Minister questions Tuscany's open source plans

A law passed by the Regional Government of Tuscany recommending the adoption of open source software in the regional administration has sparked debate in Italy, with Innovation and Technologies Minister Lucio Stanca warning that the guidelines could interfere with the workings of the free market.

The law went into effect in Tuscany, a central region in Italy, on Jan. 30. The rules governing the Tuscan regional IT network cite as one of their guiding principles: "the promotion, support and preferential use of solutions based on open source programs, respecting the principle of technological neutrality."

The apparently contradictory phrase brought a response from Stanca, a former IT professional and 30-year veteran of IBM Corp., who raised his concerns over the regional guidelines in a speech to parliament earlier this month. The sense of the law was unclear, he said, "and if incorrectly interpreted could influence equal opportunities on the market, violating competition laws to the detriment of other solutions, such as proprietary systems that can be acquired by license."

The minister himself issued a directive in February calling on the civil service to bear in mind open source applications in its IT purchasing policy. The directive was intended to "broaden the range of opportunities and possible solutions in a framework of equilibrium, pluralism and open competition," the text explained.

"You have to choose the best solution in terms of value for money," Stanca said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "My approach is very pragmatic, not ideological." The Tuscan regional law contained two contradictory terms, he said, "technological neutrality, which I like, and a preference for open source, which is not neutrality. If they have a preferential approach, that is wrong. We have to determine the allocation of public money case by case."

Carla Guidi, the Tuscan regional councillor responsible for information technology, insisted there was no conflict between the region and the minister. "There is no contradiction in the text of the law. It was drawn up in a balanced manner and with the advice of legal and IT experts," Guidi said in an interview Wednesday. The regional council had opted for a prudent endorsement of open source after withdrawing an earlier, more explicit version of the law, the councillor said.

"We're in tune with the minister's own guidelines," Guidi said. "Tuscany's decision takes account of open source. It is intended to broaden the market and certainly not to exclude anyone." The regional guidelines were respectful of pluralism while, at the same time, giving a boost to a variety of companies operating in the IT sector, she said.

A section of the Tuscan law calling for efforts to educate Internet users, with particular reference to the advantages of open source programs, has been interpreted as an indication that the regional government intended to spend public money on the promotion of open source software. "We are well aware that a policy of assistance that may interfere with free competition is not allowed in the European Union," Guidi said in an earlier public statement. However, that did not mean that the region was precluded from organizing an information campaign to alert the widest possible public to the advantages of open source platforms, she said.

Stanca, for his part, said his ministry would continue to monitor the implementation of his directive throughout the civil service. "I think it's a question of interpretation. Hopefully they (Tuscany) will interpret it in the right way, otherwise they will be violating competition law," he said. "The worst thing is an ideological approach to technology, because technology is a moving target, while ideology is something frozen."

Stanca has expressed satisfaction at the increasing rate of open source software use in the Italian civil service over the last two years. Italy is now number four in the world for the percentage of its IT professionals engaged on open source software development, he told parliament recently.