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North Korea's 'Red Star' Linux, and Is FOSS an Enemy of the State?

North Korea's 'Red Star' Linux, and Is FOSS an Enemy of the State?

Linux has become an unlikely political football, with North Korea's totalitarian government embracing it, and the International Intellectual Property Alliance suggesting that the use of open source software in government agencies "denies many legitimate companies access to the government market." So, open source providers aren't legitimate, then?

By Katherine Noyes
03/15/10 5:00 AM PT

If a totalitarian regime uses Linux, does that mean Linux is an enemy of the state?

That's the mind-bending question of the day following some politically charged Linuxy news that emerged over the past few weeks.

Exhibit A: North Korea, it appears, has developed its own Linux-based operating system, as recently revealed by a Russian student who studies there.

Called "Red Star," said OS is apparently widely available within North Korea, and only in the local language, according to an RT report.

With a strong similarity to the Windows user interface, Red Star even comes with a Readme file including quotes from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il about how important it is for the republic "to have its own Linux-based operating system compatible with Korean traditions," according to RT.

Enemies of the State?!

Exhibit B: Remarkably close in timing, it must be noted, came an article on Network World highlighting the 2010 Special 301 watchlist from the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA).

Though its name may suggest otherwise, the IIPA is made up of primarily American organizations, including the Association of American Publishers, the Business Software Alliance, the Entertainment Software Association, the Independent Film & Television Alliance, the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Music Publishers' Association and -- yes -- our friends at the Recording Industry Association of America.

The group's conclusion? Essentially that "any country even suggesting the use of open source software in government offices is an enemy of the state," as Network World put it, noting also that -- *cough, cough* -- such a definition should, technically, put the United States on that list.

'Weakens the Software Industry'

One of Linux Girl's favorite gems?

In the section on Indonesia, the IIPA actually writes that encouraging the use of FOSS in government agencies "weakens the software industry and undermines its long-term competitiveness by creating an artificial preference for companies offering open source software and related services, even as it denies many legitimate companies access to the government market."

So, open source providers aren't legitimate, then?

'Shouldn't It Be GNU/Red Star Linux?'

Linux bloggers, as one might well imagine, have not held back their opinions on either of these topics.

"The year of the linux desktop has finally come -- to North Korea," wrote Anonymous Coward on Slashdot, for example.

Then again: "Shouldn't it be GNU/Red Star Linux?" quipped aztektum.

And one more: "In N. Korea, you don't operate system; system operates YOU," chimed in interval1066.

'Bringing Us Down'

Bloggers on Digg, meanwhile, couldn't leave the IIPA report alone.

"Yes! Apache, Firefox, Chrome and Android have done nothing but bring us down!" wrote creationismlol.

"Let's make malware enemy of the state and keep open source as an ally," suggested JohnnySoftware.

Linux Girl felt it her patriotic duty to bring freedom of speech to even more bloggers.

'The World Does Not Owe Them a Living'

"Good for [North Korea]," blogger Robert Pogson began. "That is one of the strengths of GNU/Linux -- the ability to be configured for whatever purpose.

"We could argue about the isolationism in their browser, but the general idea of using GNU/Linux for information technology Visit the VMware Tech Center is mainstream," Pogson added.

As for the IIPA, on the other hand, "they are promoting themselves by putting down others," he charged.

"When they can produce a product as good or better than FLOSS for the price of the labor, maybe they could talk," Pogson concluded. "The world does not owe them a living. The world can produce its own software the hard way, by working at it."

'Lawsuit-Generating Organizations'

Indeed, "someone really needs to do something about organizations that claim to protect the interests for the country but then only advocate for their own interests," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack agreed.

Similarly: The IIPA is "a meta-acronym for a bunch of American intellectual property lawsuit-generating organizations," Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza opined.

"I found the IIPA's actual report far more concerning than even the second-hand reports," Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, told LinuxInsider.

Worse Than Piracy?!

In particular, the IIPA focuses primarily on two issues, Travers explained: rampant piracy and market barriers.

"When comparing the severity of these elements in the executive summary, the report suggests that the market barriers, including the use of open source, are a larger concern than outright piracy," he pointed out. "The IIPA thus not only suggests that the government should not mandate open source, but that to do so is worse than pirating proprietary software."

Such a suggestion is "greatly concerning, and brings to mind old Cold War policies of the U.S., where our commercial interests would be enforced by military or covert action around the world," Travers asserted. "Fortunately, I think the world is such that this makes the IIPA look nuts today."

'Nothing Communist About That'

It's ironic to see communism linked with Linux "when the reason countries like North Korea and China are using it is about the most capitalistic reason one can have: startup costs," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet pointed out.

"By using a free OS that has most of the work done for them, they can save many years and many millions of dollars by simply building on top of an already functional framework," he explained. "And since Linux is still being supported, with new code and device support coming out daily, they don't need to get developers on board or pay for new apps to be written, simply paying to have the apps they want translated to their language."

China, for example, has designed its own CPU -- the Loongson MIPS-based CPU -- "so they can get around Intel/AMD patents and have something they can control," hairyfeet noted. "If they were forced to write an OS from scratch, those chips would be worthless for probably a decade or more as all that code was written, yet I have seen lately Loongson-based netbooks offered for sale.

"How did they do that so quickly?" he continued. "By taking Linux OS code already written for MIPS and tweaking it to run on their CPU, that's how. And there's nothing communist about that."

'Source Code Is Neutral'

Rather than "Should open source be an enemy of the state?" it would make more sense to ask, "Should closed source be an enemy of the state?" asserted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"That the question is being asked at all speaks more about the motives of the questioner than anything else," she added. "We see this tendency in everything: Demonize it. If you can't find any better way to attack it, just say that evil people use it!"

Source code, however, "is just code... it's neutral," Hudson told LinuxInsider. What counts is "what you make of it and what you do with it.

"What next?" she asked. "Demonizing certain books and writings as enemies of the state? Oh, wait..."


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