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Nurturing open source is in our national interest

More than 85 per cent of India’s Internet runs on Free and open-source software (FOSS). It is ubiquitous in our lives and serves as the backbone of operating systems, digital public infrastructure, communication platforms and the Internet. However, due to its decentralised nature, open-source is underappreciated, and we are often unaware of its existence.

The recent log4j security vulnerability showed the extent of our dependence on FOSS. The White House National Security Council even had a meeting in January 2022 with tech giants and open-source organisations to identify paths to prevent such incidents in the future. It is not surprising that it takes a security breach that threatens the most powerful governments and companies for us to think about the extent of our dependence on open-source software.

Free and open-source software is software where the source code is openly shared, and it is free to use, copy, study and change. As Richard Stallman puts it, “Think free, as in free speech, not free beer.” Open-source principles can be applied across verticals such as software, hardware, content, algorithms and standards. The gains from these various open-source technologies far outweigh the costs associated with them, and they accrue to stakeholders across the market, society, individual and government categories. Some of the gains for different stakeholders are explored below.

Also Read: Can we imagine life without the World Wide Web?

A recent report sponsored by the EU found that companies located in the EU invested around €1 billion in FOSS in 2018. The authors estimate that a 10 per cent increase in contributions would lead to a 0.4 per cent to 0.6 per cent increase in GDP and generate more than 600 ICT start-ups annually.

FOSS is closely interlinked with software development, and it is estimated that 97 per cent of code bases contain open-source. It helps companies access high-quality code while avoiding vendor lock-in and lowering costs. There are various monetisation models to build a business case around open-source. These include providing paid services such as training and technical support, adopting a freemium model, and crowdfunding desired features.

Sharing non-differentiating features as open-source also have several advantages for companies. When Google open-sourced their machine learning framework TensorFlow in late 2015, they benefited from the increased adoption of the framework leading to crowd-sourced innovation. It is now the most ubiquitous AI platform, and Google benefits from the talent pool in a niche technology.

Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopaedia, is funded by donations and maintained by unpaid volunteers. The infrastructure that powers the Information Age rests on a foundation built on open-source software such as Linux and Apache, among many others. According to GitHub, India has the third-highest number of active developers. The number of developers contributing to open-source is growing fast, and India is poised to become one of the major contributors to FOSS.

A recent study finds that individuals contributing to open source projects are intrinsically motivated by feelings of altruism, fun, or kinship. Many contributors also seek the reputation and career advancement to be gained from working on open-source projects. Although there exist avenues for funding, it often relies on donations based on the goodwill of others. This is
sustainable for only the most popular projects. The maintenance cost is minuscule compared to the cost of the damages incurred due to the vulnerabilities such as log4j.

Some interesting aspects of FOSS are visible in the popular open-source chess platform lichess.org. It is a free-to-play, crowd-sources learning module and is funded by donations. Unlike other platforms, it has features such as requesting your opponent for a move to be taken back and granting your opponent extra time in a timed game. The non-zero-sum approach that open-source principles espouse percolates into various aspects of open-source products.

Also Read: Govt working to provide high-speed internet to every village, says PM

From the government’s perspective, the economic motivations for promoting open-source can be broadly classified under cost savings, avoiding switching costs and network effects, underproduction due to weak incentives, and technology neutrality. These are especially important in the Indian context. The Kerala government has been a pioneer by officially supporting FOSS in the State IT Policy in 2001. In a phased manner, Linux and other FOSS have been adopted by various government departments and schools. The government of Kerala has also set up an autonomous nodal agency (ICFOSS) to work on improving the adoption and innovation around FOSS. It also works closely with FOSS communities such as SPACE to build open digital infrastructure.

The desire for “Digital Sovereignty” unconstrained by state intervention, technology oligopoly, and international geopolitics is also a major motivation for governments. The open nature of open-source implies it is more customisable and available. This leads to reduced dependence on proprietary technologies from companies based elsewhere.

India needs to leverage technology to overcome developmental challenges, and the various advantages of open source present it as a promising option. However, due to its nature, open-
source suffers from market failures. The market does not adequately incentivise creators to keep developing and maintaining open-source projects. A comprehensive strategy to nurture and promote the adoption of open-source technologies is necessary for India.

(Bharath Reddy is a programme manager for the technology and policy programme at The Takshashila Institution)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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