Google is killing Free Software

Now that I got your attention with the catchy title, lemme rephrase that in a somewhat longer sentence:

Google is the greatest danger to the Free Software movement at the current time.

I’m not sure I should presume intent because of Hanlon’s razor, but a lot of smart people concerned about Free Software work at Google, so they should at least be aware of it.

The first problem I have with Google is that they are actively working on making the world of Free Software a worse place. The best example for this is Native Client. It’s essentially a tool that allows building web pages without submitting anything even resembling source code to the client. And thereby it’s killing the “View Source” option. (You could easily build such a tool as Free Software if instead of transmitting the binary, you’d transmit the source code. Compare HTML with Flash here.)

The second problem I have with Google is that what they do actively confuses people about Free Software. Google likes to portray itself as an Open Source company and managed to accumulate a lot of geek cred that way (compared to Apple, Amazon or Microsoft). But unfortunately, a lot of people get introduced to Open Source and Free Software via Google. And withholding source code for a while, shipping source code to something similar are close enough to confuse unsuspecting bystanders. And I fear that behavior is doing more harm than good to Free Software.

All that said, I don’t think Google is stupid, illegal or even illogical in what they do. Everything they do makes sense. All I’m saying is that they’re scumbags and you should be aware of that.


#1 Anonymous on 02.01.12 at 17:48

I agree with your second point. However, regarding the first, View Source hasn’t usefully worked for complex JavaScript in a long time, and Native Client doesn’t make that any worse. Just take a look at the output of any of the JavaScript minifying tools, or more the point take a look at what emscripten produces when it translates LLVM to JavaScript.

#2 albert vilella on 02.01.12 at 17:51

How about GSoC?

#3 Tom on 02.01.12 at 17:51

Yeah, releasing millions of lines of code is killing free software.
Sponsoring projects and SOCs is also killing free software.

Your black and white TV is broken. Get one with shades of grey.
(BTW 13G$-in-3-months-Apple is doing way more damage, as is MS).

#4 Travis B. Hartwell on 02.01.12 at 18:05

Interesting points. I do agree Google with-holding source on what is supposed to be and advertised as open source is frustrating.

But I find your point about Native Client being bad because you can’t “View Source” to be slightly misguided. Being able to “view source” in any html-based application is really not much more useful, especially in terms of the spirit of open source software. Most applications are not entirely client side, so if we do not have the source to the server-side software, seeing just the client side is not entirely useful. This isn’t to defend Native Client as a good idea or good for open source, but just that your argument feels weak.

#5 Robert on 02.01.12 at 18:06

No defending Google here, I dislike Native Client with all my soul, but what you are saying sounds like “GCC developers are killing Free Software, because they allow to ship only binaries”

#6 Anonymous Coward on 02.01.12 at 18:07

> The best example for this is Native Client. It’s essentially a tool that allows building web pages without submitting anything even resembling source code to the client.

Native Client is no different in this respect from Java or Flash, which both use an opaque bytecode. People already provide proprietary software to web clients with Java, Flash, or JavaScript. However, few consider this to be any kind of danger to free software. Indeed, the primary complaint is that they might require a non-free interpreter. However, Native Client doesn’t have this problem: it has an open specification and is implemented in Chromium, where the relevant portions are under a BSD-style licence.

#7 Juanjo Marin on 02.01.12 at 18:17

Google’s don’t be evil promise is difficult to follow, but certainly details like you mention are close to evil. I hope they can get the things right or better soon.

IMHO I think that Android could better for all with more components from GNU/Linux systems, like Arun Raghavan’s PulseAudio vs AudioFlinge case has shown. This could be a win-win game bringing more developing resources for free and open source software projects and more mature components for Android.

#8 Benjamin Otte on 02.01.12 at 19:00

> View Source hasn’t usefully worked for complex JavaScript
> in a long time, and Native Client doesn’t make that any worse.
I think the difference here is on a conceptual level. The default data transmission/storage method for assembler code is “unreadable/closed”, the default method for the web is “readable/open”. Of course it’s possible to write tools that improve/worsen that state, but that’s beside the point.

The interesting thing about that is the implications. Reverse engineering is a criminal act in a lot of countries, there are lawsuits about people running disassemblers. On the other hand, nobody has ever claimed that “View Source” is a criminal tool or that using it should be illegal.

#9 Anonymous Coward on 02.01.12 at 20:11

Open Source doesn’t imply
a) giving out code before the developers are ready
b) using the same version that you give out.

Lots of companies open source the previous version of their product. You complain? They don’t owe you a thing.

