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You are here: Home Bulletins 2016 fall Free software takes root in the White House gardens

Free software takes root in the White House gardens

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Nov 02, 2016 12:28 PM

A very exciting thing happened this year: the FSF had a positive impact on US government policy at the highest level. We did not get anything close to a total victory, but we did help get free software blooming where it has not bloomed before.

On August 8, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published a Federal Source Code Policy at The FSF influenced this policy in two ways. First, we were consulted earlier in the year to answer questions about how free software licenses work and what kind of policy we thought would be best. Second, when a draft version of that policy was published for public comment, we participated, and rallied others to do so.

After the public comment period, the OMB updated and adopted the policy. The policy now:

...establishes a pilot program that requires agencies, when commissioning new custom software, to release at least 20 percent of new custom-developed code as Open Source Software (OSS) for three years, and collect additional data concerning new custom software to inform metrics to gauge the performance of this pilot.

It focuses on values like reducing cost, avoiding lock-in, and reducing inefficiency.

In our comment, we urged the OMB to require all covered software be released as free software, we emphasized the importance of also requiring associated documentation to be freely licensed, and we advocated for inclusion of the Free Software Definition in order to foreground ethical values. It is certainly worthwhile to reduce inefficiency in government, but the reasons governments should use free software are much bigger than that: preserving their own autonomy and protecting the freedom of their citizens.

Unfortunately, the policy took some steps backward after the public comment period. Where the draft version required that all code written by federal agencies be released to the public, and 20% of the code written by contractors, the final version lowered the agency employee requirement to be the same as contractors. While the policy does require documentation to be provided along with code, it does not require that this documentation be provided under a free license.

Despite these setbacks, the published policy is a sizable step forward, and is heartening to see. And, they did adopt one critical aspect of our comment: the Free Software Definition. This gives us something to build on, and we should continue to push for substantial improvements.

We are happy that The Free Software Definition was added as a reference, but it should be much more prominent than that. It is ethical values that should be the basis for the policy, rather than the secondary benefit of efficiencies in software sharing between agencies.

The policy should also not rely so much on Github. We do commend the White House for accepting comments on the draft policy via email, and not requiring the proprietary JavaScript used on, but this same philosophy needs to extend to implementation of the policy, so that citizens are not required or strongly steered to use a single company's site to participate in government code projects, especially not one with a number of problems when it comes to free software values.

We will need to work not just to improve the policy, but to ensure its future. A new boss will move into the White House in January, and the policy says that the results of its three-year "pilot" program could lead to changes. The OMB could decide to raise the 20% requirement to 100% -- or scrap it altogether.

Here are the three most important things you can do right now to help, no matter where you are.

1) Engage with the code that is released under this policy. Use it, file issue reports, submit patches for documentation and code, and encourage them. Opposition inside government to policies like this includes claims that there is no point in releasing custom government software, that it is just extra overhead.

2) Make your voice heard. You can continue to discuss this particular policy at You can advocate in your state and country for similar (but better!) policies. You can use the LibrePlanet wiki at as a base for coordinating on advocacy materials.

3) Support the FSF financially. We should celebrate this policy as progress, but we wanted and want much more. If we had been equipped with more staff resources, we could have had a greater impact. The next time there is an opportunity, we want to be stronger and do better.

The US Federal Government has a substantial influence on the software market. Analysts routinely predict it will spend over $2 trillion on hardware, software, and related services each year. If we can encourage and expand this latest policy, so that more of this money is flowing into free software development, it could make a tremendous difference in the culture of software worldwide.

Despite its shortcomings, the policy shows a lot about visibility of the free software movement and use of free software. It is consistent with the theme of our 2017 LibrePlanet conference: "the roots of freedom." The movement's roots anchor a growing structure; it may appear weak at the furthest reaches, but it can get stronger as the underlying root system expands. What we have in this policy are only the first buds of software freedom; but the fact that they made it to such heights says a lot about the strength of the roots we have been growing for 31 years. We should celebrate it as a success, but as usual, keep watering the garden.

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