Why choose free and open source software rather than proprietary software to support digital democracy initiatives?

Why choose free and open source software rather than proprietary software to support digital democracy initiatives?

The current health crisis has revived the debate on civic tech (civic technologies) with the deployment of the TousAntiCovid application, putting it in ethical terms. The public discussions that the application has generated have contributed to a certain awareness of the place and role ofopen source and free software within the technologies present in our daily lives.

Indeed, we remember the fears relating to the use of data or the questions of transparency that this application could raise. The CNIL then took up the matter in December 2020 in order to give its opinion on the draft decree amending the decree on data processing known as "StopCovid". The French landscape is indeed increasingly marked by these reflections, particularly in the context of the rise of civic technologies. 

Recent events and social movements characterised by a certain institutional mistrust have contributed to a restructuring of the "relationship between public debate and private commitment, direct representation and new forms of democratic expression" (Marie-Laure Denis, President of the CNIL since February 2019). In this sense, civic tech has been particularly mobilised in the context of participatory approaches initiated by public institutions in order to involve citizens in the public debate.

But the use of digital tools for democratic purposes must be able to guarantee respect for transparency criteria and rights relating to personal data. This is what is at stake in the distinction between open source or free software and proprietary software. This is also the challenge of what some people call technopolitics: "the integration of (...) democratic principles at the beginning of the technical development (...) of digital tools", which translates into the inclusion of democratic principles in the platform's code.  

The current situation in civic tech, marked by the transition to open source of players in the sector, has thus invited us to clarify once again the contours and challenges of the distinction between proprietary software and free and open source software.

The Open Source Politics team and its co-founders (Valentin, Virgile, Alain and Olivier) have been campaigning for more than 5 years foropen source and free software to become the rule in a French landscape that is still predominantly proprietary.

The ground gained by free and open source software on the civic tech market will be able to fuel a debate and questions that we have already started within the free software and digital commons movement.

In this respect, we are not only driven by the idea of mobilising free and open source software but also and above all by the idea of contributing to a true digital commons, i.e. a "resource produced and/or maintained collectively by a community of heterogeneous actors, and governed by rules that ensure its collective and shared character"(Labo Société Numérique).

In order to better understand this commitment, this article attempts to explain as clearly as possible the differences betweenopen source and free software and proprietary software by providing an accessible analytical framework for qualifying such projects.

Free and open source vs. proprietary software

Free and open source softwareProprietary software 
Paid user licenceNo 
Opening the source codeYes, hence the name "open source".No. The source code is closed to access.
Examples Free Office, Firefox, Linux, Android, VLC etc.Office package (Word, Excel etc.), Adobe Suite, etc.
Freedom to run (use) the program for any purpose.Yes, everyone can.No, only the owner can do this or by granting permission.
The freedom to study how the programme works.YesNo
The freedom to redistribute copies.YesNo
The freedom to improve the programme and to publish its improvements.YesNo
Risk of dependence on a publisherLow if the software is mature and has a communityStrong, which can be risky if it is a small publisher
Security Mature software is audited and can rely on many contributorsSubject to audits but the results are not necessarily made public and the results are not replicable  
Reversibility possible YesComplicated by the licence
Interoperability of software with each other Easier to implement.Made more complex. 
Pooling of investments Guaranteed and possible on a large scale if the software has a mature ecosystem of contributors.  Yes, but limited to the capabilities and will of the publisher.
Open source vs. proprietary infographic
Free and open source vs. proprietary software infographic

Focus on licences :

Free and open source software is governed by free or open source licences.  

The well-known formula in the librarian communities generally states: 

"Free as in freedom, not as in free beer

which refers to the fact that although these licences guarantee users 4 major freedoms (execute, study, modify, redistribute), this free use is conditional on having the necessary resources (time, computer knowledge, hosting) to install, configure and use the software oneself.

In the absence of such resources, it will be necessary to remunerate the work of service providers who have built up know-how and a service offer in contact with their clients. Many types of licences and models exist for free and open source software, generally divided into two broad categories: 

  • Copyleft (the opposite of copyright) which guarantees users that the major freedoms of free software will be respected but prevents restrictions from being put in place (later closure of code, unpublished modified versions).
    Example: GPL (General Public Licence)
  • Non-copyleft , generally referred to as permissive since they allow restrictions to be placed on modified, often more complete versions, which can be distributed under a proprietary license.
    Example: the MIT license, and the open core

Proprietary software imposes a so-called proprietary user licence which sets out the conditions of access and use of the software. If it is a paying licence, the publisher is free to choose the terms and conditions it imposes (per user, per organisation, etc.).

