Free as in free milk

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A first draft of this article has been sitting for months in my hard disk. I decided to finish it after reading that Microsoft will offer its operating system and office suite for $3 per machine to developing countries. That made me think of the way the giant software company “helps" these countries by giving licenses of its proprietary software almost for free, and that in turn made me think of free milk. Let me tell you about it.

The Nestlé boycott

In 1977 a boycott campaign was launched against Nestlé to protest for its marketing of breast milk substitutes. To make a long story short, Nestlé’s commercial agents in developing countries gave free samples of the infant formula to mothers shortly after they had given birth. They would shamelessly lie to them about the alleged advantages of the substitute product over breast milk, encouraging them not to breastfeed their babies. Since lactation is interrupted if the mother doesn’t breastfeed for several days, this forced a dependency on the substitute: when the mother ran out of free samples she found out that she couldn’t breastfeed her child any more, and had to buy more infant formula.

The use of breast milk substitutes in developing countries has been found directly or indirectly responsible for several health problems of infants. The water used to prepare the product is often contaminated in areas where drinking water supply is deficient. Also, when the mother has to buy the product she will sometimes use less than the indicated dose to make it last longer, causing malnutrition in the infant.

Besides, breast milk is the best nutritional source for newborn infants if the mother is healthy, and provides babies not only with all the necessary nutrients but also with antibodies that protect them from several illnesses. It also strengthens the bond between mother and child, and causes the release of hormones into the mother’s body that delay the return of the fertile periods, helping her space pregnancies.

Breast milk is the best nutritional source for newborn infants. (c) Nico Maessen, CC-by-nd 2.0.Breast milk is the best nutritional source for newborn infants. (c) Nico Maessen, CC-by-nd 2.0.

Thus, due to Nestlé’s marketing strategy both the mother and the baby lost the multiple benefits of breastfeeding while the multinational company benefited from their dependence on the substitute product. The boycott campaign finally led the World Health Organization to establish an International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, which forbids most marketing strategies for breast milk substitutes. The case was so clear that public opinion turned against the big corporation from the beginning, and, even though now and then the issue arises again, Nestlé has tried by all means to clean its image.

This is very interesting indeed, I can hear you saying, but what does breast milk have to do with free software? Patience, I’m getting there!

Microsoft’s free milk

For some years now, Microsoft has conducted an intensive marketing campaign in developing countries to make sure that its software is used in educational institutions. This includes negotiating license discounts with governments, providing training for educators and even giving their software away for free. And they claim to do it for the sake of future generations, who will benefit from the education of today’s students. That’s why, Microsoft says, they are giving their software away for free. Free as in free milk, for this strategy has many things in common with Nestlé giving free samples of breast milk substitutes. I’ll analyse the most evident ones.

Substituting a natural product

Just like infant formula is a substitute of real breast milk, proprietary software substitutes what is natural for us: sharing knowledge to improve our lives.

Sharing information is as natural as breathing for human beings. The history of art, science and technology is composed of incremental steps that build on previous knowledge. Even completely novel inventions and revolutionary theories are to some degree based on what was previously known. Newton saw further by standing on the shoulders of giants; personal computers exist thanks to hundreds of previous inventions, from the telegraph to the integrated circuit.

Proprietary software, the kind of software that Microsoft sells, is distributed in binary form. This format is conceived to be executed by computers and not to be read by humans. When you receive a program in binary form, all you can do with it is execute it in the appropriate type of hardware. In many cases, you must also accept a license that restricts the ways in which you can use the software, or the number of machines on which you can install it.

On the other hand, free software, also known as open source software, is distributed as source code, the set of instructions written by the developer in a specific programming language like C or Java. This means that anyone familiar with the language can read it, learn from it and try to improve it. Besides, free software licenses allow the modification and redistribution of the code, so that everyone can contribute to its development and benefit from the result. Free software is free as in free speech, not as in free milk.

These features have led to a development model that is completely different from the traditional way in which companies develop software. Successful free software projects, like the Apache web server or the Linux kernel, are developed by a heterogeneous community of programmers. Some of them work for companies that use the software or provide services, some of them are students working on a project, some of them are enthusiastic hackers that work on free software in their free time. There are no marketing departments, sales reports or productivity bonuses. Each community is a self-organised entity with its own rules, and they demonstrate every day that the software they produce is at least as good as proprietary software.

