Different agencies of the Indian government seem to be making all the wrong moves lately. Two issues have come to our notice and both are quite disturbing. These issues not only raise questions over how such national bodies discriminate against free software alternatives, but also reveal how they are forcing people to use non-free or proprietary software sold by big corporations.
The irony is, while one government organisation endorses proprietary software, the other releases software that is even more restrictive than those sold by their commercial counterparts. The two organisations in question are Technology Development for Indian Languages (TDIL), established by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).
Fonts: Can’t read the free word
The apex body of the DIT recently finalised the fonts to be used for e-governance related work. While the apex body approved Unicode 5.1.0 as a standard for e-governance applications for all 22 Indian languages, except for Kashmiri, it chose a font that is not free software compliant.
The font approved is Sakal Bharti, which has been jointly developed by TDIL and CDAC. But the font itself is not ‘free’ in nature. If you go to the TDIL site to download the font approved by the apex body, you will be greeted by a disclaimer that forces you to agree to certain terms if you want to download it. I, as an individual or a company, ought to have the full freedom to download and use anything that has been developed by using taxpayers’ money. The owners of such technologies should be the citizens who pay taxes that aid in the development of such fonts, and not the body that developed it, using taxpayers’ money.
So, if I go by their licence agreement when I want to download a font, I will have to agree to: “1. These Products are for Academic/R&D/Personnel use only.” Then another restrictive clause: “3. Copies of the Software and the manual can be made only for back-up purposes and non-commercial personal products/utilities/fonts usage. Any copy made must include all copyright and proprietary information notices appearing on the copy provided herein. Such a copy, if later on used for commercial purposes, will be treated as illegal.”
According to the FSF, “Free software does not mean non-commercial. A free program must be available for commercial use, commercial development, and commercial distribution. Commercial development of free software is no longer unusual; such free commercial software is very important. You may have paid money to get copies of free software, or you may have obtained copies at no charge. But regardless of how you got your copies, you always have the freedom to copy and change the software, even to sell copies.”
But all the conditions for the ‘government approved’ font are quite contradictory to the FSF’s philosophy.
(Editorial team’s note: Even if you want to disregard the principles of free software and what the FSF preaches, I guess we agree that if it’s developed with the aid of funds from the tax payers’ money, it should be in the public domain. Period!)
This may lead to many more complex situations as this font is not at all compatible with the GPL, or any of the other free software, for that matter. Thus, even the government bodies won’t be able to use these fonts with a lot of free and open source software (FOSS) they apparently deploy and implement.
When asked how appropriate the move was and what would be the ideal situation for choosing fonts for official work, Richard Stallman said, “It is flagrant injustice for the government to distribute useful information (such as software or fonts) to the public with these restrictions.”
He added, “We tried for years to get the CDAC fonts to be freed, but I think they never did so.” In the end, he warns that, “Fonts are works of practical functional use, so their users deserve the four freedoms. Furthermore, fonts today normally take the form of software, so a non-free font is non-free software.”
I am curious; when the font does not comply with the free software philosophy and slaps restrictions on users, then: (1) How can those officials sitting in the apex bodies choose it, knowing it is not truly ‘free’ in nature; and (2) How can an organisation like TDIL (which is supposed to serve the public interest) release software under such restrictive terms and conditions — which they call a licence.
The reason I’ve honed in on TDIL is that it is a programme started by the Department of Information Technology (DIT), with an aim to develop information processing tools to facilitate human machine interaction in Indian languages, and to develop technologies to access multi-lingual knowledge resources.
It is also debatable if the Union government is even concerned about free software at all. It was the opposition parties who argued against the software patent deal—and the CPI(M) took the lead in that. Also, the BJP, though infamous for its religious dogma, supports free and open source in a big way by going as far as building their whole party IT infrastructure on FOSS. It’s a shame that the recent activities by government bodies shun the opportunities of freedom—or do they say no to FOSS only because the opposition had said “Yes” to it?
Bhuvan: Continue to pay lagaan to Microsoft
ISRO recently released Bhuvan and the entire nation has gone gaga over it. However, ISRO seems to believe that there are no other operating systems besides Windows—or do they think that this is all Indians are capable of using? This is ironic, considering that the government-funded CDAC has its own GNU/Linux operating system called BOSS. So, it appears that CDAC is being BOSSed around by proprietary and non-free counterparts.
According to an ISRO press release, “The Bhuvan geoportal enables users to access information on basic natural resources in the geospatial domain, particularly the Indian images and thematic information in multiple spatial resolutions. This would provide a sharper picture of Indian terrain barring sensitive locations such as military and nuclear installations.”
It also says that there would be many more value-added functions and facilities that will be added into the package from time to time. “A particular interest of ISRO/DOS would be to provide such functionalities to the common man so that he/she adopts a participatory approach with scientists to solve simple problems easily and interactively.”
But, how did ISRO figure out that the common man of India uses only Microsoft Windows, because if you go to the Bhuvan site, you will be welcomed with a garland that says, “View in IE 6.0 or above only with 1280 x 1024 resolution.”
And here’re the system requirements to run Bhuvan:
- Operating system: Windows XP/Vista
- RAM: 512MB
- Hard disk: 2GB free space
- Network speed: 256 Kbits/sec
- Graphics card: 3D-capable with 32 MB of VRAM
- Screen: 1280 x 1024
- 32-bit True Colour
But wait… there’s more: “To browse Bhuvan, you require the Bhuvan plug-in, which can be downloaded from this website, after registration and you will also need DirectX 9.0 or a higher version (www.microsoft.com/windows/directx/) and the MS .NET framework 2.0 or above for installing the plug-in. Please note that the Bhuvan plug-in can be installed with administrative privileges only.”
Now, while they call this a ‘Google Earth killer’, most people can’t even see if it works or not, because many don’t use Windows—at all. And why should they waste money on buying a licence for an operating system just so they can run Bhuvan, when they are perfectly happy with the current OS they are using? Well, thank you for your offer GoI and ISRO, but we’re perfectly okay with Google Earth—although non-free software, it still runs on GNU/Linux. And hey, the free software alternative called Marble [http://edu.kde.org/marble] is also out there. Why couldn’t ISRO work with them, to collaborate and share, all for the greater good that benefits all?
And what’s with the only-runs-on-Internet Explorer factor? Yes, all those who’re still stuck with Windows, yet have switched to Firefox or something else for their browsing needs are now required to switch back to IE if they want to use it. Seems like ISRO is doing free-of-cost PR and sales work for Microsoft (well, IE’s browser market share is at an all-time low, and seems to be dipping every day) with the Indian taxpayer’s money.
These Indian government bodies seem to be going where water doesn’t flow freely. This is discouraging for our economy, that too for a sovereign country like India. Governments don’t wake up till it’s election time again. Seems like our only hope remains with the opposition parties (besides the free software community), to not let the government sell us out to proprietary corporations that are not even based on Indian soil.
A copy of the minutes of the apex body meeting is available here.