The Dutch government wants to tie the country's schools to a single software vendor for years to come. Dutch students using Free Software or devices without Silverlight-support will find themselves locked out of schools' online systems due to the use of proprietary technology and closed standards. Marja Bijsterveldt, the secretary of education, recently said that she is unwilling to enforce the Dutch government's own Open Standards policy on educational institutions. Instead, the government will accept long-term vendor lock-in of educational institutions.
Unlocking the Dutch educational system
We want to enable all citizens to have free access to education and all other public institutions, both online and offline. We wish to achieve this by pushing for a mandatory use of Open Standards and guaranteed platform-independent access to all materials required in the public educational system. This allows students and parents to use Free Software, enabling them to tap into their potential for personal growth and development, without being made dependent of a company.
What do we want to achieve?
- pursue the goals of the (unfortunately) discontinued action plan "Netherlands Open in Connection" by making the use of Open Standards truly mandatory for all institutions in the (semi-)public sector;
- make vendor-independent access to all IT services, school materials and necessary information a requirement for all publicly-funded (educational) institutions;
- promote innovative education in IT skills by broadening the educational program with vendor-independent knowledge, insights, and skill sets;
- avoid vendor lock-ins, monopoly abuse, and anti-competitive practices which take away civilians' freedom of choice within the entire public sector, primarily the educational system;
- avoid the forced acceptance of license agreements with commercial companies in order to be allowed to take part of the educational system and the rest of the public sector.
In the Netherlands, students have been locked out of school computers, learning accessories, lesson materials, and required data for years due to the use of proprietary software. They are forced to purchase proprietary software just to perform the most basic tasks; such as handing in their assignments, receiving objectives, cooperating on projects, and passing exams. Many schools and especially universities oblige students to use or even own computers with non-free operating systems without any clear reasons for doing so. Moreover, this situation could become much worse now that 'laptop schools' and 'tablet schools' are on the rise, which, combined with compulsory education - of which the minimal age might be increased to 21 years - will not only make it hard to use Free Software in the educational system, but it would even make it illegal not to use proprietary software instead.
The former minister of Education declared, in response to questions from Parliament, that she considered long-term vendor lock-in to be acceptable. Thereby she rejected the ambitious Dutch Open Standards policy framework and ignored the short-term and long-term consequences:
- the enforced purchase of proprietary computer technology just to be able to participate in public education is illegal and unconstitutional, as it takes away the right of civilians who do not accept the license agreements of non-free software to participate in the public educational system, which should be accessible for everybody without any obstacles or limitations;
- it limits educational institutions to offer only constrained, vendor-specific skill sets aimed at very few proprietary programs, rather than providing truly universal, independent theoretical knowledge;
- it reduces the innovative strength of the Dutch economy as the educational systems don't provide it with a sufficiently trained, technologically independent labour force;
- it forces Dutch companies, organizations, and governmental institutions to spend billions of euros each year on re-training personnel, doing unnecessary and enforced hardware upgrades, and paying unnecessary license fees.
In the spring of 2012, after the cabinet crisis, the campaign went on hiatus, as obviously no new policies could be formed at that time.
Early 2013 the campaign was revived after yet another letter was sent to the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science; this time to new minister Jet Bussemaker. Her response was far more useful than the one of her predecessor, and has brought us closest to our ultimate target so far. In her response to questions from Parliament, she made the following clear statement: "All Dutch civilians have the right to take part in the Dutch educational system without limitations. This is also the case for Free Software users. No exception must be made for them."
In reality, this promise is seldom lived up to. Although this campaign was at first initiated because of the many problems around the notorious online learning environment Magister, and the most recent campaign was yet again brought to life because of this, the problems are sadly much larger than only that. Nearly three quarters of the high schools in the Netherlands use Magister, a Silverlight program which is obviously completely incompatible with Free Software, but aside from that, there are huge problems concerning open document standards, such as ODF and PDF. Despite the fact that Mrs. Bussemaker literally said that schools are obligated to accept both formats, this is rarely the case anywhere. Students are very regularly forced to save their documents as DOC files, and usually face point deduction in case the lay-out proves to be problematic with the non-free office software installed on the school computers (which is unavoidable with closed standards).
Moreover, it is impossible to follow any education at any Dutch university without being forced to use non-free operating systems and other non-free software, and thereby accepting the associated license agreements. Many courses even have owning a laptop with Microsoft Windows as an implicit admission requirement. Despite the fact that the current minister of Education "acknowledges the limitations in the license agreements of non-free software", educational institutions rarely, if ever, act upon that.
Using proprietary technologies for public services is a deliberate choice for long-term vendor lock-in and forced contract acceptance. This should be prevented at all times; especially in education and the public sector at large. The FSFE wants to push the mandatory use of Open Standards and platform independence in the entire public sector; not just within Dutch legislation, but throughout all of Europe. The Dutch Parliament has been advocating the mandatory use of Open Standards for more than a decade; ever since the resolution of Kees Vendrik in 2002. This led to an ambitious and internationally acclaimed policy framework in 2007. Sadly, this achievement was hampered by the previous minister of Education. She refused to implement the policies, and because of that, schools continued to use proprietary technology and closed standards nearly exclusively. The result was that their students remained to be forced to use proprietary software of specific vendors and to accept the accompanying license agreements against their will. The response of the current minister of Education promises to be a lot more hopeful though. Even though there are many things left to do, her statements at least made clear that she agrees that the current situation is not what we should wish for at all. Using those claims, public educational institutions might finally understand that public education can hardly be called "public" when only the users of non-free software are accepted and welcomed.
This campaign aims to bring about new and sturdier legislation which obligates the use of Open Standards and platform independence, and especially maintains it. That always remained to be the biggest problem: we do have the basic legislation, but nobody seems to care about actually enforcing it. The public educational system exists for everybody; not just for those who have no problems with using proprietary software.
How can I contribute?
- Subscribe to the discussion list!
- Running this campaign in the long run, will cost money. A financial contribution will always be apreciated.
- Stand up for your civil rights: refuse to use proprietary software, whatever the school or university might say. They may never force you to use it.
- Write about your experiences. Politicians and journalists are better listeners than many people might expect. The more of us tell them that the current situation is problematic, the greater the chance that they will (quickly) take action.
- Spread the word, try to convince others, and especially hold on to your ideals; no matter what happens.