Software nationalism

Code is culture, as Basile Zimmerman told us at Lift10. Further proof is coming this week as the Wall Street Journal reports on Russia, China and Iran making moves to ensure they keep a certain level of independence from American proprietary software:

[…] Mr. Putin’s motives are not strictly economic. In all likelihood, his real fear is that Russia’s growing dependence on proprietary software, especially programs sold by foreign vendors, has immense implications for the country’s national security. Free open-source software, by its nature, is unlikely to feature secret back doors that lead directly to Langley, Va.

Nor is Russia alone in its distrust of commercial software from abroad. Just two weeks after Mr. Putin’s executive order, Iran’s minister of information technology, citing security concerns, announced plans for a national open-source operating system. China has also expressed a growing interest. When state-owned China Mobile recently joined the Linux Foundation, the nonprofit entity behind the most famous open-source project, one of the company’s executives announced—ominously to the ears of some—that the company was “looking forward to contributing to Linux on a global scale.”

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As the WSJ notes, “Information technology has been rightly celebrated for flattening traditional boundaries and borders, but there can be no doubt that its future will be shaped decisively by geopolitics”. Governments are increasingly aware of the fact that putting their IT on a foreign technology can have deep implications. And with the IT world being dominated by the US, we can see countries disputing the American supremacy (add Brazil and India to the list) taking the lead on the open source movement, the only real alternative available.

Is that why in the US, some “influential lobby group is asking the US government to basically consider open source as the equivalent of piracy“?

In the end, it will be interesting to see both forces fight each other. Traditionally in technology, open always wins. But this time the companies selling proprietary software could easily convince their governments of the positive effects of spreading their culturally biassed technologies to the rest of the world, and get their support in the process.

It also makes me wonder what will happen to programs like Microsoft Grant(which create controversies like this one) that consist in giving free proprietary software to developing countries (among others). While I was working at the UN, the general view was that it was a way to inspire loyalty to the products. It is a very cynical view of the world – and true benefits can be obtained from using these softwares – but as the geopolitical dimension comes into play, will developping countries resist those donations and turn to open software?

Lots of open questions, and a topic worth following in the coming years.

I am an entrepreneur and researcher passionate about understanding the social implications of digital technologies.
3 comments
  1. Hello,

    Actually that’s exactly the post I wanted to write for months (and particularly since putin’s decision) but I havent had time^H^H^H…am to lazy to do. It summarizes well the situation.

    As an active OSS user and advocate I’m at least glad that countries like Russia, China and well Iran took this decision but I’m hardly excited about it since I fear this could cause difficulties and could fire back to the OSS community. There’s little chance they do much damage on the code itself (but that’s still a possibility) but the communication about it may trigger some difficulties and controversies. OSS are sometimes portrayed as linked to socialism (at least in countries such as … well ok USA, is that weird?) and the publicity around these countries using and participating to the movement not only for “good” reasons (that is already difficult to “judge”) may be a delicate matter in the future.

    Well, lets say life goes on and will see what happens…

  2. Hi Laurent. I’m happy to tell you that at least in Brazil we have been gradually convincing government and NGOs to understand what those ‘donations’ really are. Sergio Amadeu, former director of a national IT institute and heavyweight foss advocate, once compared proprietary software companies to drug dealers – give away to make people addicted, and only then start charging. There are still a lot of organizations who fall into that trap, but we have been gaining media coverage after almost a decade insisting in the importante of free and open everything.

  3. Thanks for sharing felipe! good to hear the latest news from Brazil 🙂

    @archange: it’s an intriguing idea to think that these countries could also “damage” the code by inserting their own biasses into the projects. There is a need for a study there, see the political orientation of the different pieces of code contributed by people from different countries.

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