Free software: it is a beautiful expression, allows you to hope of a holy and irresistible alliance between the forces for freedom and the power of computing, the latter for once disassociated from its alliance with the great North American hegemonic capital, for once in a position to put its transnational networks to the service of more noble ideals than the simple quest for profit and cultural domination of the planet. But this hope leads to a reality, which is a little less idyllic.
The GNU Project
At the beginning of the 1980s, Richard Stallman, a researcher at MIT, launched the concept of free software: software programmes whose source code (all the instructions which make them up) would be freely accessible, which would allow for the possibility of analysing how they work, how to improve them and above all for their redistribution, unlike proprietary software (those that we buy in commerce) whose ‘recipe’ remains secret and which cannot legally be copied.
The principle of ‘open-source’ software was not new. For example, the source code d’Unix (the system on which the Internet was built), was accessible for universities. But Stallman feared that this principle would disappear. So he founded the GNU project (‘GNU is Not Unix’), whose aim is to offer an operating system comparable to Windows or Mac OS today, but free. To ensure its legal viability, he formalised his ideas on the notion of ‘copyleft’ (in contrast to ‘copyright’), and created a distributing licence, the GNU General Programming Licence, the GPL, stipulating that any modifications of software protected by a GPL must be redistributed with this same licence. Equally, he founded the Free Software Foundation of which he is the president, which checks the application of the GPL and runs the GNU project.
The expression free software has ambiguous origins: free as in free speech, and not as in free beer (liberty not gratuity), insists Stallman, who is not in principle against the marketing of free software. But the fact that the source code is accessible and freely redistributable means that it is possible to rebuild the finished product and diffuse it yourself. Free software can therefore not be (and this is its aim) adapted to the classic economic model on which the computer industry is built.
In 1991, a Finnish student, Linus Torvalds, announced that he was working on Linux, a new operating system based on the Unix model, like GNU, which it is entirely based on. Volunteers from the entire world participated in the project, communicating thanks to the Internet, which at the same time began to be accessible to the general public. In Linux, the free software community finally has at its disposal an almost complete operating system. It is estimated that there are currently about 20 million Linux users, of which an important percentage are in Third World countries and Eastern Europe. Up till 1998, Linux’s success remained limited to student bedrooms and the offices of adventurous computer programmers. Sometimes called ‘the most well-known secret in the industry’, business managers were unaware of its existence, even if their employees sometimes used it ‘discretely’.
The free software explosion
On April 1st 1998, inspired by Eric Raymond’s article ‘The cathedral and the bazaar’, and driven by Microsoft’s competition, the firm Netscape freed up access to the source code of its web navigator in the hope that the free software community would improve it. The concept of free software attracted the attention of business managers, who saw it above all as a way of making economies. Their main fear remained the lack of a guarantee (which is also not offered by proprietary software) and especially a lack of technical support, services that companies such as Redhat and Mandrake are desperately trying to start to provide. Free software, despite being available free on the Internet has found an economic model. The explosion of start-ups fed this: the stock market flotation of the VA Linux society in December 1999 demolished the Wall Street highest value record (733%).
But is this model viable? With the crash of the ‘Net-economy’, start-ups founded on the Linux or other free software were amongst the first victims, and the companies with firmer foundations barely extricated themselves from the drama. The often controversial personalities of Stallman (for whom proprietary software is immoral) and Raymond (a militant ‘libertarian’ for the National Rifle Association) are hardly united.
Free software and globalisation
So what is the importance of free software in the field of globalisation? They allow poor and badly equipped users in Africa and Asia to connect to the Internet, despite the efforts of companies such as Microsoft to render access to certain of the Net’s resources difficult from a free navigator. Above all this software offers the guarantee of transparency for computer tools and independence vis a vis programme editing companies: the success of free software in countries opening out onto the Internet also stems from the fact that these countries are not in a hurry to be ‘recolonised’, this time by Microsoft.
When you understand the role that the Internet (founded on open protocols and free software) played in the planetary mobilisation against ‘globalisation’ during the WTO summits, you understand that the spirit of free software is indistinguishable from this fight (the French deputy Noel Mamère said at the Assemblée Nationale: ‘The Internet must be used in the fight for emancipation, an instrument of resistance faced with the totalitarianisms that we condemn’). Free software offers a striking parallel to the demand for transparency that is at the heart of thought on globalisation. If the Internet were to run on proprietary software, its transformation into Big Brother would no longer be a laboured metaphor, but an unacceptable reality. To gain access to the programme of the computing tool that we use equates to knowing the text of laws and the institutions of the regimes in which we live: it is the only guarantee of truly democratic functioning. Besides, nowadays, some governments (France, Germany) in their concern for transparency and independence use and recommend free software.
The limitations of free software are in fact linked to the spirit of the community who conceived them, the hackers, these talented programmers, which bear little ressemblance to the destructive pirates that the media made in confusion with the term cracker. Often young, idealistic, sometimes naïve, they are part of the new-anarchic tendency with prevails on the Net. The different definitions of the word free overlap in the minds of a generation that produced Napster & Co symbols of independence and resistance to the multinationals of culture and information. The fight, however, rarely gets beyond the stage of the slogan ‘Fuck the system!’ and opinions assumed on the Internet.
Despite being widespread, free software still remains all too often a confidential and elitist tool for specialists. Hackers have very different technical priorities to the average user, for whom simplicity is of primary importance. In this, they near some of globalisation’s opponents who recommend behaviour (alimentary, cultural etc.) that could be considered elitist. Only collaboration with certain players in the industry could drag free software definitively out of the technological/cultural ghetto (the irony being that in 2001 IBM invested 1 billion dollars in Linux). Otherwise, in spite of the potential that its name suggested, it will only obtain – with difficulty – the rank of a symbol of the fight against the excesses and the misdeeds of ‘globalisation’, of which it remains one of the most discrete but most efficient tools.
- GNU and FSF:
- The ‘GNU Manifesto’, founding text of the GNU project:
- The implications of the choice of terminology, between free software and open source:
- Article ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’
(There is also a short history of the ‘hacker culture’ on this site.)
- on the French government’s use of Linux
- Agence pour les Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication dans l’Administration:
- The Carcenac report, suggesting the use of ‘open source’ standards in public administration :
- communication of Richard Stallman to the French National Assembly and Noël Mamère’s presentation: