Having succeeded in forcing Microsoft to stop exploiting hapless European customers by including a free (and sub-standard) browser with its operating system, the EU's competition czar, Neelie Kroes, has mapped out the next step in the war on free stuff.
"I don't think what Microsoft announced is going to restore competition," Opera's CTO Hakon Wium Lie told Reuters.
Another of Finland's major exports, besides the Opera Web browser, is paper. Nokia built Finland's first pulp mill in 1865, and paper now represents a quarter of its export revenue. Finnish president Tarja Halonen has welcomed as "long overdue" the Dutch proposal to tax Internet users to subsidise struggling print newspapers. He says this is a perfect model for how the EU can do more to protect traditional markets and trade.
Nokia and Opera have called for a national strike to protest the destruction of Finland's export industries.
Kroes has responded by proposing a tax on Linux users, which will go towards subsidising European sellers of commercial software."Nobody disputes that Microsoft violated competition law by giving its users a free browser, Internet Explorer, with every copy of the Windows operating system," she explains. "Likewise, it is clear from experiences both in Europe and in the USA that the Internet is undermining the financial viability of traditional newspapers. Why, then, would any civilised society tolerate the Linux operating system?"
Not so free
[Neelie] Kroes has responded by proposing a tax on Linux users, which will go towards subsidising European sellers of commercial software.
"Linux vendors are guilty of bundling a lot of free applications. Including sophisticated applications like OpenOffice and the Gimp at no extra charge is clearly anti-competitive behaviour, as established by the Microsoft precedent over Internet Explorer," Kroes says. "As if to thumb their noses at EU regulators, they even give away the operating system itself. How can real software companies be expected to compete on an equal footing in Europe?"
Jeremy Roche, chairman of the European Software Association (ESA), which is the industry's principal interface with European Union institutions, the media and the general public, has welcomed Kroes's proposal. He says this is another example of European best practice and co-operation across the business community.
"By giving people free software, open source vendors are violating their right to choose more expensive software made by European companies," says Roche. "Paid-for software is clearly superior, as any student of economics will tell you. So depriving users of the opportunity to pay amounts to exploitative business practice."
He adds that Europe's world-leading commercial software vendors, like SAP, Sage, Dassault Systèmes and Sopra, pay their workers well, and through their taxes sustain the welfare states that pay non-workers.
"They cannot be expected to compete against free software," Roche argues, "in much the same way that African farmers cannot compete against free food shipments from European donors. People who say that end-users benefit from access to free or inexpensive software are missing the big picture."
President Halonen says the hitherto unregulated Linux operating system – the core of which was written by a Finnish communist named Linus Torvalds – could have been a major export of Finland if it hadn't been free to distribute, modify and use.
"A tax will make sure that Linux users pay for their software," he says. "Users who were used to just clicking on software repositories to illegally download free software will have to think twice, or they will suffer the same fate that so-called 'peer-to-peer' music and film pirates face."
Roche says the ESA has already seeded the repositories of major distributions with fake copies of OpenOffice, the Gimp, Pidgin and QCad to track unauthorised users who exploit the anti-competitive behaviour of Linux vendors.
"Linux users, beware," he adds. "Your days of free-riding on the benefits of European socialism are over."
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