Free software is free as in free speech, not as in free milk

It is plain to see which form of software development and distribution is more natural to us, which can better promote the development of all nations. The adoption of free software, specially in education, is the only way to bridge the digital divide between developing nations and the areas where most of the software is actually produced. Only free software can provide us with the tools to access the information society without leaving future generations with the mortgage of a technological dependence on a private corporation.

Creating a dependence

When the biggest software corporation in the world starts giving away its products, the motivations behind this strategy must be carefully examined. As an example, the Fresh Start for Donated Computers program provides old donated computers with the company’s proprietary operating system. If some Swiss bank donates a bunch of old computers to a school in Guatemala, Microsoft will provide the software for free. For a few years, teachers and students will not have to pay to use the software, but when the institution receives new computers, or the licenses expire, what will they do? They are very likely to pay for the licenses of the software they have been trained to use, or they will just continue using the software without paying the license. Microsoft’s spokesmen have said in several occasions that the company prefers people using illegal copies of their software rather than not using it at all.

Dependence on breast milk substitutes lasts until the lactation period is over, and it can cause great damage during that time. But the dependence of a group of people on a proprietary software system lasts as long as that platform exists or until they have all been trained to use an alternative system. This network effect is deliberately reinforced by Microsoft with the use of closed file formats in popular applications, like office suites.

Microsoft’s gifts are part of a plan to control emerging markets from the very beginning. Once those countries are dependent on the product, they become potential buyers of upgrades and new versions. According to Microsoft’s senior vice president for emerging markets, Orlando Ayala,

“...for Microsoft this is an investment in the long term. These are the consumers of the future."

You can say that louder, but not clearer.

Aiming the weakest

Microsoft’s marketing strategy has been very aggressive in developing countries, where the need for external help in IT-related areas is higher, but also in less favoured areas in the United States and Europe. And this gift is much cheaper for the software giant than infant formula samples are for Nestlé, since the marginal cost of a software product is negligible.

Bridging the digital divide. (c) Jason Hudson, CC-by-nc-sa 2.0.Bridging the digital divide. (c) Jason Hudson, CC-by-nc-sa 2.0.

Many of those who benefit from Microsoft’s gifts have their first contact with computers at that time. If they receive no further information they will never know that there are alternatives that can be much better for themselves and their communities. Within these, children and young students are the most attractive objectives for Microsoft’s campaigns, since they are, as we have seen, “the consumers of the future".


We have seen how two different corporations use free samples of their products to create a dependence in the most vulnerable areas of the world. Even when the similarities between both marketing strategies are evident, Microsoft has earned the image of a company concerned with social causes, while Nestlé has been the objective of a successful boycott campaign that forced it to change its marketing strategy.

This double standard is maintained by the lack of public awareness on the implications of proprietary software. To make these implications known, and to promote the use of free software in education, is a step towards a world where access to knowledge is not restricted to those who can afford it.



Robert Pogson's picture

In many developed countries this practice could be called dumping, selling at below cost to harm competition. In the developing nations this prevents many smart, hard-working individuals from selling their skills to support local IT. The money goes to large businesses outside the developing nation. From any standpoint, commercial software threatens to preserve the digital divide.

To promote free enterprise in the developing world, to provide healthy competition instead of abuse of monopoly, and to give developing nations the best bang for their IT buck, I recommend everyone adopt and promote free software.

I live in a developed country, Canada, but we are a diverse nation with remote/impoverished parts with similar problems to developing nations. In particular, small isolated schools in Canada's North can only afford about half the computer seats they need if they use proprietary software. IT should be used in education just as it is used in business: tasks better done using computers for speed, accuracy, and scope should be done using computers. Drills, searching, editing, sharing information are all key tasks of education that computers do very well. Some schools have ten students for each computer. Using FLOSS some schools get very close to one student per computer, making possible many good uses of IT.

FLOSS has many benefits that shine in difficult conditions: longer useful life of PCs, lower power consumption using LTSP, more services available on a LAN because the per-seat costs are less, and lower maintenance costs.

Many argue that what is good for business is good for society, but that fails in an unregulated monopoly. If software companies do not have ethical behaviour we have to impose it or avoid doing business with the company.

Robert Pogson

A problem is an opportunity.

