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International

How the Google-China conflict could hit open source

The plain fact is that the open source ethos of trusting people and accepting diverse opinions in the code stream is directly at odds with China's Internet policy, which insists on shifting boundaries moved at the whim of Beijing's mandarins.
Written by Dana Blankenhorn, Inactive on

The continuing conflict between Google and China, which may be a proxy for deeper conflicts over economics and values, could easily impact open source.

That's because Google has become the U.S. company most identified with open source development. Google's Android phones are mainly made in China -- like nearly all phones.

Google insists its pull-out won't impact Android, but can we really be certain? Can Google really be certain?

Hassling HTC, quietly putting out the word to others not to support Android, could delay Google considerably. If China wanted it could tell its courts to encourage Apple to file suit there, saying it was only seeking to protect patent rights. It could tell Taiwan that Android is provocative.

The plain fact is that the open source ethos of trusting people and accepting diverse opinions in the code stream is directly at odds with China's Internet policy, which insists on shifting boundaries moved at the whim of Beijing's mandarins, and absolute adherence to those boundaries.

Anyone who thinks modern China is communist knows neither China nor communism. It's an evolving amalgam of the mandarin, bureaucratic system that ruled under the emperors, and a centrally-controlled capitalism George Orwell wrote about in his journalism.

In America business is strong and government weak. In China it's just the opposite. And the government process is an opaque tea party. (China was drinking tea when Sarah Palin's ancestors (and Keith Olbermann's) were living in caves.) Business has access to that tea party, but its interests are not controlling. Businesses are not people under Chinese law.

Right now China is going through an enormous internal struggle, similar to what this country was going through in 2007 and 2008. It's looking for an economic soft landing while the economic ground comes up to meet it.

We own its bank. Its system of maintaining a strong yuan through purchases of U.S. government assets is a game that must end, somehow, which means growth must slow, which means dreams must be put off, which risks social unrest.

China fears disorder the way Germany does inflation.

Open source is a disordered state of software development, especially when contrasted with proprietary models. Individuals are free to see code, change code, and release code on their schedule, to their own specifications. To a Chinese bureaucrat's eyes it must seem akin to anarchy. Someone might stick a Falun Gong fortune cookie in there.

We call it freedom. China calls it madness.

China has grudgingly accepted Americans' rights to do and think as Americans will, but it has not yet accepted the idea of its own people thinking and doing as they will. Boundaries must be maintained.

Proprietary software maintains boundaries. Proprietary development can be controlled.

I can easily see China turning toward the proprietary model. Open source may be an innocent bystander in this great game, but innocent bystanders can be victims, too.

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