Open-Source Activists Protest SCO, Microsoft Anti-Linux Lobbying On Capitol Hill

Many fume over SCO letter that calls open source a threat to national security.
Open-source activists gathered at LinuxWorld Expo late last week to protest what they say are anti-Linux campaigns being spearheaded on Capitol Hill by rivals the SCO Group and Microsoft.

Thursday evening, Linux lobbyists, academics, programmers and ISVs predicted the political battle will heighten as Linux gains ground on the desktop, and as governments worldwide--including the U.S. federal government and several U.S. states--consider adopting open-source procurement policies.

"The challenge is going to be in the political and legislative arena, and we think there will be some serious obstacles," said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Open Source & Industry Alliance (OSIA), which hosted a panel on the issue late last week at the Javits Center in New York. "We have seen fingerprints of companies trying to get U.S. government advisers to advocate positions that cause problems for open source."

Several attendees at the LinuxWorld panel blamed that on political interference by large proprietary software companies, namely SCO and Microsoft.

At the panel Thursday, many protested in particular a letter SCO's CEO recently sent to members of Congress claiming that open-source software--and Linux in particular--is a threat to the U.S. IT industry, the nation's international competitive position, American jobs and national security.

"Open-source software has the potential to provide our nation's enemies or potential enemies with computing capabilities that are restricted by U.S. law," wrote SCO CEO Darl McBride, in his Jan. 9 letter. "I'm bringing these troubling issues to your attention to ask you to consider them whenever you are discussing or voting on issues of the economy, intellectual property, and national security," McBride's letter to Congress states.

A SCO spokesman confirmed the letter was mailed out to all members of Congress earlier this month.

In the letter, McBride acknowledged that company executives have met with several government agencies to dissuade them from approving procurement policies that recommend or mandate open-source alternatives.

SCO simply wants its voice heard in Washington, a SCO spokesman said.

"The last time I checked, sending a letter to Congress isn't considered a strong-arm tactic," said Blake Stowell, a spokesman for the Lindon, Utah-based Unix software provider. "There wasn't even a call to action. We just want [members of Congress] to consider the issues and to help inform and educate them about the issues."

SCO, Microsoft and some industry trade groups say they are lobbying against what they call "preference" policies that favor one type of software --open-source software--over proprietary software.

They also claim that they are reacting to political efforts initiated by the open-source community to alter the process by which software is selected and purchased.

As many open-source activists fumed about the SCO letter, one ISV and panelist at the LinuxWorld session claimed Microsoft is also stepping up its lobbying efforts in Washington as the threat of open-source adoption on the desktop has increased.

"Linux on the desktop works, but now that we're winning, we're getting some powerful enemies," said Brian Behlendorf, CTO of Collabnet, Brisbane, Calif., who maintains the anti-Linux rhetoric from SCO and Microsoft is unfounded but damaging because some elected officials will fall prey to it.

"It's not silly to the people who matter, congressmen and local and state politicians," said Behlendorf. "SCO is spreading a lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt. We need to wake up and be more politically active. There's a new front at the political level."

Several U.S. states including California, Texas, Oklahoma, Oregon and Delaware have attempted to adopt policies that either favor adoption of open-source software over proprietary software, or require consideration of open source, but none have made their way through the legislature yet.

At the LinuxWorld Expo panel, Oregon State Rep. Phil Barnhart said he sponsored an Open Source/Open Standards bill in the state legislature that would have required agencies to consider open-source alternatives as part of the state procurement policy, but it was killed the day of the hearing.

A similar bill was later proposed in the state senate, but "then it was pulled," said Rep. Barnhart, who said he suspects politics were at work, namely involvement by Microsoft lobbyists. "The Speaker of the House wasn't interested in pursuing the bill because Microsoft had gotten into the process," the senator said at the panel discussion.

Microsoft did not respond to that comment as of press time.

Massachusetts' more recent effort to implement an open-source policy through administrative rule, announced in September, is facing major resistance--and political pressure from above, observers claim.

Following a public hearing in December, state IT officials that endorse the policy--namely Massachusetts Secretary of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss--changed the wording of the proposed preference policy from "open source" to "open standards" but opponents are working to defeat the measure by challenging the authority of those officials to mandate such a change.

CompTIA's Initiative For Software Choice, founded in late 2002, is opposed to both "hard preference" policies that mandate use of one source and "soft preference" policies that favor open source or open standards, said a CompTIA executive.

One executive at CompTIA said the organization testified at a public hearing to try to defeat the measure on behalf of member companies such as Microsoft. "In Massachusetts, [the issue] was taken over by agencies with unclear authority [to enact such changes]," said Mike Wendy, policy counsel for CompTIA. "It's in a holding pattern."

Despite the pushback, open-source activists say they will continue to try to enact policies that will reduce software licensing costs for taxpayers. The city of New York, for instance, is looking into such a provision.

"Last April, we had an open-source hearing and people came from both sides," said New York City Council Member Gale Brewer, who attended the event last week. "We'll have another one."

Black said lobbying efforts by the OSIA, an affiliate of the CCIA, are beginning to pay off. He said the U.S. Department of Homeland Defense--which announced publicly last summer that it had selected Microsoft as the preferred supplier of server and desktop software--is warming up to open source and said it is committed to diversity in software procurements, Black said.

Increasing use of Linux within the U.S. Department of Defense has been well-documented over the past several years. Recent efforts by Microsoft lobbyists to slow down use of open source use by that department has not been well-received, said Tony Stanco, an attorney and associate director of the Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute at George Washington University, Washington.

"The [Department of Defense] takes its job seriously in protecting the country. If they can scare down Russia, some guy with big bucks doesn't scare them," said Stanco, claiming that Microsoft's lobbying efforts have backfired. "When Microsoft started to lobby, they started to lose some [Department of Defense] friends."

Microsoft did not respond to questions about the matter as of press time. However, in a general statement issued to CRN on Friday, Microsoft said it continues to partner with governments worldwide and bring to the table issues that are of importance to it, just as open-source organizations and Linux companies push forth their own interests.

The Redmond, Wash., company also said it is trying to promote a neutral playing field for all software development models, one key executive said.

"Like others in the commercial software industry, Microsoft believes that governments should not mandate the development and licensing models that may be used by software providers, and should not favor any particular development model over any other. Procurement decisions should be based on the overall merits and value of the software under consideration," said Martin Taylor, general manager for Platform Strategies at Microsoft, in a written statement to CRN.

"Microsoft believes in a healthy software ecosystem--one that includes both the commercial software model and the open-source model and one that allows both models to compete equally on their merits," Taylor added. "We believe that all classes of software should be carefully analyzed with a view of the long-term value that the solution provides."

Cyber Security's Stanco acknowledged the power and ample funds of proprietary software vendors but is optimistic that the value of open source will usher its widespread acceptance--whether or not open-source policies are enacted.

"There' a steady oppression, and people are trying to push us back," said Stanco at the panel last week. "But it will have to be real raw political power at the top [to stop open source] because it's the people at the top who have bought into open source.

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