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Open source software takes off in France

European open source enthusiasts are welcoming moves by French officials to encourage the use of open standards and open source software in e-government applications.

"Many countries do open source, but only France has issued a government order which says that we should implement open source whenever possible," said Jean-Paul Smets, a spokesman for the EuroLinux Alliance, which promotes open source software.

"What is going to be compulsory is open standards, and open source is going to be a recommendation," he added.

The French Government created a new agency in August to co-ordinate IT efforts between different Government groups. The Agency for Information and Communication Technologies in the Administration (Atica) has taken on the task of ensuring that Government projects use open standards, in an effort to reduce costs and redundancies, and improve interoperability in Government projects, said Atica spokesman Gilles Bon-Maury.

Open standards play an important role in building citizen confidence when they deal with governments online, Smets said.

"There is a problem of trust between citizens and their government, related to e-government. People, especially corporations and taxpayers, are very much afraid of what information they are actually exchanging with the government, particularly anything related to taxes," he added.

"If you have open standards on both sides, you know how the information is exchanged on both sides - you have the possibility to check what is being exchanged. It's not like a black box of data."

For example, users want to be assured that by filing their tax returns electronically they are not opening themselves up to the government snooping on their online activities, Smets said.

Similarly, public agencies with a concern for security, such as the military and secret services, feel safer using products where they have access to source code.

The French Government also wants to encourage a decentralised software industry by allowing small companies to work on open source government projects, rather than the concentrated software development that tends to result from proprietary products, Smets said.

Elsewhere in Europe, open source products are gaining acceptance in government circles. The free cryptographic software Gnu Privacy Guard (GnuPG) has received development funds from the German Ministry of Economics and Technology.

The Mioga extranet toolkit has been installed at the French mining agency Conseil Général des Mines, and the European Union is backing open source Web portal software called YIHAW.

The German Bundestag is considering whether to dump Windows in favour of Linux for its own machines.

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