It is in India’s national interest to promote open source software

Over the past month, hundreds of thousands of developers and IT managers around the world have worked on weekends and holidays to fix a vulnerability in Log4j, otherwise annoying software found in millions of computer servers, owned by giants like Apple. and Twitter to “smart” TVs, security cameras and other household appliances. Prior to NASA’s denial, there were concerns that its Martian helicopter had transported the vulnerability to another planet. Meanwhile, bad actors are devising increasingly clever ways to exploit these vulnerabilities, installing backdoors, crypto-mining tools, and other malware before systems are patched. While the fixes are available within days, it may take a few years for the threat to go away. Tech executives are due to meet with the U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor on the matter this month.

Log4j is open source software, maintained by a disproportionately small team of volunteers. Ralph Goers, the developer who maintains the code and fixed the bug, has a full-time job elsewhere. He worked on this project in his spare time. His work was funded by three people: Michael, Glenn and Matt. The massive edifices of the Information Age rest on such weak foundations. Log4j, Apache, Kubernetes and Linux are the most famous names: the multibillion dollar information economy is sustained, in part, by hundreds of thousands of open source software components and the dedicated communities of volunteers who make them. maintain. Many of them are paid employees of private companies, others come from universities, and many are enthusiasts who do it just because they float their boats.

Numerically, Indian developers are major players in this ecosystem. According to GitHub, a leading open source software development platform, more than 7.2 million of its 73 million users in 2021 were from India, making it a third behind China (7.6 million ) and the United States (13.5 million). But the Indian developer base is growing faster, nearly 40% in 2020-2021 compared to 16% in China and 22% in the United States. GitHub expects to see 10 million Indian developers on its platform by 2023.

Just being on GitHub is not an indication of the quality, intensity or importance of the projects they are working on. Still, the fact that millions of Indian developers are connected to the global open source ecosystem is a good sign and may be a source of competitive advantage for India in high tech geopolitics.

Indeed, open source software is in the national interest of India, given the changing economic and political technology space. As much as it makes sense to stay out of the cybersinosphere and align with the United States where there is a convergence of interests and values, India must maximize its independent technological power. Attempting technological sovereignty by reinventing everything and insisting on localization would be counterproductive. A much more effective approach is to focus on open source projects, build for the whole planet, and gain strategic advantage from them. This is the only reliable way to reduce dependence on transnational tech companies (and the governments that support them), whether Chinese or Western.

The first attempts by governments to promote open source were mainly to adopt Linux-based operating systems and open document formats. These have failed because governments cannot create better consumer products than businesses or open source communities. More recent attempts have involved building stacks, infrastructures, and platforms that allow varying degrees of visibility and access to the source code. These are primarily intended to provide digital public services.

India must now promote an open source economy. This involves pushing a number of policy levers to get developers and businesses to invest more in creating open source software. The goal should be to create globally competitive developers and businesses that become important nodes in the tech ecosystem. The concert economy will grow in the post-pandemic world. Pay differentials and exchange rates will benefit Indian freelancers and moonlighters. It’s not broken, so the government had better not try to fix it.

What public policies can do is orient and push individuals and companies towards open source. Engineering schools could be encouraged to involve their students in open source projects. A number of technology foundations offer grants and awards, which can transform a new graduate’s resume. Ensuring a healthy open source ecosystem is actually a matter of social responsibility for a country with a large IT industry. If support for open source projects is recognized as meeting corporate social responsibility (CSR) commitments, more developers will be attracted to them, reducing the chances that we have to depend on four people to hold crucial information from the Infrastructure world. .

The free and open source community grapples with existential questions about how it should adapt to a world of cloud computing, large platforms, and surveillance-based business models. The outcome is important to India, and therefore it is in our best interests to shape it.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent center for public policy research and education

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