Open-Source Everything: The Moral of the Debacle

Paul Ford | Business Week | October 16, 2013

...There’s a whole set of tools, methods, and processes already set up and ready to use, all embodied in the culture of open-source software development. The U.S. federal government, led by the executive branch, should make all taxpayer-funded software development open-sourced by default. In the short run, this would help to prevent the recurrence of problems like those that plague Longer term, it will lead to better, more secure software and could allow the government to deliver a range of services more effectively. And it would enrich democracy to boot.

The basic goal of the free software movement is to make useful software code available to anyone who wants it. Thirty years ago this sounded like communism, because code was seen as a kind of property. But in recent decades many people have come to believe that software code is more like a conversation. (As one famous programming textbook put it, “Programs must be written for people to read, and only incidentally for machines to execute.”) That’s why people say that free software is free as in free speech, not as in beer.

Want to open-source code? Choose a free software license and release your code online with the text of that license attached. That’s all it takes. History shows, however, that just licensing code and making it available isn’t enough. You need to create a culture around your project and engage with other people doing related work. If you do a good job of it, you and your collaborators can create great, first-class, highly secure software. Web browsers such as Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome were built this way. It’s very likely that the smartphone in your pocket is built on top of an open-source kernel.

The government has an advantage over typical open-source projects. People, including programmers, are intrinsically interested in what it’s doing, often because their lives are affected directly. If it wanted to, the U.S. could tap an army of interested coders ready to support official efforts...