European open-source enthusiasts are welcoming moves by French officials to encourage the use of open standards and open-source software in electronic-government applications.
"Many countries do open source, but only France has issued a government order which says that we should implement open source whenever possible," said spokesman Jean-Paul Smets of the EuroLinux Alliance, a group that boosts open source and the Linux operating system. "What is going to be compulsory is the open standards, and open source is going to be a recommendation."
A new agency was created in August with the task of coordinating IT efforts between different government agencies. The Agency for Information and Communication Technologies in the Administration (known by its French initials ATICA) has taken on the task of ensuring that government projects use open standards to reduce costs and redundancy, and to improve interoperability in government projects, said ATICA spokesman Gilles Bon-Maury.
Open standards play an important role in building citizen confidence in doing business with governments online, Smets said.
"There is a problem of trust between citizens and their government, related to e-government. People -- especially corporations and taxpayers -- are very much afraid of what information they are actually exchanging with the government, especially anything related to taxes," Smets said. "If you have open standards on both sides, you know how the information is exchanged on both sides; you have the possibility to check what is being exchanged. It's not like a black box of data."
As an example, he said, users want to be assured that by filing their tax returns electronically they are not opening themselves up to government snooping on their online activities -- say, by means of a "virus" installed on their PC to track what financial transactions they are conducting via the Internet.
Similarly, public agencies with a concern for security, like the military and secret services, feel safer using products where they have access to source code.
The French government also wants to encourage a decentralized software industry by allowing small companies to work on open-source government projects, rather than the concentrated software development that tends to result from proprietary products, Smets added.
Elsewhere in Europe, open-source products are catching on in government circles. Examples include the free cryptographic software Gnu Privacy Guard (GnuPG), which has received development funds from the German Ministry of Economics and Technology; the Mioga extranet toolkit, which has been installed at the French mining agency Conseil Général des Mines; and the European Union's open-source Web portal software YIHAW (Yahoo-Inspired Hierarchically Arranged Web Directory).
Also in Germany, the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, is currently considering whether to dump Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system in favor of Linux for its own machines.