Netflix, for example, operates on a monthly subscription basis that allows one or more users to use the service on different media (phone, TV, computer).

"When it's free, you're the product"

Another popular expression in the open source community is that many proprietary software products are free to use, such as Facebook, which makes its money by using its users' data to sell targeted advertising.

Focus on the opening of the code

The question of the openness of the code is the criterion that gave its name toopensource. This source code can be compared to a recipe, which includes ingredients and procedures for making a dish: if you do not have this recipe, and do not have the list of ingredients to be used or the manufacturing process, it will be impossible to reproduce or modify this dish. In this sense, proprietary software does not give access to its source code, whereas open source software offers this access transparently and free of charge. 

Focus on the issue of sustainability and scalability

Free and open source software offers much greater guarantees of reversibility than proprietary software. As the source codes are public and generally well documented for most free software, it is easy to find another provider in case of bankruptcy or disagreement. If resources are available within the organisation, internalisation is quite possible via a transfer of skills.

This criterion is all the more important in the civic tech sector since it is mostly made up of SMEs and VSEs offering innovative solutions that are by nature risky, and since local authorities tend to commit themselves over one or more years.

The free and open source model avoids increased dependence on a single provider whose medium-term viability is not guaranteed.

Focus on security issues

If any computer system is potentially exposed to security flaws, free and open source software that is sufficiently mature is generally audited as much as proprietary software, in addition to exposing its source in open access. This feature allows for a broader and more thorough audit as a plural ecosystem of contributors collectively ensures the highest level of security. To put it simply, more pairs of eyes (active contributors) can thus detect flaws and propose corrections according to a protocol dictated by the community.

While proprietary software benefits from occasional audits, their results are not always made public and are de facto not reproducible, as the source code is not open. Finally, the transparency of the patches made following the audit is not always guaranteed and sometimes requires another audit.

Pooling of investments

While it is possible to pool investments in the context of the deployment of proprietary software, this pooling is richer in the context ofopen source since, once developed, the software is co-enhanced without geographical limits by a large and very diverse community of actors, who modify it according to the new needs of its users.

The need is then defined by the users and for the users, unlike proprietary software where development is dependent on the capabilities and willingness of the publisher to implement them.

The free and open source model allows not to be limited by the capacities of a publisher who would not be able to meet the challenges and needs of a very large institution. As was the case for the Conference for the Future of Europe platform, the Decidim code being open and free, the European Commission was able to use several development providers (including Open Source Politics) simultaneously in order to meet its numerous needs.

The fact that Decidim is open source has made it easier for the EU institutions to collaborate with each other, but also, crucially, with external service providers. By using a proprietary solution, the EU institutions would have been limited to the solution provider, whereas by using Decidim, they were able to "build a dedicated team just for this purpose".

European institutions use Decidim to enable the Conference on the Future of EuropeOSOR (Open Source Observatory)

Let's look at the open source figures again:


While the differences between free or open source software and proprietary software may seem trivial to end-users who are not necessarily experts in these matters, they should be at the centre of the debate when it comes to software where they act to exercise their citizenship. 

The field of civic tech, which is supposed to (by definition) put current technologies at the service of increasing citizen power for better democratic functioning with more open governments, has to make choices in the tools used. These tools can be common goods owned by citizens for a civic purpose defined in a democratic way, or they can be owned by private companies that would be allowed to define the civic purposes of these tools according to an economic imperative. 

However, this is not a Manichean choice either. Different software models are possible with their advantages and disadvantages. In a framework that we would like to be democratic, it is important to know the nature of the tools that we are making available to citizens, particularly by opening up the code.

In the absence of any reflection on the subject, we run the risk of seeing the proliferation of business models based on the resale or commercial use of data obtained during public consultations outside the framework openly consented to or understood by the citizen at the time of their initial participation.

These questions led us to choose Decidim to support our clients. More than free and open source software , it is a true digital commons that brings together a diverse community of actors and contributors and that today powers the platforms of 200 institutions worldwide.