#10 Simon on 02.01.12 at 20:17

The default data transmission/storage method for assembler code is “unreadable/closed”, the default method for the web is “readable/open”. Of course it’s possible to write tools that improve/worsen that state, but that’s beside the point.

I don’t think it is, really. Recommended practice for years now has been to send a ‘minified’ version of all Javascript code, to reduce download size. So while ‘readable’ might be the default, in practice most sites won’t be doing so, even if they otherwise espouse open-source virtues.

#11 cgb on 02.01.12 at 20:19

Being able to see the source code doesn’t mean it’s Free Software, and distributing a binary for execution doesn’t mean it can’t Free Software.

#12 Hub on 02.01.12 at 20:46

Also SAAS (also know as “the cloud” or other marketing term) is killing Free Software. Do we have Gmail source code to improve it? Google Docs? Nope.
Worse. What do Google Docs use in the backend? Some Free Software package they improved but didn’t contribute to?

Yes NaCl is evil. I just reminds me of ActiveX controls, or even Java.

#13 mibus on 02.01.12 at 20:59

IMHO, the biggest danger Google presents is from simply being too awesome.

What work isn’t happening on Free/Open mail & webmail systems, because GMail is ‘good enough’?

Or in RSS readers? Group calendaring? etc.

Work in those areas is still going on, sure, but how much more would be happening if Google’s (excellent) services weren’t available for free?

(I know that I no longer run mail, webmail, XMPP server, local RSS reader, … etc; how many other developers are in the same boat?)

#14 Matthew on 02.01.12 at 21:26

I do think Google has done harm to free software but not at all in the ways you mentioned. First, it has absorbed many developers that were contributing but stopped when hired. Second, it has taken the wind out of many projects, “just use Google(gmail, picasa, docs, etc..)” instead.

#15 finid on 02.01.12 at 22:09


“Being able to see the source code doesn’t mean it’s Free Software, and distributing a binary for execution doesn’t mean it can’t Free Software.”

Well, if I can see the code without signing an NDA, then its Free Software, because seeing the source code under that condition means that I have unfettered access to it.

To be considered Free Software, access to a programs source must be available to all.

#16 Joe blow on 02.01.12 at 22:18

Native Client was needed since the open source HTML goons move so slow and HTML is still pathetic that someone had to invent a language to write real web apps. The current HTML/Javascript is stupid. GPL goons and these stupid licenses are the greatest threat to open source, not Google. Apple’s killing everyone since open source is stuck in the 60′s

#17 Anon on 02.01.12 at 22:48

Do you object to Google using a BSD userland to avoid spats like ? Do you agree with the “Google should do more” sentiment on ?

#18 Kevin Kofler on 02.01.12 at 23:13

You raise some good points there, but there are some other important points you missed:

1. Google’s main business is web apps. And not only are all of Google’s web apps (or at least all the ones people actually use) proprietary (!), but the very concept of web apps is a threat to Free Software:
Being one of the main promoters of the concept, and building its main business around it, Google hurts Free Software.

2. As I mentioned above, all those popular Google web apps are proprietary. Compare to true Open Source web app companies such as WordPress which actually let you download their code under a Free Software license and host it on your own server if you so wish (and in fact that’s exactly what does). Now it is still debatable how much of your freedom you really have left if you rely on a hosted application (such as, even under a Free Software license (see the Stallman essay above), but at least WordPress tries (and gives you the freedom to use their software without their hosting). Google does not.

3. Most of Google’s desktop applications are proprietary, too. Not only Chrome (at least there’s a Free version there, but it indeed sucks that they only ship binaries of and advertise the proprietary one, and as a result almost everyone is using that proprietary version), but also Picasa (desktop version), Google Earth, Desktop Search etc.

4. Google’s proprietary offerings compete with high-profile Free Software projects: GMail competes with the many existing Free e-mail clients (KMail, Evolution, Thunderbird etc.), Google’s RSS reader competes with Akregator/Liferea/etc., Google Maps competes with OpenStreetMap, Google Earth competes with Marble (or people just bring up Google Maps in a browser instead, or even integrate Google Maps into supposedly Free Software applications through a browser widget), Picasa and PicasaWeb compete with Digikam (and several GNOME equivalents) etc. As a result, they actively drive users off Free Software. And in the case of the web apps, the users often don’t even see themselves as users of non-Free software, after all “the only software they run” is Firefox… Sadly, even high-profile Free Software developers fall into this trap.

Now, for some reason, Google also does fund Free Software, e.g. through GSoC (and ironically even funds projects which compete with their own proprietary projects that way!), but at its core, it’s a very proprietary company.

