This is the subject I wish to address in this article. It is however complex and probably will not be unanimously accepted, but will allow an awareness of what is at stake and probably through the opening of discussions a better apprehension of the subject.
Open Source, free software, what are the key elements to remember ?
For a better understanding, we will have to distinguish between the two notions, open source on one side and the free software on the other.
The term Open Source refers to software that complies with strict rules established by the Open Source Initiative, allowing free redistribution, access to the source code and the creation of derivative works. One of the main components of open source is the Linux kernel, OS (Operating System), which is intended to compete with the Microsoft or Apple OS. It should be noted that the kernel of the Android OS is also based on Linux.
On the other hand, there is the Free Software, which differs mainly from open source in its philosophical aspects. Where open source focuses on technical aspects and allows the use of free/proprietary nested systems, on the contrary, free software focuses more on philosophical aspects. However, in reality, most open source software is free software.
What is important to understand is that the free GNU/Linux licenses, on which open source or free software is based, are held by the Free Software Foundation, a non-governmental organization founded by Richard Stallmann, based in Boston USA. This foundation has created a series of GNU GPL, LGPL and FDL licenses with the notion of copyleft as a founding principle. All of this allows any coder to start from existing sources as long as he allows this same permission to start from his work without any additional restrictions.
The Linux kernel, although compatible with the GNU licensing model, is owned, in terms of intellectual property, by the Linux Foundation now based in San Francisco.
The key point in what we have just seen is that the initial intellectual property rights are held by foundations, which are American entities. And even if the same principle of free access to the sources and their free uses animates them, what would happen if the U.S. government decided that these licenses could no longer be freely distributed ?
What is at stake ?
As we could see in the picture I quickly drawn on the world of free and open source software, a certain number of questions are open to us… Are open source or free software a serious alternative, is there a real independence from political authorities ?
In addition, it should be noted that approximately 78% of Open Source distributions are American, which increases an already significant dependence on American technology.
IP (Intellectual Property) is owned by the Open Source Foundation and is therefore subject to American law. Even if the risk seems low, given the commercial tensions, particularly in the Sino-American market, and the ability of the American government to free itself from all international rules, we could find ourselves in an inextricable situation.
I don’t claim to have the truth about the risks presented by Open Source, are they real or fantasized? What is the power of the U.S. government to end the spirit of Open Source and Free Software ? What are the consequences ?
But given the evolution of our world in these troubled times, they seem to me relevant to ask. All the more so because in France, but also in other countries, a number of administrations have opted for free software, what could happen to the future of the free software ?
Given the U.S. trade war with China, especially against their digital players, after Google and others were banned from licensing their solutions, isn’t there a risk that the U.S. government will go one step further and prohibit the sharing of the Linux kernel ?
In the face of increasing commercial or even military conflict, it is important to open our eyes. It is never too late to react, and just because the apparent delay seems unattainable does not mean that we should give up.
If open source or software is a better alternative than gafam to gain sovereignty, the question of intellectual property related to the GNU license of free software remains to be clarified. Indeed, what would happen if the US government wanted to prohibit the use of free software as part of its trade war with China. Would it have the right and the power to do so ? What would be the consequences on the future of digital technology? It’s a question I can’t answer, and one that many will brush aside. But is it completely inept ?
The answer may be found in the initiative of two French companies, Hyperpanel and Tecwec System SA, who have chosen to develop independent OSes following two different philosophies but with very interesting and promising results. I find these initiatives all the more interesting in the context of our questioning of our digital sovereignty. It is indeed critical to master this low layer, both on our personal tools and on the servers in our data centers.
It is becoming essential that our French digital players, get closer and open new collaborations, avoid developing very similar solutions that only compete on a limited national market. It would be interesting to see closer ties for a more mature service proposal. It seems important and desirable to me to see a consolidation taking place, but also partnerships being created between the different layers of our sovereignty: software, hosting and OS…
Our digital sovereignty is a crucial issue. The road to achieving it is long and fraught with pitfalls. It requires a long-term vision, which contrasts with the short-term managerial vision that can be observed in our hyper-financialized Western societies.
However, we can see that other countries have taken, and are taking their destiny in hand by being on the long run, like China for example. Who, just 10 years ago, saw China as a serious challenger to the American digital giants? We can also cite the example of Russia, which has taken these steps to ensure that its Internet network can continue to operate in autarky. And in the event of economic conflicts or even worse military conflicts, this will allow them to maintain their civil operational capacity…
It is therefore important for French and European public authorities to become aware of the economic and geopolitical stakes behind all these issues, and of the importance of fighting for our digital sovereignty. It would be interesting to see a technological and legal watch organization that would enable companies and public authorities to make an informed choice when they want to equip themselves with digital solutions, whether or not they are free software.