GitHub Forum Highlights Public Views on Open Source in U.S. Government

Christopher Tozzi, Technology Analyst

April 8, 2016

3 Min Read
GitHub Forum Highlights Public Views on Open Source in U.S. Government


What's good about open source software, what are its limits and how should it be used in government? These are issues that the public is now debating vigorously in a new forum created by the U.S. government following its recent push to make more government-owned code open.

The backstory: Last month, the federal government used GitHub to solicit public comments on draft guidelines that would require federal agencies to make more use of open source code. Among other requirements, the proposal would mandate that at least twenty percent of federally owned code be released as open source.

Comments on the idea offer an insightful window into how people today are thinking about open source. A public forum like this one on open source software is rare -- especially since the GitHub comments represent the views not just of geeks, but of a wide group of stakeholders. They reveal some notable motivations, misunderstandings and concerns regarding open source code, including:

  • A strong desire (expressed by a number of commenters) for the government to make code "open by default," rather than requiring that only a certain percentage of it be open source. Part of the criticism here has to do with making the government go further in adopting open source. But also at stake is the problem that the requirement to open-source twenty percent of code is ambiguous: Does it mean twenty percent of an agency's programs have to be open source, only twenty percent of its total code, or something else?

  • Demands to use the term "free software" as well as "open source" in reference to publicly available code. This concern reflects a familiar debate within the free and open source software community, but not one that has previously had much currency in government affairs.

  • The suggestion to adopt open standards when open source code itself is not practical (although this particular comment seems to express the belief that it is not feasible to use open source for complex software platforms, which is arguably not true at all).

  • The suggestion to clarify which types of licensing or public-domain status qualify software as open source. This is an issue on which no one is likely to agree totally. But it still could not hurt for the government to be more specific in explaining what it means license-wise when it writes about open source.

  • An urge to make sure code is not only open, but also secure. Some of the commentary on this suggestion seems to reflect a lingering sense among the public that software whose source code anyone can read could be more easily exploited by attackers.

  • A note that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which makes it illegal for governments under certain circumstances to require that code be open source, seems to contradict both the spirit and the terms of the new federal proposal. The threat that the TPP poses to open source has received little press, but it's a big issue, and discussion of the new government guidelines could help spur a healthier debate about this.

To be sure, there's much more to say about open source than what has appeared on GitHub so far. But this is a novel and original debate about open source software's merits for government agencies. Whatever the final outcome of the new federal proposal, the GitHub forum has perhaps brought more attention to open source's usefulness for the public at large than such software has received since the late 1990s.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Technology Analyst, Fixate.IO

Christopher Tozzi is a technology analyst with subject matter expertise in cloud computing, application development, open source software, virtualization, containers and more. He also lectures at a major university in the Albany, New York, area. His book, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” was published by MIT Press.

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