Amidst yesterday’s mass protests in Burma and Philippine Senate’s grilling of COMELEC Chair Abalos and former NEDA chief Neri about the NBN/ZTE controversy, a roundtable discussion about Bayan Muna’s proposed FOSS Act Bill took place in UP’s College of Law. And it’s hard to tell whether the bill warrants the policymakers’ attention, at least at this point in time.
I came to the forum impressed. Nuh, it had no relation to the forum but was about the Malcolm building, which gave me the eerie feeling of being in a maze, much less a haunted place. High ceilings, dim corners, almost no signages anywhere, and hidden doors. I was also impressed by the setup of the Sta. Ana Room (is it UP Law’s typical classroom setup?) with its rising rows of seats.
The forum was well-attended. It was SRO even. Here’s the cheat sheet: A throng of students of Prof. JJ Dissini (and of Prof. Dizon, too?) were there, one of whom told my seat mate that their attendance in there was not mandatory but ‘highly encouraged.’ The students were scattered around the place, some of whom maximized the time for other concerns. Perhaps they were dividing attention to the forum’s topic and their reviewing for their finals next month?
Now, to the topic: Mandating the use of free and open source software (FOSS) in government agencies and encouraging private and public sectors to use FOSS. Rep. Ted Casiño graced the forum by explaining the Bill to the attendees. He presented the Bill’s main features and benefits:
Proposed FOSS Bill (RA 1716)
- It declares as state policy the use of open source software products developed by Filipinos (Sec. 2);
- It defines open standards and FOSS and mandates the government to recognize licenses in this area (Sec. 3,4,5,6);
- It mandates the use of open standards and FOSS in the public sector, except in extraordinary circumstances as determined by public hearing (Sec. 5, 6, 7);
- It gives preference for Filipino-owned ICT companies in the government’s procurement of FOSS goods and services (Sec. 8);
- In the private sector, the bill promotes the use of FOSS and open standards through non-fiscal incentives (Sec. 10);
- It promotes FOSS and opens standards in educational institutions and prohibits schools from offering certification programs exclusively for proprietary software (Sec. 9);
- It bans the patenting of software (Sec. 11);
- It mandates the CICT to oversee the law’s implementation and creates the Office on FOSS Migration as an attached agency to ensure this (Sec. 13, 14, 15);
- It sets targets for FOSS migration for the first five years of the Act’s implementations (Sec. 13).
- Guard the people’s right to access public information;
- Lower the overall cost of ICT in the public and private sectors;
- Make IT more accessible to a greater number of users;
- Unlock the potential and encourage the development of a self-reliant, genuinely Filipino IT industry; and,
- Provide greater security for highly sensitive government and private information systems.
To explain the concept of FOSS to the uninitiated, the Congressman unleashed his favorite analogy: Pinakbet. The name is not copyrighted and the recipe is in the public domain. People are not prohibited to modify the recipe to come up with their own versions of Pinakbet. Had the Pinakbet been copyrighted, pinakbet would not be popular. And to prove the feasibility of FOSS, he mentioned Venezuela as among the countries that mandated FOSS in government.
Towards the end of his talk, Rep. Casiño admitted that the FOSS Act Bill has been in a stiff battle. In fact, in the previous Congress, only three legislators expressed support of the bill. It underwent only one hearing and was overtaken by events. This Congress, Bayan Muna wanted to breathe a new life to it by refiling it as House Bill 1716. He further told the attendees that the Congress itself has been a captive market for Microsoft, because the latter has been able to set up an E-learning center in Congress and provided free laptops (?) to few congresspersons. Although, he couldn’t see why government cannot see the light. “My entire office has gone open source already. The Supreme Court already uses OpenOffice, and so does the DOJ,” he enthused. Finally, he said that there’s nothing wrong with free choice so long as it is an informed one.
The Congressman had to leave immediately after his talk. But he left behind him his Chief of Staff, Marco Polo (?), whom he assigned to answer questions for him during an open forum afterwards. Two lawyers gave their reactions to the bill. Atty. Dizon, I understand the Bill’s consultant, gave his own take about the positive aspects of the bill, namely: a) developing local capacity and industry, b) reducing imports, conserving foreign exchange, c) enhancing national security, d) reducing copyright infringement, e) enabling localization, f) increasing competition, g) access to information, and h) encouraging cooperation.