#19 Pierre Phaneuf on 02.01.12 at 23:37

By “source code related to something similar”, I presume you’re referring to Chrome vs Chromium? If so, what do you think of Firefox vs Iceweasel?

#20 Benjamin Otte on 02.02.12 at 00:15

To all the people claiming that Goole writes closed source software (both client or server-side): That just puts Google in the same pot as Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Oracle or any other company really. That’s sad, but a thing I can live with. I think this undermining of Free Software I pointed out is worse though, in particular because nobody is aware of/thinks about it.

#21 Benjamin Otte on 02.02.12 at 00:19

@Pierre Phaneuf: What about it? Firefox and Iceweasel are Free Software with the source code available. If you mean the trademark problem, It’s unfortunate that the situation exists and I’d like a GPL license for Trademark usage, but until that exists, I’ll reserve judgement.

#22 Mairin Duffy on 02.02.12 at 02:19

Add to this the insane invasions of privacy and you have yourself one hell of an evil.

#23 Hans on 02.02.12 at 03:35

Hrm, some interesting points I hadn’t considered before, but they do release interesting things as open-source, and they stimulate many projects through GSoC, and I’m not sure if the whole Gingerbread source release debacle and NativeClient undo all that.

But ultimately, if we’re going to live in a world where we have companies like MS, Adobe, Apple, then I feel that we’re better off with Google thrown in there, too.

#24 Leif on 02.02.12 at 03:56

This seems like a troll…anyhow.

So despite Google’s massive contributions to FOSS (to name a few…one delayed Andriod release and one experimental tool (nacl) determines your entire perspective of the company?

Frig, hopefully not all GNOME users had that attitude after trying GNOME 3.0 and left before trying 3.2, etc.

I agree nacl sounds stupid and am personally confused by it, but I don’t write off the entire company for it.

#25 Kevin Kofler on 02.02.12 at 04:05

Well, the scary thing about Google’s proprietary software is that most of it is web applications, so people often don’t even realize that they’re using proprietary software, or that they’re using software (other than their web browser) at all. Their stuff (even the desktop apps) also tends to run on GNU/Linux. As a result, they’re eroding Free Software’s marketshare much more effectively than anything from, say, M$ (except maybe Skype, but that was originally not from M$). Google web apps also offer a whole “platform within the platform”, so people happy with one of their services will tend to also adopt the others (at the expense of the equivalent Free Software), an effect not experienced with the other common “poison pills” offered to GNU/Linux users, such as Flash or Skype.

And you also have to look at the licensing of the stuff they release under the light of the “Open Source company” image they’re trying to paint (as you already pointed out), which makes the fact that it’s almost all proprietary very hypocritical and deceptive. M$ releases tons of proprietary software, but they don’t run around the streets boasting about “Open Source” this, “Open Source” that.

(Disclaimer: None of this is intended to defend M$! I only want to point out why Google’s actions are worrying me.)

#26 Fitoschido on 02.02.12 at 04:35

Phrases like «shipping source code to something similar»… I love this kind of rubbish.

#27 Anonymous on 02.02.12 at 06:36

> On the other hand, nobody has ever claimed that “View Source” is a criminal tool or that using it should be illegal.

People have tried. Criminal cases have occurred over people hand-editing URLs and using View Source.

#28 Ptg on 02.02.12 at 11:46

“Browser’s View Source” is not how open source software works. That has never been and never will be the way people distribute and share source code.

#29 Jose Cuervo on 02.02.12 at 13:11

Well although it would be nice for Google to be more clear then they currently are with their open source initiative. BUT, You have to admit they are light years ahead of Apple and MS.

I think the confusion here is that they are required to contribute to the open source movement as a firm. Well they aren’t. They are a publicly traded company –> Money, Money Money. So right now a bunch of people who own Google stock are the people who can say what Google can or should be doing, and not you the stakeholder.

I really don’t understand your first point. So your saying that the application is limiting the user’s ability to view or source code or that they limit people inititive to develop web pages? (Admittedly) That is how I feel about Google Sites. But thats my problem.

I think the real problem isn’t one business rather an entire culture. Everything thinks that they are obligated to pay money to be productive or even use a computer, or not able to contribute to the development of a product. You must admit that Google’s free applications are a competing force to open source alternatives, and that is disappointing. However I think its a nice (BUSINESS) model. Its free for students, academia, and personal use, and not for business use. I think some would say that a more ideal model would be a GPL/Open/GNU world. And that Google’s model is counterproductive to the open source movement. I can’t say I disagree.

