10.05.20

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The Ascent of GNU/Linux in China Might Not Mean Much for Software Freedom

Posted in Asia, Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux at 6:04 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

China Town Mexico

Summary: We need to acknowledge that just because a huge number of people may be migrating to “Linux” (or GNU/Linux in some form or another) doesn’t mean that the cause has been fully fulfilled; it won’t be enough to liberate these people from repressive digital tyranny

SOME hours ago in this detailed new page about Xiaomi the author wrote a section about “GNU GPL violations,” stating that (and it’s hardly a new issue, not limited to Xiaomi either):

Smartphone manufacturers that release Android phones need to adhere to the GNU General Public License. This is a bit complicated, but the basic gist is that, since Android is an open-source system, companies like Xiaomi need to provide to the public the source code kernel of every device it manufactures.

Over its history, Xiaomi has had a tough time with this. In many cases, its public posting of kernels would be delayed, and in some cases, it simply didn’t post anything. For various reasons, repercussions for this inaction didn’t fall too hard on the company.

The GPL obligations (copyleft licences at large) do matter, unless all that we care about is “market share”…

“Over a decade ago it was reported that the Chinese government strictly limited the range of distros permitted for use in public terminals, presumably because back doors were required (inside GNU/Linux).”But perhaps more important than this fixation on size there’s the aspect which pertains to software freedom. The above article shows a large number of different devices whose net effect on privacy is really horrendous. In some cases, spying by peer (or surveillance by nearby people) is encouraged and spun as a hip thing with social merits. This has long been an issue with many Android-powered devices; sure, Android became more dominant (or widespread/ubiquitous) than Windows, but just because it has Linux in it — not to mention that the base system itself (AOSP) is liberally licensed — doesn’t mean that people are emancipated from oppressive software and titans who control that software for their own financial ends. In China, perhaps more so than in the United States, the industry works closely with the government and is often an extension of it. In some parts of China people are forced to carry around malware that spies on them (through so-called ‘phones’) and it doesn’t matter much if the underlying operating system is Android or something else.

Studytrip to ChinaMany headlines have appeared in the past year about China’s longterm plans to abandon Windows in favour of GNU/Linux. Prior to that we heard much of the same about Russia and South Korea. We’ve seen no evidence of this policy or those sorts of plans changing. Microsoft is really losing control of the market. It fights back, sure, partly by attempting to “wrest control of Linux” like it attempted to “wrest control of Java” (we’ll publish Bill Gates deposition tapes about it tomorrow, in part 6).

There’s no easy solution to all this. It’s a longstanding conundrum. When the GNU Project started 37 years ago it was envisioned or foreseen that widespread use of GNU (and later the GPLvX) would liberate people. It did accomplish that to a certain degree, but even Bruce Perens (a defector in a sense) recently acknowledged that people’s rights are being tramped on. Even using this supposedly user-respecting code. There are no restrictions on how it is used, who by etc.

China is going to become a good example of widespread and large-scale deployments of Linux where the presence of GPL, GNU and all sorts of projects like OpenStack fail to bring freedom to the people of China. Over a decade ago it was reported that the Chinese government strictly limited the range of distros permitted for use in public terminals, presumably because back doors were required (inside GNU/Linux).

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