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Government should use free software

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 [email protected] 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.