German Government wants authorities to advertise PDFreaders

Should authorities be allowed to make advertisement for only one company and ignore all the others? Many people strongly disagree, among them myself, the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) and also the CIO of the Federal Republic of Germany, the IT commissioner of the German Government.

The whole story began with something we all had to read sometimes, at least subconsciously, on a website providing PDF documents: „To open the PDF files please download Adobe Acrobat Reader.“. Such notices are unnecessary advertisement for a proprietary (non-free) product — there are dozens of software applications which can do the same or even more, many of them Free Software. Because of that the FSFE started a campaign called „PDFreaders“ to make this deficiency public, and contact administrations and companies with thousands of letters and emails.

One big success of this campaign in Germany is PDFreaders being mentioned in the official current Migration Guide of Germany’s Chief Information Officer. This document explains some critical points of IT in administrations and companies and evaluates different software. Under point 4.3.7 „PDF readers and authoring“ the guide compares different PDF applications and also takes Free Software readers like Evince into account:

Alternative OSS-Produkte zur Darstellung von PDF-Dokumenten gibt es einige, u.a. Sumatra PDF und Okular; die FSFE pflegt eine Liste mit freien PDF-Betrachtern.

There are a lot of alternative OSS products for displaying PDF documents, i.a. Sumatra PDF and Okular; the FSFE maintains a list of free PDF readers.

This „list of PDF readers“ is one of the cores of the PDFreaders campaign. Instead of just complaining the unjust situation the FSFE provides information on various applications which are all Free Software and which fit everybody’s needs, may it be performance, size, the amount of functions or the used operating system. And if authorities (or companies and individuals) want to tell their website’s visitors how to open PDF documents, the CIO has a strong suggestion:

Werden PDF-Dokumente öffentlich bereitgestellt, sollten Behörden fairerweise zu deren Betrachtung nicht mehr ausschließlich den Adobe Acrobat Reader empfehlen, sondern beispielsweise die von der FSFE bereitgestellten HTML-Bausteine zum Download alternativer PDF-Betrachter in ihre Seiten aufnehmen.

If PDF documents are provided publicly authorities shall no longer only recommend Adobe Acrobat Reader for displaying them, but for example use the HTML templates provided by the FSFE on their websites for downloading alternative PDF readers.

Besides mentioning the broad PDF capabilities of LibreOffice, the guide also evaluates the current situation with editing PDF documents instead of only reading them, a function which some authorities seem to need for their services. According to the CIO the alternative Free Software solutions cannot provide the same functionalities as proprietary and expensive applications. Instead of just accepting the situation, the Migration Guide asks for more initiative of officials:

Hier wäre ein behördliches Engagement zur diesbezüglichen Weiterentwicklung vorhandener OSS-Alternativen sinnvoll, um nicht in ungewollter Abhängigkeit von einzelnen Anbietern proprietärer Produkte zu verharren.

In this case more administrative engagement to extend existing OSS alternatives would make sense in order to avoid staying in unwanted dependency from single vendors of proprietary products.

So yes please, German authorities, listen to your CIO: Use and help improving Free Software to keep yourself and your citizens independent, avoid vendor-lockin, save money and open a fair market for all competitors in the race for the best PDF readers.