#30 Benoit on 02.02.12 at 13:59

What’s really sad about NaCl is not so much that it kills ‘View Source’ (after all, minified JS is already useless to read), it’s rather that it kills DOM inspection tools (allowing you to see the DOM tree even if you don’t see the source) and that it’s plain x86 machine code so it’s not portable (had NaCl happened 5 years ago, ARM-based smartphones would not have been so successful)

#31 Benoit on 02.02.12 at 14:07

Also, by bypassing DOM APIs, NaCl allows Google to completely bypass standardization efforts and decide APIs on their own. That’s why other browser vendors will never support NaCl: they’re not offered any opportunity of participation on an equal footing.

Note that while NaCl claims to support DOM APIs, by design accessing them from NaCl code is super slow, so expect NaCl apps to use only the NaCl-specific APIs (I think that’s what they call Pepper, not sure).

#32 Dave on 02.02.12 at 16:10

I am a senior recruiter at google let me give you a call

#33 Willem on 02.02.12 at 19:08

I’m sorry Benjamin I think you really don’t know what you’re talking about. Being able to view javascript and html does not equate to being free software. Just throw a big copyright disclaimer in and you are not allowed to do anything with it. It is more like ms’ shared source initiative a couple of years ago, you can look, but not touch, let alone reuse. This renders #15 point moot as well.

I do agree with Kevin #18, it’s the free as in beer services they deliver that are dangerous for the free as in speech software efforts. At least they use some open standards so you are able to avoid lock-in.

#34 Tracius01 on 02.02.12 at 19:10

Native Client is a wonderful technology, and will not harm open source, you are just stupid!

#35 Bill on 02.02.12 at 19:23

Flamebait – nothing more here!

#36 Free Software Is Just Fine « Bangarang – a media player on 02.02.12 at 19:41

[...] — jamboarder @ 11:40 am So I see there is yet one more person babbling on about how Google is killing free software .  This is tiresome. I fully support vigilance in our FOSS efforts. However, it strikes me as odd [...]

[WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The comment’s server IP ( doesn’t match the comment’s URL host IP ( and so is spam.

#37 Aleve Sicofante on 02.03.12 at 02:37

What’s really killing free software is the huge amount of nuts writing nonsense like this.

Google is not “killing” anything by abusing its use of “open source” as a marketing gimmick. Maybe you think you’re the clever guy in a planet full of idiots, but most people actually can tell the difference between marketing and the real thing. Quite the contrary, Google is probably the major corporation of its size and importance pouring money into open source projects, far far ahead of Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle or anyone else worldwide. It does it in itw own interest: free labor and good publicity (like so many others, by the way).

So you don’t like NaCl? That’s fine. Talk about its merits and failures, but stop the whining “it doesn’t let me see the source”. Almost no website with a backend allows you to view the source running at their servers. Are you going to accuse each and every webmaster of “killing free software”? Get real!

You don’t like Google opening up the source of a project they didn’t feel was ready to be opened? Boo-hoo. They actually did us a favor and you weren’t forced to use the binary blob BEFORE they published the source. They made it once in a number of releases and for good reasons. Again: get real!

Sure, corporations are evil and Google is no exception, but the title and arguments in your post, and not corporations, are the kind of thing that really scare people away from free software: plain stupidity.

#38 Alex Kuster on 02.03.12 at 16:58

Bullshit, you’re making an “argument” out of 2 things against a world of things like SoC, code-in, releasing of tons of projects and patches that can be counted in millions of lines ….

Yeah, sure …

#39 Alex Kuster on 02.03.12 at 16:58

Nothing to see here, move along … =/

#40 Mirek2 on 02.09.12 at 19:29

You could have similar rants about most companies that back open source — no company is perfect. Look at Canonical — the Ubuntu Software Center includes proprietary apps, Ubuntu One’s server software is proprietary, it has a tendency to fork upstream efforts, …

Fact is, Google has done a lot for open-source. They’re the reason why the most popular mobile OS is open-source. Without them, there would be no open-source alternative to H.264 for HTML5 video. They organize GSoC, back a number of open-source projects, and advocate against censorship and software patents. They don’t do everything right, but they’re far from scumbags.

#41 Mirek2 on 02.09.12 at 19:43

@Kevin Kofler
You’re right — it’d be nice if Google released the source code behind their web apps, but at least they don’t lock you in. When a good open-source alternative (like WordPress or Diaspora, once it reaches stability) emerges, nothing will keep people from switching. We just need those open-source alternatives. (Google does back LibreOffice, which is working on a web app right now.)