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Policy report

Strengthening digital infrastructure: a policy agenda for free and open source software

Open source software Computer software Sector regulation

While there is little debate that digital forces are playing an increasingly crucial role in the economy, there is limited understanding of the importance of the digital infrastructure that underlies this role. Much of the discussion around digital infrastructure has focused on broadband availability (which is certainly important), but the role of free and open source software (FOSS or OSS) has gone under-appreciated. FOSS—software whose source code is public, is often created by decentralised volunteers, and can be freely used and modified by anyone—has come to play a vital role in the modern economy. It is baked into technology we use every day (cars, phones, websites, etc.), as well as into various aspects of critical infrastructure including our finance and energy systems.

Like physical infrastructure, this digital infrastructure requires regular investment to further enable innovation, commerce, and a flourishing economy. However, also like physical infrastructure, there is a market failure in the private sector that leads to an underinvestment in digital infrastructure. Therefore, there is a clear need for government investment and regulation to ensure the future health, security, and growth of the FOSS ecosystem that has become indispensable to the modern economy.

In this paper, the author lays out policy proposals based on his academic research and that of others, as well as policies that exist in other countries who are ahead of the United States on investing in this critical asset. The author first discuss the overall challenge FOSS faces and the limits of existing policy in the U.S. (which are primarily focused on government usage of FOSS, not on investing in the FOSS ecosystem directly). Finally, he present 11 policy proposals separated into four domains of focus: creating an open source program office; measuring and understanding the FOSS ecosystem; enhancing the positive economic impact of FOSS; and securing the FOSS ecosystem. Although there is no silver bullet for guaranteeing the future health and growth of FOSS, these proposals will go a long way towards ensuring FOSS can continue to play its essential role in enabling the modern U.S. economy to grow and flourish.

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