Italy's Great Leap Forward for Openness?

Different countries are moving at different speeds in terms of governmental adoption of free software, open data and openness in general. I wrote a year ago about Iceland, which seemed to be making particularly rapid progress at the time. Now...

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Different countries are moving at different speeds in terms of governmental adoption of free software, open data and openness in general. I wrote a year ago about Iceland, which seemed to be making particularly rapid progress at the time. Now it looks like it's Italy's turn.

This flows from a modification made last year to the Codice dell'amministrazione digitale (CAD – Digital Public Administration Act), as explained in a fascinating new paper in the International Free and Open Source Software Law Review, by Simone Aliprandi and Carlo Piana, entitled "FOSS in the Italian public administration: fundamental law principles." Here's the background to the latest changes:

CAD's Article 68 establishes the core rules for all aspects related to openness in the Italian public sector: free and open source software1 ("FOSS", par. 1 and 2), open formats and open data (par. 3). During 2012, these paragraphs underwent some important changes which created an unprecedented opening, inter alia, in favour of a preference for FOSS in the Public Administration.

Article 68 of CAD originally read as follows, in the translation of Aliprandi and Piana:

Public administrations must acquire computer programs or parts thereof as a result of a comparative assessment of technical and economic aspects among the following solutions available on the market:

a) develop a solution internally
b) reuse a solution developed internally
c) obtain a free and open source license
d) obtain a proprietary license of use
e) a combination of the above

And this is the crucial new clause that has been added:

Only when the comparative assessment of technical and economic aspects demonstrates the impossibility to adopt open source solutions or any other software solution already developed (at a lower price) within the public administration system, the acquisition (by license) of proprietary software products is allowed. The assessment referred to in this paragraph shall be made according to the procedures and the criteria defined by the Agenzia per l'Italia Digitale, which, at the instance of interested parties, also provides opinions about their compliance.

As that makes clear, from being one among many solutions, open source has now become the default: only if it is impossible to choose it does it become permissible to use non-free software. That's a huge shift. But there's yet more good news, as the article explains:

Another part of Article 68 which was involved in the second reform discussed above is Paragraph 3. This part of the Article provides a definition of two relevant aspects that contribute to define a healthy ecosystem for FOSS.

The first definition is about open formats:

an open format is a data format which is public, documented exhaustively and neutral with respect to technological tools for the use of data

The second definition concerns open data:

open data are data that:

1) are available under the terms of a license permitting their use by anyone, even for commercial purposes, in disaggregated format;

2) are accessible through the information and communication technologies, including public and private telecommunication networks, in open formats; are suitable for automatic processing by computer programs and equipped with relative metadata;

3) are available for free through the information and communication technologies, including public and private computer networks, or are available to the marginal costs incurred for their reproduction and dissemination.

There is one final piece to the legislative puzzle that makes that section on open data particularly powerful:

the Italian lawmaker decided to introduce an "open by default" principle for all the public sector information. This choice, that sounds quite revolutionary for the Italian legal order, has been made operational by modification of Article 52 (entitled "Electronic access and re-use of public administrations' data"), where we now find the following paragraph:

Data and documents, which the public administrations own and publish without the express adoption of a proprietary license (as defined in Article 2, paragraph 1 of Legislative Decree 24 January 2006, n. 36), are released as open data in accordance with the definition provided in Article 68, paragraph 3.

As the authors of the paper point out, this really amounts to a major reversal of current policy, where the onus was on public officers to extract as much money from the release of government data as possible. That made it pretty difficult to release anything, since most data has some value to someone, somewhere. With the latest changes, that unhelpful attitude has been completely swept aside, and if not mandating that all Italian government data should be open, it makes it a natural thing to do.

Of course, the caveat must be added that this is all in theory: quite how things will work out in practice remains to be seen. But that notwithstanding, this looks like a huge win for openness in Italy, and those responsible for getting the changes on to the law books are to be congratulated. If nothing else, it will add further impetus to opening up holdings of government data elsewhere in Europe – and the world.

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