Guidelines proposed by the Australian Unix Users Group (AUUG) promoting a “level playing field” between open source and proprietary software within government departments are unnecessary, according to the Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts.
While agreeing with AUUG’s proposal that software be purchased on its merits, a spokesperson for the department's Minister, Senator Richard Alston, said open source software is already being considered for its value proposition.
“Government departments do not need laws or guidelines for software procurement as they are already obliged to consider all options and select on merit,” the spokesperson said.
“AUUG’s proposed guidelines implicate that open source should be favoured and that is not appropriate as proprietary software can be just as interoperable.”
Alston’s office is adamant that NOIE (National Office for the Information Economy) is already doing its part to promote best “value for money” software procurement between open source and proprietary and will continue to do so with its seminars.
Legally, said Darren Sommers, senior associate at Herbert Geer and Rundle Lawyers, AUUG's proposals are just guidelines and would require legislation to back them before they are enforceable.
"Even if a department such as NOIE adopted AUUG's guidelines, it would need to make it law to make it a mandatory purchasing policy for its IT purchasing," Sommers said.
"If NOIE adopted an open source procurement policy, it would then need to have the power to force other government departments to follow suit for the policy to be effective. In addition, even if the federal government takes action, it may not necessarily be replicated at a state level."
As to the amount of weight such guidelines is likely to have, AUUG treasurer Gordon Hubbard said that, at this stage the group is looking at creating a community of experience around open source.
“No political parties have been engaged thus far and we are not actively trying to politicise the issue,” Hubbard said. “At this stage, we’re just letting our views be known publicly.”
AUUG’s proposal comes a week before the user group's national conference in Sydney this week where representatives from NOIE and the NSW Department of Commerce – which now incorporates the former Office of Information Technology – will discuss their respective open source activities.
“By proposing this, AUUG is drawing a distinction between preferential laws and guidelines that ensure open source software is seriously considered,” Hubbard said. “Preferential treatment is aimed at ‘open source will win’ even if it is not the best tool. The guidelines we are proposing are reasonable whereas laws are not.”
Hubbard is confident that guidelines based around “consideration” of open source are far more likely to gain government backing than mandatory legislation.
“NOIE doesn’t have the ability to enforce this; however, if government departments are seeking the best value for money, all options need to be evaluated – including open source.”
Both NOIE and the NSW Department of Commerce declined to comment but representatives from both departments will speak at AUUG's national conference in Sydney September 3 to 5.