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Putin Says "Da" to Free Software
As in Free Vodka, not Free Speech
By: Tim Negris
Dec. 29, 2010 04:15 AM
A few months back, in a story mostly about Microsoft's complicated relationship with the Russian government and its seemingly dualistic role in the ongoing suppression of various free speech and human rights organizations, we also surfaced contemporaneous reports in the Russian language media about an indigenous, government-funded Linux initiative, called Linuksovskaya.
PM Is Also for Product Manager
The plan has three parts covering educational, technical and organizational mandates, and, while it is ostensibly focused on software use in the government, there are hints in it that the mandatory use of free software may eventually extend beyond the government as well.
For example, the section covering education includes these two assignments to be shared by a number of government agencies including the ministries of Education, Communications, and Health:
"Development and approval of the list of educational programs and teaching materials recommended for use in educational institutions of higher, secondary and additional vocational training, offering professional training and (or) training of federal civil servants"
"Preparation and adoption of guidelines for educational institutions of higher education to replace the used in the learning process of proprietary software with free software"
Clearly Putin aims to rewire the entire Russian education system to preferentially use and teach open source software, from secondary school through vo-tech to university for the edification of all students, not just those being prepared for civil service.
Furthermore, elsewhere in the 25 action items there are directive for the adoption of new, non-proprietary formats for data storage and exchange. Again, this is asserted for federal systems but it would seem that such requirements would extend from necessity to businesses and other non-governmental organizations whose IT infrastructure must interact with that of the government for things like taxes, security, and regulatory compliance.
The Ministries of Truth
Russia's Finance Ministry, Ministry of Communications of Russia, and the Russian Economic Development Ministry are directed to work in concert to:
"[Develop] changes in the instructions for fiscal accounting of intangible assets in order to create mechanisms [for] accounting [for] free software [resulting in an] act of the federal executive body [to] establish procedures for fiscal accounting of the use of free software."
This one is strange in more than one way, the most obvious one being that it introduces the oxymoronic idea of enacting new legislation to specify how free software will be financially accounted for. In addition to that, though, is that it excludes a specific target. While virtually every other similar provision in the order is specified as applying explicitly to "federal bodies of executive power", "subordinate budget institutions", "civil servants", or other apparatchiks, this one about accounting for free software has no narrowing criteria at all.
Add to that the ministries charged with carrying it out - Communications, Finance, and Economic Development. Together they control most aspects of how business is done and how information technology is acquired and used in the country by both businesses and individuals.
This terse and cryptic provision of the act could be speaking volumes about the (non-)future of commercial western software in the Russian Federation. If Putin wants to tax Microsoft, Oracle, and others out of existence in Russia, this would be a good way to start making that happen. It is probably also worth noting that the deadline for this particular action item is one of the soonest, the third quarter of next year.
Free Speech, Nyet
Even with being one of the largest state software pirates in the world, the Russian government currently still pays Microsoft and others many hundreds of millions of dollars every year to license software of many different kinds. The new act dictates the adoption of free systems, middleware and applications software, so there is a lot of money to be saved through its enactment. Or, is there?
The Russian government is spending $350M per year on the development of Linuksovskaya alone. In addition the new act calls for "state support [of] Russian software developers involved in international projects for developing free software that can be used for purposes of federal executive bodies." While it is not entirely clear what that means, it is plain that the act is about spending as well as saving money.
Given that nearly three quarters of all software used in Russia today is pirated, it could be truthfully said that the country has already enthusiastically embraced free software, at least after a fashion. But, all those pirated commercial programs from the west lack something that western open source and indigenously produced free software would give the government of Vladimir Putin: source code control.
Having access to the source code of software used in Russian government agencies, businesses, schools and homes would give the Russian government a measure of control that another Vladimir - Russia's first post-imperial leader Vladimir Lenin - could not have even dreamed of. It would give them the ability to instrument the nation's entire IT infrastructure for monitoring transactions, phone calls, and emails, and for censoring all types of digital media, including music, movies, and news, with previously unimaginable efficiency.
By some estimates, the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB), successor to the infamous KGB and Russia's current primary agency for counter-intelligence and surveillance, currently employs more than 350,000 people. Add to those the people in many other agencies tasked with intelligence gathering/analysis, those responsible for various forms of oversight and enforcement in relation to transactions and communications, paid snitches, and the like. The number of people on the Russian control payroll could be well more than half a million. Analog tools, manual techniques, and black bags full of cash are very expensive ways to keep such a huge country in line.
Auto-snitch-equipped software in the form of Russian-branched open source and of native programs created in government-funded lab, aided by punitive taxes, fines, or other penalties to discourage the use paid and pirated software from elsewhere is a much cheaper way to do it. In fact, it is virtually free.
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