Debian participation in Italy's CAD68 committee

(The initial policy change discussed in this document is a couple of years old now, but it took about the same time to be fully implemented, and AFAIK the role Debian played in it has not been documented yet.)

In October 2012 the Italian government, led at the time by Mario Monti, did something rather innovative, at least for a country that is not usually ahead of its time in the area of information technology legislation. They decided to change the main law (the "CAD", for Codice dell'Amministrazione Digitale) that regulates the acquisition of software at all levels of the public administration (PA), giving an explicit preference to the acquisition of Free Software.

The new formulation of article 68 of the CAD first lists some macro criteria (e.g., TCO, adherence to open standards, security support, etc.) that public administrations in Italy shall use as ranking criteria in software-related calls for tenders. Then, and this is the most important part, the article affirms that the acquisition of proprietary software solutions is permitted only if it is impossible to choose Free Software solutions instead; or, alternatively, to choose software solutions that have already being acquired (and paid for) by the PA in the past, reusing preexisting software. The combined effect of these two provisions is that all new software acquisitions by PAs in Italy will be Free Software, unless it is motivated—in writing, challengable by a judge—that it was impossible to do otherwise. Isn't it great?

It is, except that such a law is not necessarily easy to adhere to in practice, especially for small public administrations (e.g., municipalities of a few hundred people, not uncommon in Italy) which might have very little clue about software in general, and even less so about Free Software. This is why the government also tasked the relevant Italian agency to provide guidelines on how to choose software in a way that conforms with the new formulation of article 68. The agency decided to form a committee to work on the guidelines (because you always need a committee, right? :-) ).

To my surprise, the call for participation to be part of the committee explicitly listed representatives of Free Software communities as privileged software stakeholders that they wanted to have on the committee—kudos to the agency for that. (The Italian wording on the call was: Costituirà titolo di preferenza rivestire un ruolo di […] referenti di community del software a codice sorgente aperto.) Therefore, after various prods by fellow European Free Software activists that were aware of the ongoing change in legislation, I applied to be a volunteer CAD68 committee member, got selected, and ended up working over a period of about 6 months (March-September 2013) to help the agency writing the new software acquisition guidelines.

Logistically, it hasn't been entirely trivial, as the default meeting place was in Rome, I live in Paris, and the agency didn't really have a travel budget for committee members. That's why I've sought sponsorship from Debian, offering to represent Debian views within the committee; Lucas kindly agreed to my request. So what did I do on behalf of Debian as a committee member during those months?

Most of my job has been some sort of consulting on how community-driven Free Software projects—like Debian—work, on how the software they produce can be relied upon and contributed to, and more generally on how the PA can productively interact with such projects. In particular, I've been happy to work on the related work section of the guidelines, ensuring they point to relevant documents such as the French government guidelines on how to adopt Free Software (AKA circulaire Ayrault). I've also drafted the guidelines section on Free Software directories, ensuring that important resources such as FSF's Free Software Directory are listed as starting points for PAs that looking for software solutions for specific needs.

Another part of my job has been ensuring that the guidelines do not end up betraying the principle of Free Software preference that is embodied in article 68. A majority of committee members came from a Free Software background, so that might not seem a difficult goal to accomplish. But it is important to notice that: (a) the final editor of the guidelines is the agency itself, not the committee, so having a "pro-Free Software" majority within the committee doesn't mean much per se; and (b) lobbying from the "pro-proprietary software" camp did happen, as it is entirely natural in these cases. In this respect I'm happy with the result: I do believe that the software selection process recommended by the guidelines, finally published in January 2014, upholds the Free Software preference principle of article 68. I credit both the agency and the non-ambiguity of the law (on this specific point) for that result.

All in all, this has been a positive experience for me. It has reaffirmed my belief that Debian is a respected, non-partisan political actor of the wider software/ICT ecosystem. This experience has also given me a chance to be part of country-level policy-making, which has been very instructive on how and why good ideas might take a while to come into effect and influence citizen lives. Speaking of which, I'm now looking forward to the first alleged violations of article 68 in Italy, and how they will be dealt with.

Abundant popcorn will certainly be needed.

Links & press

If you want to know more about this topic, I've collected below links to resources that have documented, in various languages, the publication of the CAD68 guidelines.