Open Source Government: Several notes on the Russian Free Software Development Concept

Russian Ministry on Information Technology and Communications published recently a document entitled Concept of development and usage of Free Software in the Russian Federation (Russian). It is a 29-page text, which is by far the most detailed roadmap of government involvement in Free Software. The legal status of this document is not very strong: in the recent Russian governmental tradition a ‘concept’ is a kind of a detailed policy declaration, which may not be fully observed or may even be rejected or forgotten after a short period of time. However, it may serve as groundwork for future projects and more specific policy measures. Thus, even though a concept document does not create anything by itself, its availability is necessary for creation of good things.

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The concept contains a detailed list of the proposed projects divided into three groups: legal, infrastructure and R&D and is scheduled up until 2010.

The first positive thing about the document is that operates the term Free Software (Russian is one of the languages where you cannot confuse ‘free beer’ with ‘free speech’).

The concept aims to strengthen the local software development industry and increase involvement of Russian programmers in development of software for government and municipal needs. The latter aim may be viewed as an acknowledgement of the fact that there are not enough Russian developers building software for the local needs and that the government demand is higher than supply.

The primary directions of government involvement are: improvement of the legal framework, help in creation of the market infrastructure, R&D projects and wide-scale training.

The legal block

Russia is one of the countries where the American FLOSS licenses do not always look applicable. The particular problems targeted by the concept are:

  • the ‘written form’ of the copyright agreement required by the Russian Civil Code (there is a special exception for software, but the status of Free Software documentation remains unclear)
  • applicability of foreign law and court jurisdiction in international lawsuits
  • individual applicability of FOSS licenses
  • copyright management in government software-related contracts (both the state as a customer and the executor of a state contract must have sufficient rights)

Development infrastructure

This might be the most surprising and contradictory part of the document. The government plans to build a reference package building environment, a unified software repository for different platforms (including operating systems, basic development tools, middleware etc.), tracking of all the software titles used in government and tools for automatic certification of software that corresponds to particular standards.

This ‘infrastructure’ is viewed as the platform for community participation in development of FOSS for Russian government and a multi-featured tracking and management tool for various kinds of software used throughout the government. The specific infrastructure actions include conduction of government-sponsored development competitions, definition of priority projects, maintaining of an up-to-date list of recommended standards and specifications etc.

R&D priorities

The following projects are the top priorities for software development projects:

  1. full-featured office solutions for public sector users
  2. common software packages for educational supplements
  3. software packages for collective Internet access points
  4. software for government services websites
  5. integration platform for e-government
  6. secure solutions for critical deployments
  7. development of service-oriented model of software distribution

There is much to criticize about the concept. In particular, the whole legal block seems not very important to me, and it is difficult to tell who will do the necessary development for the R&D projects taking the lack of established FOSS vendors in the country into account.

Nevertheless, FOSS has got very official acknowledgment, the government has set very ambitious targets, and the whole document, its structure and language show that it is built upon the Russian experience and is not a product of bare creativity or a borrowing of other countries’ policies. Hopefully, this progress in policy development will help to grow the local FOSS production, which is by far not as large as the government (and all of us) would wish.

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