Open-source freedom lost on Chinese government

New policy is forcing Internet cafes in China to pay for Red Flag Linux, which may be clear evidence that freedom isn't to be found in any kind of software license.

News hit Slashdot on Wednesday that China is forcing its Internet cafes to use licensed copies of Red Flag Linux, and allegedly not because it wants to encourage software freedom, as Radio Free Asia suggests.

Indeed, Radio Free Asia notes that while the policy ostensibly is aimed at removing pirated versions of Red Flag Linux or Microsoft Windows, Internet cafes are reporting that they are being forced to move to Red Flag Linux even if they already are using licensed versions of Windows.

Why? The Guardian speculates that this may be the Chinese government trying to force a decent return on its investment in Red Flag.

Whatever the reason, it's a reminder that open-source licensing is not necessarily any guarantee of freedom. If a Chinese government agency were hoping to snoop on its citizens using Red Flag, as some have suggested on the Slashdot forum, would the General Public License stop them? No. Presumably, users could hack Red Flag to prevent the snooping, but for most people, this simply isn't an option due to technical inability to write software.

I suppose the only positive news in all of this is that China is setting the standard--albeit a very negative one--for promoting paid use of open-source software. Suffice it to say, however, that I'd prefer if would-be buyers acquired open-source software through choice, not chains.

There are many factors that contribute to making software truly free. The license is only one of them. Free markets, open standards, and open data might well matter much more than a simple license.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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