India has a vibrant and growing open-source community. In March, Microsoft’s GitHub, which has 5.8 million Indian contributors, announced a grant of Rs.1 crore to support India-based open-source maintainers and contributors who build world-class software using open-source tools. As per GitHub COO Erica Brescia, India is the fastest-growing country in terms of new developers contributing to open-source projects.
Open-source software development has a lot of potential in India and could become the best in the world under the right circumstances. The government of India can play a major role here. Introducing policy-level changes to open-source development could encourage a mutually beneficial relationship for both the government and the developers and give ‘Digital India’ a much needed push.
Digital India & open-source ecosystem
Open-source hinges on commons-based peer production of information, knowledge, and culture. In open-source, both creators and users have the same power, which is not the case with proprietary softwares & tools controlled by tech monopolies.
In 2015, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY), under the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, rolled out three major policies related to open-source.
Policy on Adoption of Open Source Software for Government of India: The policy states that all the government departments would adopt open-source software in all the e-governance systems. The idea was to ensure strategic control in e-Government applications and systems and define a framework to adapt open-source and reduce ownership costs.
Such open-source software should have the following characteristics:
- Making the source code available for the end-user to study and modify the software. The end-user should also be allowed to redistribute the original or the modified source code.
- The source code will be free from royalty.
Policy on Collaborative Application Development by Opening the Source Code of Government Applications: This policy aims to faststrack e-Governance application development, roll-out, and implementation using open-source development model. The government wants to build successful, scalable, and high-quality applications. The policy also encourages collaborations between different departments, agencies, private organisations, developers to innovate eGov applications and solutions.
Policy on Open Application Programming Interfaces (APIs): This policy calls for formal use of Open APIs in government organisations. The aim is to promote software interoperability for all eGov applications and systems and provide data access. It is expected to encourage the participation of all stakeholders, including common citizens.
Scope for improvement
The open-source ecosystem in India goes back to the early 90s with the establishment of several Indian Linux User Groups and Free Software User Groups.
Most of the digital experiences are powered by open-source software. Notably, more than 85 percent of India’s internet is running on open-source software. Courts, IRCTC, State Bank of India, LIC India etc rely on this ecosystem to scale operations and provide efficient services.
That said, the potential of the Indian open source ecosystem has not been fully explored. Despite a 4.36 million-strong workforce, India’s software ecosystem is not inclusive, and hence not equipped to build applications for users from different walks of life and lived experiences.
Further, experts believe the open-source community could benefit greatly from an organised alliance of all stakeholders, developers, industry, academia, and government. This would help in carrying out several ambitious and innovative projects.
In February, the government notified the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. This new rule expands the compliance obligation of social media and OTT companies. The new rules may impact end-to-end encryption. Public Policy Advisor at Mozilla, Udbhav Tiwari, wrote in a blog, “These rules will harm end-to-end encryption, substantially increase surveillance, promote automated filtering and prompt a fragmentation of the Internet that would harm users while failing to empower Indians.”
Notably, in 2020, Mozilla, GitHub, and Wikimedia foundation wrote an open letter to the IT Minister on the draft rules. The letter said such rules could transform the internet from “an open platform for creation, collaboration, access to knowledge, and innovation to a tool of automated censorship and surveillance of its users.”