Open source software is not only a global pool of available free code that creative programmers can draw on: take it to the geopolitical level, and it is also a tool that countries can leverage to become independent from the monopoly. growing foreign technology. giants.
This is according to a new report mandated by the EU and carried out by the non-profit organization OpenForum Europe, which found that the impact that open source could have on the digital independence of the bloc is such that the technology can be considered a “public good”.
Digital independence, autonomy or technological sovereignty: the concept has taken many names, but still refers to a long-standing goal of European leaders. It consists of developing a technology that complies with the standards defined by the European institutions themselves – and is often accompanied by imperatives such as transparency, reliability or the protection of privacy.
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“It’s important that Europe can have some power over its jurisdiction and over the goals it sets itself in terms of privacy and things like that,” Sachiko Muto, CEO of OpenForum Europe, told ZDNet. . “Open source is part of the ability to deliver innovation while maintaining control to protect those goals. ”
Open source, and in particular open source software, refers to code designed to be publicly available, which means that anyone can view, modify, and distribute the code as they see fit.
Unlike buying a standard service, building a service on open source software provides better access to the source code, which means it’s easier to stay in control and audit the technology. In short, everything is happening in broad daylight, in accordance with the principles of transparency so strongly defended by European leaders.
This is important because critical services – and in particular public services such as healthcare – are digitizing at a rapid pace in Europe. At the same time, a handful of tech giants are increasingly taking on the bulk of this digitization; the fear is that this means that the external service providers can dictate their own terms.
Calls for digital sovereignty have grown louder in Europe in recent years as these two trends have converged and vendor foreclosure has become a priority. “Open source has the potential to change the balance of power,” says Muto. “That doesn’t necessarily mean big companies are bad, but it’s about taking back control. The user has to be in control regardless of where the company comes from.”
One example is cloud services, dominated by Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, and Google Cloud. The near total reliance of the EU on the trio has been problematic for several years: for example, an EU privacy watchdog recently launched an investigation to determine whether the bloc’s main institutions and agencies were able to effectively protect citizens’ personal information when using AWS. and azure.
Even outside the EU, there are concerns about the dominance of US-based hyperscalers. The Bank of England recently admitted that financial institutions’ over-reliance on a handful of cloud providers for key banking services carries a certain degree of risk, as these providers have the power to dictate their own terms. , sometimes to the detriment of transparency.
Open source software has the potential to change that, according to the new report from OpenForum Europe, because building technology on top of publicly available source code gives users complete control of the end service. Users are not subject to the terms and conditions of a proprietary software owner, who could easily change the underlying technology, increase prices, or even take the service completely off the market.
For example, the British startup Element has created an open source project called Matrix which provides developers with the infrastructure, tools and protocols to create their own communication platforms.
The concept has found favor with the EU: the French government now uses a Matrix-based app called Tchap for internal communications, and the startup recently signed a contract with the German education system to provide new tools for collaboration in schools. Schlesweig-Holstein states. and Hamburg.
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European countries are therefore increasingly turning to open source technologies to build a key digital infrastructure. The bloc recently started work for a local cloud computing platform called GAIA-X, for example – a market of cloud providers who all need to adhere to certain European principles, among which openness and transparency are essential.
And according to the new report, there is no shortage of open source developers in the block. In 2018, according to OpenForum Europe, there were 260,000 individual contributors to open source projects in the EU, representing 8% of employees in the computer programming industry. Together, they contributed 30 million pledges that year, which equates to nearly one billion euros ($ 1.18 billion) of investment.
Yet, argues Muto, as open source technologies are widely adopted by the private sector in other countries like the United States, where deep-pocketed companies like Google or Microsoft can fund a thriving ecosystem, Europe is in revenge seriously lagging behind.
“The open source movement in Europe has suffered from being viewed as the free version of the software. The feeling was that open source only allowed cost savings, ”explains Muto.
But the benefits of open source technologies go far beyond that. It’s not just about digital sovereignty: By encouraging developers to reuse code for different use cases, open source software drives innovation. Ultimately, bouncing off each other’s ideas in a shared community improves the quality of the services built and their impact on the economy.
OpenForum Europe economists have even made an estimate of the economic impact of open source technologies. In 2018, according to the report, the EU’s 30 million open source contributions had an impact of between € 65 billion and € 95 billion ($ 76 billion to $ 112 billion) on the European economy. Increasing contributions by just 10%, economists said, could generate up to 600 more ICT startups in the block.
Amanda Brock, CEO of OpenUK, an organization that promotes open technologies, and who was not involved in the report, says the research only confirms that open source is the way forward to build digital infrastructure.
“Open source and infrastructure are inevitable today,” Brock told ZDNet, highlighting the UK’s National Health Service’s latest digital strategy, which places open data and open source software in the foreground, as a means of improving transparency and avoiding blocking of suppliers.
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There is no shortage of potential in Europe, Brock continues, but the bloc needs to invest more aggressively to raise awareness of what open source can do. “Part of it is skills,” Brock says. “A lot of skills around open source development can be found in the Bay Area. It’s almost impossible to find a startup in the Bay Area that isn’t open source based now. Europe has not put enough emphasis on these kinds of skills. ”
Brock aligns with the OpenForum Europe report, which recommends, among other things, providing more funding to open source projects and startups to create a culture of openness.
Businesses and government organizations must therefore realize that they do not have to rely on standard services over which they have no control. Initiatives like GAIA-X or Matrix are just examples of what can be done to create a future where technology is open.