software freedom day’ a series of celebrations the movement has been holding in various city colleges to create awareness amongst students and software users of the need to control the software they own.

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