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Sovereign workspace openDesk: German Ministry of the Interior provides answers

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The German Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) and the public IT service provider Dataport are working on administrative workspaces to enable digital sovereignty. But are both products Free Software? How are they related? We asked the BMI and publish the answers here.

Image showing a computer with the dphoenix suit on it

In June, the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) sent a catalogue of questions to the BMI about its “Sovereign Workspace” project. Our questions covered the relationship between the BMI workspace and Dataport's dPhoenixSuite, the funding of both projects, and the availability of their respective source code.

New developments: openDesk code available, dPhoenixSuite still proprietary

Some weeks later, the BMI released the first source code of its workspace suite as Free Software on openCoDE, the code repository for public administration. According to extensive documentation, the release is an alpha version, with the first operational release planned for later this year. The documentation states that the suite will be released entirely under Free Software licences and will include modules such as Univention Corporate Server, Collabora Online, Nextcloud, OpenProject, XWiki, Jitsi and the Matrix client Element. Extensibility through new and alternative modules is planned. The suite was renamed "openDesk" a few weeks ago. As of 2024, the coordination and management of openDesk will be completely handed over to the Centre for Digital Sovereignty (ZenDiS GmbH). ZenDiS was founded at the end of 2022 to bundle the German government's digital sovereignty initiatives, and is fully state-owned.

In contrast, Dataport has not yet released the source code for its workspace suite. The dPhoenixSuite contains numerous Free Software components and is advertised as "open source", "based on open source" and "digitally sovereign". This gives the false impression that dPhoenixSuite is Free Software. Dataport has not yet taken any steps to correct this impression or to actually make the suite available as Free Software.

BMI: Dataport collaborates intensively on openDesk

Meanwhile, FSFE has received the BMI's response to our questions. The answers clarify that Dataport plays an important role in the development of openDesk, especially in the architectural design and operational development of the product, and receives public funding from the BMI for this. For 2023 alone, the BMI has earmarked 21.6 million euros for openDesk. However, it remains unclear what proportion of this funding is passed on to Dataport. There is also a lack of transparency about how much of the funding will actually go to the companies driving the development and integration of the modules used in openDesk.

According to the BMI, there are overlaps between openDesk and the older dPhoenixSuite, which has mainly influenced the architecture of openDesk. However, the Ministry emphasises the independence of its openDesk suite: "The Sovereign Workspace is building its own architecture. [...] The Sovereign Workspace is an independent project. […] To what extent Dataport aligns its dPhoenixSuite with it is up to Dataport". The BMI does not disclose to what extent dPhoenix code has been incorporated into openDesk. The Ministry states that it did not influence Dataport to make the dPhoenixSuite available as Free Software.

The full BMI response can be found here.

Dataport must take a stand

So far, when asked about the dPhoenixSuite code, Dataport has referred to the source code of the included modules and to the BMI's openDesk project. The BMI's answers make it clear once again: Despite some similarities and organisational entanglements, dPhoenixSuite and openDesk are two different products. Dataport can no longer shift the responsibility for releasing its own source code onto the BMI, but must take a stand: if the dPhoenixSuite is to be a digitally sovereign workspace for public administrations, then Dataport should finally make the complete dPhoenix code available under a Free Software licence, ideally compliant with the openDesk reference implementation and not as a competing product.

However, BMI's response also contains a reference to possible proprietary components of the dPhoenixSuite. If Dataport continues with its proprietary strategy, and if the suite does contain proprietary code, it should no longer be advertised with the misleading terms "digitally sovereign" and "open source". In this case, Dataport should also correct the previous misleading communication by stating on its website that the suite is not Free Software to avoid any impression of open-washing.

openDesk needs transparency and efficiency

Regarding the openDesk workspace, its funding and its links to the dPhoenixSuite, the BMI's answers only partially provide the necessary transparency. However, the publication of the openDesk code and its open development on openCoDE are important steps in the right direction. The documentation and announcements about the future of the openDesk project also give reason for cautious optimism that a fully-fledged Free Software workspace for administrations might soon be available.

In the future, the BMI and ZenDiS should not only manage the development of openDesk transparently, but also make the governance of the project transparent and understandable to the public – a prerequisite for openDesk to gain trust and acceptance in public administrations. Transparency is also the only way to ensure that public funds for openDesk are used efficiently and actually contribute to the development of Free Software.

The FSFE has recently called on the German government to increase funding for Free Software instead of cutting it, as is currently planned in the 2024 budget. Since openDesk is a major digital sovereignty project of this legislative period, there should be more budget for it, and that money should be used for actual Free Software development, feature implementation, maintenance, and integration of the modules. The BMI must finally make the organisational development of ZenDiS a priority and thereby secure Free Software projects for public administration in the long term.

The FSFE will continue to monitor developments around openDesk and the dPhoenixSuite. If you have any relevant information, you're welcome to share it with us.

Free Software and "Public Money? Public Code!”

Free Software gives everyone the right to use, study, share, and improve applications for any purpose. These freedoms ensure that similar applications do not have to be programmed from scratch every time and, thanks to transparent processes, others do not have to reinvent the wheel. In large projects, expertise and costs can be shared and applications paid for by the general public are available to all. This promotes innovation and saves taxpayers money in the medium to long term. Dependencies on vendors are minimised and security issues can be fixed more easily. The Free Software Foundation Europe, together with over 200 organisations and administrations, is therefore calling for “Public Money? Public Code!” - If it is public money, it should be public code as well. More information on the initiative is available on the “Public Money? Public Code!” website.