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Netherlands commits to Free Software by default

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Written by Nico Rikken

In an open letter to the Parliament, the Dutch minister for internal affairs Raymond Knops commits to a "Free Software by default" policy and underlines its benefits for society. Current market regulations shall be reworded to allow publishing Free Software by the government.

In the 2018 budget debate, Members of the Dutch Parliament raised questions about actively publishing Free Software by the government, and an 'open source by default' policy for procurement. These questions appealed to a report earlier in 2017 on a government-ordered inquiry in the options for publishing software under a Free and Open-Source-Software-License. The report states that adopting Free Software could make the government more transparent, as well as reduce costs and stimulate the economy. Additional efforts are deemed necessary to reap these benefits by ensuring readable and secure code and supporting the community at large. However, it also underlined the possibility that the government publishing Free Software could be considered unfair competition under current market regulations. Doing so would only be legal if the government abides by a strict set of regulations, which in its current form would render such publication nearly impossible.

Picture of Dutch minister Raymond Knops
Dutch minister Raymond Knops at an Open Data award ceremony. CC-BY-2.0 Sebastiaan ter Burg

After some delay, the Dutch minister for internal affairs, Raymond Knops, has finally answered these questions by publishing a letter to the Parliament. In this letter, the minister agrees to the principle of Free Software by default ("Open Source by default") for procurement, which can be considered a parallel to the 'comply or explain' policy that is already in effect for the adoption of open standards. The minister also agrees to the government actively developing and publishing Free Software. The letter comes with a summation of benefits that are similar to the ones mentioned in our "Public Money? Public Code!" campaign. Still, some reservations are mentioned: exceptions shall be made for information that could compromise national or governmental security and for information considered a privacy risk. Additionally, the letter states that it might not be worth taking on the additional effort of converting existing software into Free Software, making this policy mostly applicable for new projects.

In the attachment to the letter, the minister takes note of ongoing efforts in the public sector and makes detailed promises of enabling and encouraging a Free Software community in the public sector. One of these is a promise to investigate possible changes to the current market regulations in order to make exceptions for publishing Free Software by the government. This will remove the current legal grey area. A new procurement policy will also be adopted: Free Software by default is the way to go, and the government and its institutions will actively start to publish Free Software. The minister will report on the progress of these measures in the beginning of 2021.

"At the FSFE we welcome this policy and we will monitor the progress together with our strong partners in the Netherlands." says Nico Rikken, the FSFE's coordinator for the Netherlands. "We also invite Dutch national and local governments to sign our open letter that demands that publicly financed software developed for the public sector be made publicly available under a Free Software licence."

The Public Money? Public Code! campaign aims to set Free Software as the standard for publicly financed software. Public administrations following this principle can benefit from collaboration with other public bodies, independence from single vendors, potential tax savings, increased innovation, and a better basis for IT security. The Free Software Foundation Europe together with over 180 civil society organisations and more than 27.000 individuals signed the Open Letter. We will use the signatures to contact decision makers and political representatives all over Europe and convince them to make public code the standard. You are invited to add your signature to make a bigger impact.

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