Atty. Dizon further gave his comments. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make out all of what he said but the ones that I picked up were that the bill: a) is aggressive in policy and targets, b) has not elaborated further on the definition of FOSS, and, c) must not merely focus on the TCO side but on the technology transfer and access to know-how. Then, it was Atty. Dissini’s turn to speak. He seemed to suggest that FOSS must be subjected to the marketplace. If FOSS is not yet ready for the market and government gives special treatment of it, then we’re in for a big trouble in the end. FOSS must be able to compete with the proprietary softwares in terms of companies that are ready to provide FOSS services.
At the open forum, Prof. Feria was the first one to give his view of the bill. He feared that the bill will fail just because there is not enough infrastructure to support the adoption of FOSS. FMA’s Al Alegre agreed with Prof. Feria and further advised that to make sure that we won’t practicaly lose at the end, we may either come up with a separate bill on the bill’s ‘winnable’ aspects or change the bill so that it softens on the radical aspects and highlights the acceptable ones. He specified ‘open standards and open formats’ as two of these aspects. He also advised that the Bill consider the eco-system that currently prevails as far as softwares and ICT are concerned.
A director from a government-owned corporation that provides ICT services to government services (I didn’t get the names) described the bill as “a loaded gun poked on a child.” He claimed that the Bill misses out on the realities. He said that government lacks the mechanisms for successful ICT projects as well as the expertise to sustain them. It’s not enough that you provide softwares without giving consideration of support. His point was basically echoed by another lady who claimed to be a “partner” of Microsoft and Oracle and an open source advocate herself. (I think that she said that she’s been involved in POSITIVE [Philippine Open Source Initiative] that aims to promote open source technologies in institutions and key industries. She said that there are already 240 schools that have adopted open source in various ways.)
That lady sounded like mouthpiece of the proprietary software world, despite her saying that she’s an open source advocate and that FOSS and proprietary softwares can co-exist. She said that people should be given a free choice particularly in situations when proprietary solutions are better than open source ones. She also said that mandating FOSS will kill the software industry. I found her funny by saying that government cannot automatically choose FOSS because it’s a (product) brand, a no-no in the procurement process. What?
I was surprised by the apparent unpreparedness of the Rep. Casino’s Chief of Staff to react to the points raised. He could only participate or engage in the discussion through general statements and an assurance that the points raised by the participants will be considered. Also, when I asked him if BM will get prepared during Congress hearings through feasibility studies, he did not answer directly. He just said that Cong. Casino will be prepared to face the Congressmen. When Al asked him how many Congressmen have signified support for the bill, he initially said that the Bill is not actually difficult to seek supporters as it “crosses party lines”, and later said there are 10 (in contrast to 3 that Casino was quoted by inquirer.net). When further pushed to specify the names, he could not do so except to name Peter Cayetano and Chiz Escudero, who are now Senators themselves. I could only imagine that four of the 10 supporters are representatives from Bayan Muna, Gabriela, and Anakpawis. I think that the Bill, as it is today, is more acceptable under a more democratic (or socialist) government, or when government leaders truly espouse national sovereignty and people-based development.
Indeed, the proposed Bill, with all its noble intentions, will be in a very stiff battle in Congress. If Bayan Muna will not consider the comments from both the progressives who are not necessarily radical and techies who are not necessarily conservative or close-minded, the Bill will just become a losing battle. For the first type, has BM really consulted those outside its own network? For the second type, has BM tried to rub elbows with “Microsoft-friendly” software developers and user communities?
As the bill touches on highly ideological and theoretical concepts, BM must exhaust all means to debate with those with contending views.
I think that it would be better if Bayan Muna goes back to the drawing board and reflects: Are we really doing a great service to FOSS by not letting it fail in the end? I’m an out-and-out FOSS advocate (I bash Windows at the slightest opportunity) so I don’t want my FOSS advocacy, our FOSS advocacy, to fail. After all, our advocacies are not only confined at the halls of Congress. With our without the bill, we need to increase the FOSS tribe down to the grassroots level. And I’m sure that if there’s critical mass to push for FOSS, the FOSS bill, with all the necessary changes to it, will win hands down.
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