For some time now Linux supporters have been trying to distance themselves from the concept that it is Communistic by nature and anti-capitalistic by design. These efforts took a rather large step back last week when Richard Stallman, president and founder of the Free Software Foundation, played the nationalist card and convinced Cuba to go with Linux.
Now it isn't the move that is the concern; Linux is clearly used by U.S. companies and U.S. government entities, including the NSA.
However, in this instance, the software is being used as part of political rhetoric and as an apparent weapon against the U.S. by the Cuba Communications Minister. Stallman, in his own talk, actually quoted Bill Gates as comparing Linux to Communism, apparently agreeing with the statement which likely played very well with the Cuban audience but probably not so well with the NSA.
Saying that copyrights violate basic morality is certainly consistent, but probably doesn't play that well for much of the professional market for Linux, which probably lives under copyright protection for verticals like pharmaceuticals, publishing, manufacturing and technology.
Now, Cuba isn't in the news much and really isn't considered a huge problem for the U.S. -- we have a few other countries that we are clearly more concerned about -- but positioning brand as anti-capitalism and pro-communism is troubling.
Whenever you bring up a concern surrounding Linux, the common reaction is FUD. I'm not saying the product is any less secure, yet, than it was before these comments were made, nor am I suggesting you change your buying process. However, this does represent a real set of problems that need to be constantly revisited. And we have to be free to bring them up if only to make sure our concerns are unfounded.
One of the big problems with Linux, as I see it, is that certain topics (basically anything that may imply that Linux isn't the best thing for every possible use) is off the table, because that discussion creates FUD. Kind of like any discussion on Iraq emboldens the terrorists, any discussion talking about the downside of Linux must be funded by Microsoft and/or is only to disparage Linux.
If there is one thing I know, particularly because I live in the U.S., it is that no topic should be off the table simply because it isn't positive about something others want to believe or do. I'm not convinced you can have "free" unless you have "free speech." I often wonder if the "free" software folks actually get this. Certainly the Communists don't, which takes us back on topic.
Use Linux, Lose an Election
Linux, which isn't really a product in my mind, as it co-defines the Open Source movement, is a brand. This brand has attributes that have been created over time and generally, at least for those that use it, represents something positive.
For some it represents the freedom to look at and mess with code, for others it represents "free" as in free beer, and for some it represents a strong weapon against capitalism, particularly with regard to software. I'm sure we could add some additional attributes, but the one that concerns me is this new concept that it is anti-American.
Can you imagine the NSA IT manager trying to get funding for a Linux based project right now? We are dropping into an extended election where the war in Iraq, terrorism, and nationalism are likely to be major battlegrounds. On the economic front, China remains a huge concern and in many battles it too is likely to come up, particularly as these battles are fought in areas where unions are strong.
If I'm running against an incumbent (who probably has no clue about software at all) and I know some organization under them deployed Linux and that it is being positioned as anti-U.S., might I not use that in the election? "Ladies and gentlemen I promise that under my administration we will not implement products like Linux that put the nation at risk, which contribute critical technology to the terrorists, and embolden our enemies." In politics all you need is a grain of truth. In fact, sometimes I wonder if you even need a "grain."
The Problem with Linux
With a proprietary product someone clearly owns the brand. I could argue that Microsoft does perhaps the poorest job of maintaining the positive qualities of its brand of any company I cover, but at least they have not positioned it as being anti-American. At least not yet. Granted, large companies can make mistakes because they are made up of humans, but there are a number of protections in place that should reduce the exposure of a company product suddenly being the poster child of terrorists or other hostile entities.
With Linux there is no such protection. There is even a Red Flag version which clearly created the potential for a problem, but since that problem was connected to an effort contained in China and well branded, there was little or no impact on the image of Linux in general.
However, Stallman's recent escapade clearly connected the generic Linux brand to anti-American activities and combined with the rhetoric from the Cuban Minister attached this anti-American attribute to the brand.
Outside of Miami, Cuba isn't a huge problem and Linux will likely survive this, but Iran and Cuba are close, and were this repeated in Iran I think we would have a real PR problem. And who handles that exactly?
In fact, who protects the Linux brand and would be responsible from making sure it didn't show up on a terrorist site with the words "death to America"?
Many contribute code to Linux, IBM probably is the most visible, and there are very strong laws about technology transfer to hostile countries like Cuba. If your company's well commented code makes it to Cuba and someone in the U.S. government wants to make a point about this, what is your defense? It has to have a happened before, but I can't seem to find a link that explains what you should do if the FBI or CIA drops in for a visit with related questions. Could this be the next big scandal after we get through the stock option mess?
If Linux does become the vocal favorite platform for Iran, which it appears to be, and someone like Stallman makes a big deal about this, what do you say if a line executive takes exception, for nationalistic reasons, to your using it?
My advice is to make sure anything you contribute to Linux doesn't violate the technology transfer laws that exist in most countries and make sure you have an answer to the second question that doesn't start with the words "oh shit."
In the end, though, I think it is a huge mistake to allow Linux, or any product, to become part of a political process or connected to any political propaganda. Because, once in, I doubt you can pull it out and if the product is constantly seen as anti-anything, eventually it may become, anti-everything as politicians use it to advantage.
Linux will likely survive this latest internally created challenge but, at some point, someone better take ownership of the Linux brand or others will position it and supporters will probably not like how it is positioned.
What do you think Linux users should do about this? Who should own the Linux brand? And do you agree that Linux should not be used as a political weapon against anyone?