Industry warns lawmakers to stay neutral on technology

A bipartisan duo proposing IT reforms has caught the attention of some concerned business groups.

U.S. Capitol at Night

Two lawmakers plan to introduce an IT procurement reform bill in 2013.

Two members of Congress, reaching across the partisan divide, are pushing the government to think broadly -- governmentwide -- about open-source software, provoking warnings from industry groups that they are ignoring the core principle of technology neutrality.

Departmental officials have always thought department-wide, when they instead should think much more broadly to save money and resources, Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) agreed at the NextGov Prime event in Washington, DC. The 24 departments often buy the same software under individual deals. But Issa, chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said, “We can share what we’re doing in a collaborative way so that software is not redundantly contracted out.”

Open source software is developed and updated by communities of users rather than profit-driven companies, and distributed under lightly-controlled licensing rules.

For several months, Issa has circulated a draft bill on IT commodity purchasing reforms called the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. The final provision of the bill would open the door wider for open source software on a governmentwide basis. It would promote the use of open source software, even clarifying that agencies should include open source software in its preferences when buying commercial IT. Connolly is also backing the bill and has said he will co-sponsor it when Issa introduces it next year.

The benefits of open source would become especially dramatic if the government sees itself as one organization rather than a coalition of departments, agencies and bureaus, Issa said. “Once you define us as [one organization], what we’re really saying is that we can share,” he said.

In addition, Connolly said the open source software can save resources in the era of shrinking resources. “What the draft bill is ultimately getting at is saving taxpayers money and making government more efficient,” he said. “We have 24 different price structures for the same item,” creating unnecessary layers of duplication, he said.

However, four IT industry groups say the provision “strays from the core principle that statutes should be technology neutral,” according to a letter about the draft bill they sent to Issa Nov. 30.

“Under no circumstances do we believe the government should promote or mandate consideration of commercial IT products or services based specifically upon the licensing, contracting, or business model used to develop them,” the groups wrote.

The groups include TechAmerica, BSA | The Software Alliance, the Coalition for Government Procurement, and the Information Technology Industry Council.

Katherine McGuire, vice president of government relations at the Software Alliance, said the bill would put open source software above other types of software, including proprietary and also mixed software.

Regulations require agencies to make merit-based IT purchasing decisions. They must be based on performance and value, as well as “free of preconceived preferences based on how technology is developed, licensed, or distributed,” according to the Office of Management and Budget.

The groups warned of misconceptions among procurement officials about the legality of using certain types of software.

The government still needs to define open source software, Issa said. But he added that he intends for his bill to keep the government neutral in IT choices.

Overall though, Issa said, “We believe we can be collaborative to the benefit of the private sector and the public sector, as we were with the Internet—not develop for government, but ultimately today being a government/private-sector entity.”

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