Technology Policy Needs to be Pro-Choice

Deepak B Phatak, Professor, IIT-Bombay

There is a growing debate over the regulators intereference in choice of technology. Any such intereference would stifle growth. The government's job is to define services and leave the technology choices to the market forces, says Deepak B Phatak

In India, we are encountering a unique situation. We decide on what technologies to be used without sometimes having a clarity on what are the services that we intend to deliver. It is dichotomous. Isn’t it? It is my long-held belief that, it is government’s job to define services and leave the technology choices to the market forces. Like the way in Aadhaar, we have created open standards and provide open interface. I have been a proponent of Total Cost of Ownership (TCO), open standards, and use of open source components where relevant, useful, and cost-effective. The term open standard is not easy to understand beyond the academic realm and even there, we have perpetual debate. Simply stated, an open standard should specify functionality, interfaces without proprietary APIs for ease of integration and interoperability. All market players should have a level-playing field and the best man should be allowed to win.

As I understand, in a converged world, we should not specify technolgy, rather focus on services. It really does not matter, which technology is powering the delivery of services, as long as the service SLAs are met affordably. Developing an open architecture is the need of the hour and the nation needs to move towards open standards to bust the silos that we have been working in. This can equally well be achieved by open source or close source software—it is the functionality that determines appropriateness of technology. Even a proprietary software should work on open standards with complete interoperability to unleash the full potential of technology. Technology projects, ipso facto, should be linked to services and services only.

I have been an open standards evangelist all my life and have the privilige to participate in a large number of purchase decisions for the government and the public sector. Sometimes, open source-based solutions have been selected and at other times soultions based on commercial software. At no point in time ever the choice of technology has determined the definition of functionality. In a democracy where citizen is at the centre, all choices have to be made keeping in mind his service requirements, speed and total cost of delivery. It is in this context I find the stated open source policy of the DeitY at some variance with the philosophy to tech and net neutrality.

Tech neutrality must precede net neutrality. While the government is supportive of net neutrality; it has to be equally supportive of tech neutrality and leave the choices of technology to end-user organisations. The open source policy asks bureaucrats to justify choosing software that is not open source. I presume that such requirement will translate in a proper evaluation of whether the choice meets the required service functionality better and is also more affordable in terms of TCO including adequate support; vis-à-vis available open source software alternatives. The policy should not practically dictate purchase of open source software blindly. In the era of CVC, RTI and scams, it would take indeed a very courageous bureaucrat who would not opt for open source. That is why I feel a fair and proper comparison must be made amongst alternatives.

The motto of Digital India is to develop India into a knowledge Economy and digitally empowered society. This can happen only through a combination of creation of digital infrastucture, re-engineering the software programmes to suit the delivery of services and enable people to access these, using the same infrastructure. This is the vision of Digital India and I think we should all be converging and aligning our solutions and offerings towards the achievement of that eternal goal.

In my experience, whenever and wherever the governement has dictated technology choices in an obligatory manner without due examination of the alternatives, the innovation is compromised. Technology is to be determined by choice, not by mind-set and it should be outside the purview of regulation. Government should govern, set priorities, create service delivery standards and have a national view. Technology neutrality will save the government another ten years of experimenting with NeGP and realise the dream of Digital India faster than expected. Technology biases restrict open competition, restrict choices and cloud fair judgement. In Digital India, there should be no place for this.

This said, I will reiterate two of my favourite themes. The first is that the knowledge and software generated through government funding should be made available in open source and the second is that Indians and India should play a greater part in development of useful software products, open source and commercial. We must become the net giver to the global open source repository of artefacts, to justify IT prowess and our intent of digitally empowering our citizens.

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of INCLUSION. Comments are welcome at info@skoch.in)

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