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Rep. Blasted for Open-Source Attack

October 24, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ A congressman from Microsoft Corp.’s home state has been criticized by the chairman of a House technology committee for an attack on the free software movement.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers had written a letter this week urging White House computer security adviser Richard Clarke to find sales opportunities for government-funded software projects. The letter had no mention of the issue of free software, also known as open-source or General Public License (GPL) software.

But when Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., whose biggest political contributor is Microsoft, began circulating the letter to his fellow Democrats asking for their signatures, he added his own correspondence saying the free software philosophy is ``problematic and threaten(s) to undermine innovation and security.″

The open-source movement advocates that software, such as the Linux operating system, should be distributed free and open to modification by others rather than be treated as copyright-protected, for-profit property.

Smith’s attack on open-source drew an angry response from one of the original authors of the letter, Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on technology and procurement policy.

``We had no knowledge about that letter that twisted this position into a debate over the open source GPL issues,″ said Melissa Wojciak, staff director of the subcommittee. Wojciak added that Davis supports government funding of open-source projects.

Smith spokeswoman Katharine Lister said he has ``definitely spoken with (Microsoft) about this issue,″ but that there wasn’t a direct relationship between those discussions and his decision to write his letter to fellow Democrats.

Sixty-seven representatives signed the letter to Clarke; almost two-thirds were Democrats. ``I’m going to hope that the people who signed on to the letter did their homework,″ Lister said.

Microsoft, whose Windows operating system competes with Linux, says open-source hurts a company’s right to protect its intellectual property.

Microsoft is Smith’s top source of donations. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Microsoft employees and its political action committee have given $22,900 to Smith’s re-election campaign.

The original letter was fashioned by Davis and Jim Turner, D-Texas. They wanted the White House’s national cybersecurity plan, which is set to be finished next month, to ensure that companies that develop software using federal funds are free to use the resulting products for commercial gain.

Clarke and his top spokeswoman were traveling and did not return a message seeking comment.

The debate over open source in government has raged over the past year. Supporters say open source software is more secure, cheaper to buy and maintain and easier to customize. Several federal agencies use the Linux operating system to some degree, and the National Security Agency briefly developed a more secure version of Linux that it released under the GPL.

A study completed this summer for the Pentagon by Mitre Corp. recommended further use of computing systems using Linux on the grounds that they are less vulnerable to computer attacks and far cheaper.

Many companies do make money from open-source software, including Sun Microsystems and IBM Corp. Red Hat, a company that distributes Linux, sells proprietary software in addition to the open-source Linux and charges for service and support.

Microsoft Corp., however, has lobbied the government to reject GPL software. Last year, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer called Linux a ``cancer″ that destroys intellectual property rights.

An open-source supporter said the issue shouldn’t be swayed by lobbying.

``Before congressmen start signing letters, there should be more debate on the subject,″ said Tony Stanco of George Washington University’s Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute. ``The weight of people who are really in the know go against this kind of stance.″


On the Net:

General Public License: http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html

Rep. Adam Smith: http://www.house.gov/adamsmith/

Microsoft: http://www.microsoft.com

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