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Eritrea & The Danger Of Proprietary Software

On November 5, last year, various authorized websites belonging to government ministries, departments, and public agencies in Kenya were shut down for a few days.

Officials from the Information, Communication and Technology ministry quickly issued a press statement during the shutdown; stating: “Some Government of Kenya websites are down and the ICT Authority is working round the clock to ensure that the issue is urgently resolved and normal services resumed,”. Essential websites were unavailable as a result of the shutdown, blocking key public service offering to millions of Kenyans who rely on access to government sites for vital transaction and usage. The websites were hosted by Microsoft Azure – a cloud computing service created by Microsoft for building, testing, deploying, and managing applications and services through a global network of Microsoft managed data centers. According to NTV Kenya report the ICT ministry attributed the shutdown to licensing and maintenance issues against a backdrop of reports that it is due to non-payment of services by the government to Microsoft Azure.

This significant ICT impacting story in Kenya serves as a cautionary tale of the danger of over-dependency on proprietary software and outsourcing technology services to external vendors. For instance, if Eritrea chooses to enforce a proprietary software preference for state and public institutions in which there is no local control of source code it leaves it vulnerable like Kenya with shutdowns and administration of key ICT functions to outside influences and coercion. It is also a great example of why it is critically important for Eritrea to implement a state-led FOSS (free open sources software) policy initiatives in choosing software and third-party vendor for government websites and services.

Why should the state of Eritrea implement a wide scale ICT policy now with FOSS? First, the reality is that maintaining proprietary software is costly to license and support, all the application are dominated by the English language and controlled by foreign corporations. Also, the high cost of the software leads to illegal copying of the software which directly impacts the local software industry. Furthermore, these software cannot be modified to meet local needs as proprietary software like Microsoft don’t allow modification of source code. Secondly, FOSS would allow Eritrea to stimulate its modest software production, however small, in scale or complexity and advances it to a position where it can begin to fully utilize the benefits of ICT internally. It has been reported that there is a positive correlation between propelling the growth of FOSS and the innovative software capacities of an economy. A study by the International Institute of Infonomics at the University of Maastricht listed three reasons for this: low barriers to entry, FOSS offering a sustainable training system and also due to FOSS standard which means it is accessible to everyone. Additionally, the ideological consideration of FOSS resonates well with the Eritrea’s social justice precepts of equal access to services, self-reliance and the sense of citizen-owned independence

Furthermore, the recent historic turn in regional development in the Horn of Africa augurs well for a new opening to launch regional FOSS initiatives and exchanges. More pointedly, all the countries in the region – Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya – have an opportunity to combine resources and cooperative action toward a common goal. For this reason, a regional initiative toward the adoption of open source software by state agencies, ministries, and high learning institution is a start toward synergy on ICT with emphasis on FOSS.

For Eritrea to benefit from and contribute regionally with FOSS there needs to be a critical mass of people locally with computer knowledge and familiarity with FOSS. This is best addressed through the higher education field and even starting from high school levels as well. FOSS has its strong history from academic institutions because it was there that people with the necessary interest, knowledge, equipment and time were found. The Eritrean government should also play a major role by sponsoring efforts and building capacity to support the adoption of FOSS curriculum in higher education. In fact, the curriculum should start early on from elementary education that is not subject to exposing children to proprietary software or technology but exposing them to open source applications.

More importantly, on a national level, this requires the training of a group of expert system administrators who are competent in FOSS software, with special emphasis on Linux and the Unix class of operating systems. At the regional level, there would be a need for a small group of experts responsible for support and making helpful documentation and tutorials based on local langue needs. In each region, groups responsible for going to the physical location of each school to install and maintain the networks can get guidance from the core group. In each school, a person with basic computer knowledge can be responsible, as this person can phone a regional expert or get help through the Internet. Most maintenance can be done remotely by the regional groups. If there is a need for making changes to the source code of particular software, in order to make it useful in Eritrea, the core group with help from students, faculty and professional developers can make the necessary changes.

Eritrea has the human resource and capability to reach this FOSS initiative as local talent at Eritrea Institute of Technology have already created Natna Operating System and that is a great start in pushing interest and discussion forward. If the government is willing to sponsor such national FOSS policy with international community assistance it will give ICT educated people in Eritrea jobs and save foreign capital. This will also provide Eritrea a long term advantages in the form of giving people computer access in local languages, while making Eritrea independent of ICT vendors in building local ICT capacity. FOSS can also help in reducing dependency on ICT related imports while helping local software engineers gain expertise and knowledge with control over software modifications, functionality, and security. Not to mention new local technical models and institutional possibilities that eventually will lead to the development of the local software industry that can assist the state developmental drive on a higher level while also helping the country compete globally.

Disclaimer: articles published in this column do not reflect the stance or opinion of Eritrea Profile

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