Is China an open source friend or foe?

Summary:Just because China has made it government policy to support open source does not make open source a government plot.

RedFlag Linux screen from Wikipedia
Big Money Matt Asay opened up on China's demand that Internet cafes install its Red Flag Linux this morning, suggesting authoritarianism at work.

Having lived under U.S. government spying for most of this decade, I am more likely to see shades of gray here.

First, note this is a local story. The demand for using licensed copies of Red Flag Linux is datelined Nanchang, not Beijing.

America has stupid local government tricks, too. I try not to overgeneralize from them. I live in Georgia.

Second, why assume this is some nefarious plot by the central government? That's for paranoid lefty bloggers. It's just possible this is a shakedown by some local official for license revenues.

Third, even if Red Flag Linux is government-sponsored, is it not still open source code? If backdoors are going into the kernel users can see them, or at least the CIA can. As opposed to, say, Windows.

More to the point, how effectively do any laws work in China? There is a difference between blocking foreign Web sites and monitoring everyone's Internet traffic looking for terrorists.

None of this is meant to imply, in any way, that China is somehow free and America is somehow repressed. But the question is not nearly so black-and-white as it once was.

As the Internet and open source grow everywhere, this will be increasingly true. Even if technical means give you warning, there is just too much chaff to be certain that something is going on and prevent it from happening.

This is simple, messy reality. Just because China has made it government policy to support open source does not make open source a government plot.

Not so long as we can see the code.

Topics: China, Enterprise Software, Government, Government : US, Linux, Open Source


Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and has covered technology since 1982. He launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of the Internet to launch with a magazine, in September 1994.

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