The One Laptop Per Child project, launched by MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in 2003, was supposed to lead millions of children around the world to information technology and freedom. The plans aimed for low cost, enabling many children to use the machines, and free software, so they would have freedom while using them. I thought it was a good idea; I even planned to use one myself when I found in the OLPC’s promise of free software a way to escape the proprietary startup programs that all commercial laptops used.

But just as I was switching to an OLPC, the project backed away from its commitment to freedom and allowed the machine to become a platform for running Windows, a non-free operating system.

What makes this issue so important, and OLPC’s retreat from free software so unfortunate, is that the “free” in free software refers to freedom of knowledge and action, not to price. A program (whatever job it does) is free software if you, the user, have the four essential freedoms:

• Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish. Some proprietary software packages come with licenses that restrict even the use of authorized copies.

• Freedom 1: The freedom to study the source code—the algebra-like statements that specify what the program does—and then change it to make the program do what you wish. For instance, you could add new features to suit your taste. Or, if the program has malicious features, as Windows and MacOS do, you could remove them.

• Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute exact copies when you wish. We call this the freedom to help your neighbor.

• Freedom 3: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions when you wish. We call this the freedom to contribute to your community.

To exercise freedoms 1 and 3 requires programming, but you can take advantage of them indirectly without knowing anything about coding. If you want the program changed, you can give a copy to the programmer of your choice (exercising Freedom 2), the programmer can implement the changes you asked for (exercising Freedom 1), and give you the result (exercising Freedom 3); you will then pay the programmer as you agreed at the outset. This possibility is especially useful for companies, but individuals can take advantage of it too.

A free program develops democratically under the control of its users. By contrast, a non-free program develops under the autocracy of one developer—typically a corporation—and subjects the users to that developer’s power. The developer has sole control over what the program will do—and what it won’t do.

The worshipers of the invisible hand dogmatically claim that developers will always do what the users want. Empirically, what we see is that developers tend to abuse their power, even to the point of installing malicious features. Windows Vista has features to spy on the user, restrict use of data in the machine, and even attack the user (Microsoft can forcibly install changes in the system at any time). Windows Media Player restricts copying, format conversion, and even viewing of files. The Macintosh operating system is similar. You may think you use these tools, but really they are using you.

What makes OLPC’s retreat from free software so unfortunate is that the 'free' refers to freedom of knowledge and action, not to price.

Free software rarely suffers from malicious features because no developer has the power to make them stick: any user might find them, remove them, and publish a modified version improved by their absence. Thus, even if you never take the trouble to change the free program or pay someone else to change it, you still receive the benefits of living in a democracy, the benefits of keeping development under the control of the users.

Teaching children to use Windows is like teaching them to smoke tobacco—in a world where only one company sells tobacco. Like any addictive drug, it inculcates a harmful dependency. (Bill Gates made this comparison in a 1998 issue of Fortune Magazine.) No wonder Microsoft offers the first dose to children at a low price. Microsoft aims to teach poor children this dependency so they can smoke Windows for their whole lives. I don’t think governments or schools should support that aim.

The OLPC was supposed to avoid that harmful result by using the free operating system GNU/Linux. Even more exciting for me, a lower-level piece of software, the startup program or “BIOS,” was going to be free as well. There were many laptops capable of running a free GNU/Linux system, and I used one of them; there was already a free BIOS, but no manufacturers had ever published the information a developer would need to make the free BIOS run on their laptops.

When the OLPC appeared, it fell one step short of full freedom: the highly publicized wireless mesh network device, which allows OLPCs to connect to the Internet through nearby OLPCs, required a non-free program. This piece of non-free code prevented me from fully endorsing the OLPC. But that would not stop me from using one: I would just have to delete the non-free code and do without the internal wireless device.

The OLPC had practical inconveniences, too: no internal hard disk, a small screen, and a tiny keyboard. In December 2007 I test-drove the OLPC with an external keyboard, and concluded I could use it with an external disk despite the small screen. I decided to switch.

The OLPC developers advised me to wait for the next batch of machines, in which some technical glitches would be resolved. After the machine arrived and the Free Software Foundation obtained the necessary external disk, ethernet, Wi-Fi and modem devices, I had a week in April to move my files to the OLPC and prepare it to take on my next trip.

That very week, Negroponte announced that future OLPC machines would be designed so they could run Windows. In Peru they will be delivered with Windows installed. (I plan to try to organize counterpressure while in Peru this November.) But even the OLPCs delivered with GNU/Linux will be easy to convert subsequently to Windows. It only requires a small card that is supposed to cost $7. (I expect Microsoft will hand these out to the kiddies like free samples of cigarettes.)

Teaching children to use Windows is like teaching them to smoke tobacco—in a world where only one company sells tobacco.

This reversal of policy flew in the face of the project’s stated goals of promoting freedom. Several OLPC developers quit in disgust, and some members of the user community tried to oppose the change. But Negroponte ignored them and proceeded with his decision. As a result, I now expect that the main effect of the OLPC project—if it succeeds—will be to turn millions of children into Microsoft users. That is a negative effect, so the world would be better off if the OLPC project had never existed.

People seeing me with an OLPC at my speeches took that as an endorsement of the project. This made me uncomfortable, so I decided to counteract the appearance by explicitly raising the issue of OLPC’s surrender to Windows.

Fortunately I soon came across a better machine. In May, while in China, by pure chance I met people from Lemote, which produces a laptop based on a variant of the MIPS processor. They say it contains no non-free software, and that seems to be true.

The Lemote machine I am using now is a prototype, and it has some inconveniences; for instance, it burns a great deal of electricity. I trust the production model will be better. Other companies in Europe and China are likewise planning to start selling cheap MIPS-based laptops soon. As a bonus, Windows does not run on the MIPS processor; it never has.

* * *

In 2007 the OLPC project asked the public for donations, basing its plea on its stated principles of freedom. Many people paid the price of two machines to receive one, with the other meant as a gift to a child in the developing world. Now the project proposes to make a similar appeal again, but is it worthy of support? It has not lived up to the commitments on the basis of which it received backing before. Some of their computers will be delivered with user-subjugating Windows software, and the rest are likely to be converted to Windows afterward.

If you want to support a venture to distribute low-priced laptops to children, wait a few months, then choose one that donates MIPS-based machines that run entirely free software. That way you can be sure to give the gift of freedom.

Copyright Richard M. Stallman, 2008. This article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

A small correction: I was mistaken in saying that Windows has never run on MIPS processors. It turns out that some Windows versions (either past, or stripped-down) have been able to run on some MIPS-based machines. However, they would not work on the Lemote machines. -RMS, November 6, 2008