Thesis #7

Free software is what keeps the networked world going

This is a secret that the tech giants would prefer you didn’t know: our networked world is powered not by their proprietary software, but by software that is free. Free not in the sense of ‘free beer’, but in the sense of ‘free speech’. Because it was thought that the adjective ‘free’ would frighten the neoliberal horses of the corporate world (to whom it smacked of communism), the term was eventually dropped in favour of a more neutral term — open source (or, sometimes FOSS – Free and Open Source). But it remains free.

The term comes from the fact that ‘source code’ is the version of a computer program that is written and distributed in a high-level programming language that is human-readable. This distinguishes it from proprietary software, which is ‘closed’ — i.e. machine-readable only and incomprehensible to most humans. So even if proprietary software (like that for Microsoft and Apple web browsers) is distributed without charge, it still isn’t ‘free’ because its source code is not available. Open Source code is free not just in the sense that anyone with the requisite knowledge can read and understand it, but also because anyone can take it and modify it for their own purposes. And it’s distributed under a variety of ‘copyleft’ licences which bestow this ‘freedom to modify’ on condition that whoever takes advantage of it passes on the same freedoms to the next generation of programmers who want to use or build on it.

Free software is found everywhere in our networked world — although it is invisible to most users — and without it the system would collapse. Close to half of all the web servers in in the world, for example, are run by Apache software, which is an open source package. The broadband router in your home almost certainly runs on a version of the Linux operating system, which is free software. The Firefox web browser is open source. The Android operating system that powers 80 per cent of the world’s smartphones, is open source. Google’s huge server farms run on a customised version of Linux. And so on.

And the point of this? The giant tech companies like to pretend that they are the real sources of innovation when in fact much of their success is built on the back of a network that was constructed with taxpayers’ money and is powered by software that has mostly been written by volunteers and given away for free!

Further Reading

Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source, Harvard, 2005. Amazon UK:

Tim O’Reilly, “Open Source Paradigm Shift”, June 2004.

The Free Software Directory,

Chris di Bona and Sam Okham (Eds), Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution, O’Reilly Media, 1999. Amazon UK:

Chris DiBona, Mark Stone and Danese Cooper, Open Sources 2.0: The Continuing Evolution, O’Reilly Media, 2005.

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