Friday, November 04, 2005

[geek][politics] In defense of Free Beer

Mike Olson, CEO of Sleepycat Software, was kind enough to share some thoughts related to my earlier post on Open Source in Africa, and my remark that sometimes the advocates of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS hereafter) get bogged down in the notion of 'free as in speech, not free as in beer':
None of us here disagrees that zero-dollar software is a great thing for users. If 10g Express is useful to emerging economies, that's wonderful. We're glad to see it, and I bet that Oracle would be proud of it. They ought to be. The point is that giving away the software for free isn't the same as building an open source community. Just for (simple) example: What about high school and college students in Africa who want to learn about the way that database systems work? Are they better off with a sealed-box binary that is entirely opaque, or with the complete source code to the MySQL engine? Both of them are free beer already; only one is free speech now.
Apart from a quibble about whether or not source code is the best way to learn how something works (best left as a rant discussion for another day), I'd like to focus on this point: is 'free speech' what the developing world needs first? And I don't mean this in a patronizing "they've never had free speech before, so we shouldn't expect it" kind of way - I mean trusting that free speech will emerge once you've provided an ecosystem in which it will survive. A lot of the fire that drives the FOSS movement is resistance to closed systems; it's a philosophical debate, an intellectual challenge, and a moral problem all wrapped up in one package. Okay, that's great; believe me, I grok the appeal, and I do believe that information wants to be free. From an emotional and intellectual perspective, I agree 100%. Okay, it's probably closer to 90%, but still - here's where I see the shortcoming in this approach: if you read the Black Looks posting that inspired me, you will see that one of the reasons that FOSS advocates have had problems making cultural inroads is widespread piracy of proprietary software. This piracy is a form of economic rebellion, of taking and subverting the tools of the master, so to speak. Need software? Steal it from The Man! Screw the Western Imperialist Capitalists with their own technology - rip and burn gleaming CD after gleaming CD of widely-used, proprietary software! So I ask you, which is going to be the more satisfying form of rebellion? Standing up against FacelessSoullessTechnology Corporation by providing a free and open version of their own product, or illicitly burning copies of LargeSoftwareCompany Widget Pro SP3? Which will be the more practical form of rebellion? You see, we have the luxury of deciding on a philosophical basis that we do not want to purchase a given piece of software. We in the developed world have an infrastructure that already supports that idea. The developing world, largely, does not. The developing world sees our existing tools that we market so well abroad - and it wants a part of that. It wants our commercial software, as much as it wants out other consumer goods (the degree to which this 'want' is fueled by actual vs. created demand is deliberately being left as an open question). It should come as no surprise then, that the first impulse in the developing world is, then, piracy. We see it with other consumer goods: Nike, Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton, whatever; why should software be any different? I see this as being akin to the dilemma that the Peace Corps faced: at the time of its founding, the Peace Corps focused on meeting basic human needs, such as irrigation or literacy; no effort would be explicitly expended to create 'free' societies. The early work of the Peace Corps provided a framework around which an infrastructure of 'free society' could evolve; as a result of their success in meeting these basic needs, by the time I was old enough to join the Peace Corps I was turned away because I didn't have any real-world business or managerial experience! The Peace Corps today expends a lot of energy addressing the 'how' and 'why' of developed nations, not the 'how' (and only 'how') of developing ones. It would seem to me that
PeaceCorps.Early = FreeBeer; PeaceCorps.Current = FreeSpeech;
Given the FOSS movement's origins as an intrinsically philosophical movement, I think that it will have problems moving into the developing world until such a time as the developing world has the luxury of debating the merits of closed vs. open systems; to believe otherwise is to embrace a cart-before-the-horse position. The harsh reality is that the 'free beer' factor is what the FOSS movement has going for it in developing countries - in all cases that I've followed where governments mandate the use of FOSS products, the selling point has been the cost savings; the thumb-in-the-eye to the Microsofts and Oracles of the world is a happy byproduct of the cost savings, and is (IMO) driven more by a nationalist impulse to control one's culture and economy than by any commitment to thinking 'free as in speech'. In some instances - China leaps to mind - the politically-motivated embrace of FOSS occurs for reasons that are entirely antithetical to the very free speech philosophy that defines the movement. It seems to me that if one provides access to 'free beer', free speech will follow (bet you never thought you'd see a keg party provide a positive example, eh?) of its own accord. And it would be a terrible mistake for the FOSS movement as a whole if ideological and intellectual purity prevents them from taking advantage of the strengths of free beer as just that: free beer.

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