We will see in a future article what criteria guided us in this choice and how to analyse and compare different free and open source software projects in a very simple way.

Un partenariat au bénéfice de la civic tech libre

Un partenariat au bénéfice de la civic tech libre

Open Source Politics est très heureuse d’annoncer la mise en place d’un partenariat avec l’association IndieHosters afin de fournir des plateformes de démocratie participative toujours plus libres !

Naissance d’une amitié fructueuse

C’est par l’entremise de contacts communs que nos deux structures se rencontre en 2019. Notre volonté à l’époque était de travailler sur des outils de documentation en vue des rencontres de Numérique En Commun(s) – NEC prévu pour l’automne de la même année.

Suite à ce premier travail en coopération, Pierre Ozoux et Timothée Gosselin d’IndieHosters ont formé une partie de notre équipe technique sur l’utilisation de la technologie open-source Kubernetes. La première réalisation concrète et réussie née de cette union de compétence est la migration de la plateforme de pétition du Sénat. Cette plateforme Decidim, une des plus visitées dans le monde*, fait face à des pics de visite soudains et imprévisibles. Le dernier pic remonte à septembre 2022 à l’occasion du Z Event. Ce projet de streaming caritatif a mis en avant une pétition spécifique qui visait à interdire le déterrage de blaireaux. Suite à cette mobilisation, la pétition a d’ailleurs passé le seuil des 100 000 signatures. Seulement 3 autres pétitions avaient atteint ce seuil auparavant sur la plateforme d’e-pétition.

Les avantages de ce partenariat

Cette collaboration est d’une importance capitale pour nous. Elle nous apporte les compétences techniques qui nous manquaient et qui auraient été très difficiles à trouver et à former. Nous sommes convaincus que cela se traduira très concrètement en une meilleure qualité de service pour nos clients. Nous avons également eu l’occasion de réfléchir ensemble à l’avenir, et nous prévoyons de mettre à disposition une suite d’outils libres. Cette suite permettra notamment aux institutions publiques et aux associations de sortir de la dépendance aux GAFAM et aux prestataires propriétaires. Decidim vient s’ajouter aux outils déjà déployés par IndieHosters tels que Nextcloud, OnlyOffice, Rocket Chat et Jitsi. Nous avons prévu de déployer d’autres outils à l’avenir, avec l’accompagnement mutuel de nos deux structures. Nous sommes très enthousiastes à l’idée de renforcer notre collaboration afin de poursuivre notre mission de démocratisation de la technologie et de l’accès aux outils informatiques.

Yohan Lechevalier pour IndieHosters

Ce qui va changer pour nos clients

Toutes nos plateformes Decidim sont hébergées en France, chez notre prestataire Scaleway. Cependant, la nature des serveurs que nous utilisons va changer en passant vers des clusters open source Kubernetes, ce qui sera bénéfique pour les performances. En effet, la puissance évoluera automatiquement en fonction du volume de visites et d’internautes pour absorber les phases de participation intense en toute tranquillité. Nous prévoyons de migrer toutes nos plateformes Decidim en ce printemps 2023. Les interventions seront programmées pour réduire au maximum le temps d’interruption de service. Cette migration est prise en charge par Open Source Politics et aucun coût supplémentaire ne sera facturé à nos clients.

Pour aller plus loin

En mars dernier nous avons dédié le webinaire du Club des utilisateurs francophones de Decidim à la présentation du partenariat entre IndieHosters et Open Source Politics. En présence de Pierre Ozoux, co-fondateur d’IndieHosters, notre équipe technique a expliqué les avantages de cette évolution et vous pouvez revoir cette présentation en vidéo !

À propos d’IndieHosters

IndieHosters est une association spécialisée dans l’hébergement sécurisé et éthique de services numériques. Elle fournit des solutions d’hébergement pour des organisations qui partagent ses valeurs en matière de logiciel libre, d’éthique, de sécurité, de transparence et de liberté.

Pour en savoir plus : https://indiehosters.net/

*Chiffre de 2023, avec 133 800 visites au 26 avril 2023.

Why open source?

Why open source?

Why open source? Find here a series of infographics and resources to better understand free software and open source and its crucial importance for digital democracy. These contents are licensed under the Creatives Commons BY SA,...
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