David Jacovkis's picture

I live in a developed country, Canada, but we are a diverse nation with remote/impoverished parts with similar problems to developing nations.

The poorest region of my country, Spain, has one of the highest computers per student ratios in Europe thanks to the massive deployment of free software in schools. You have probably heard about Extremadura and their GNU/Linux distro, gnuLinEx.

Many argue that what is good for business is good for society

Yes, those are usually the owners of companies. They tend to mix up "society" and "me".

but that fails in an unregulated monopoly. If software companies do not have ethical behaviour we have to impose it or avoid doing business with the company.

True. If we don't want the law of the jungle governing our economies we'd better remember that the "free" in "free market" and the "free" in "free speech" are completely different things.


Daniel Escasa's picture

Not quite. While the FSF and OSI licenses are compatible, Free Software is "dedicated to promoting computer users' rights to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs," whereas Open Source is "a development method for software that harnesses the power of distributed peer review and transparency of process." (From their respective Web sites.) Don't ever let RMS catch you calling him an Open Source advocate :)

Daniel O. Escasa
IT consultant and writer for hire
contributor, Free Software Magazine (
personal blog at

David Jacovkis's picture

I am very aware of the difference, and you'll notice that through the article I talk only about free software except for that sentence. However, in the context of Microsoft's business practices both free software (an ethical option) and open source software (a developement model) are better tools to bridge the digital divide than proprietary software.

It seemed to me that explaining the differences between them would deviate the reader's attention from the main point of the article. Besides, I was sure that someone would bring it up ;)


Cap'n Kernel's picture
Submitted by Cap'n Kernel (not verified) on

Brilliant analogy, David, and speaking as someone from the developing world (Kenya), I totally agree with you. However, where it reads "Free software is free as in free speech, not as in free milk," don’t you think it would be more appropriate in the context of your article to say that “Free software is free as in breast milk, not as in bottled milk"?

Ryan Cartwright's picture

...don’t you think it would be more appropriate in the context of your article to say that “Free software is free as in breast milk, not as in bottled milk"?

Surely you're not suggesting there's an analogy between the breast milk distribution model and the Free Software one, are you? ;o)

Michael Gardner's picture

India has been experiencing this very problem now for quite some time. As the business owner of an open source based solutions company working out of New Delhi, I find it staggering that 99.999% of all resume's I read have "C, C++, Java, ASP.NET" and "VB". When I put out a call for PHP developers and Linux Admins I got 35 resume's, 34 without any clue what the hell I was asking for ( and not a scrap of knowledge how to use PHP/Linux) and one stating he/she had PHP experience.

Simply put, no one has a clue what non-microsoft technology is. Sometimes I get looks and questions from CEO's of major corporations looking at me oddly about my solutions asking "Is it from Microsoft?" - As if that word implies "Quality" when in fact it is not the case (most of the time). We spend a lot of time fixing crappy microsoft ERP implementations which were done in a hurry and carelessly, and yet businesses KEEP BUYING IT. Despite how poor their solution is, they simply see that word "M$" and buy.

Microsoft is in all the educational institutions here. The only time Linux is taught is when they want to give students an introduction to the "command line". Linux is described as a "Command Line OS". When Linux is taught in RHCE exams etc, its taught along side windows 2003 server, which is inadvertently inserted into the curriculum despite its "Red Had" origins. How can this be I wonder?

The fact of the matter is, Microsoft is loosing in the Western / developed nations (yes while profiting hugely...), we're only now starting to see a change for the good there. But if something's not done about the developing world, there's not going to be a single developer out their in India or China or Kenya who has a clue what open source / FLOSS software is and is about.

And that's really a very sad situation.

Terry Hancock's picture

Sadly, it seems that the reverse is true too -- when looking for work, either conventional employment or contract work, it's hard to find jobs that ask for, say, "word processing skill" rather than, "Microsoft Word" or "publishing and layout skill" rather than "In Design".

People who train themselves on free software alternatives operate at a disadvantage in trying to find work, simply because of this kind of bias. As a result, most job-seekers must learn proprietary versions of software in order to get work, hence explaining your problem in finding people who've chosen otherwise. It's a vicious circle.

Sebastian D Tennant's picture

... we're fighting a war on drugs!

Microsoft are knowingly fostering dependency on a consumable product and its supplier, in order to make money further down the line.

That makes them a drug pusher in my book.

They can't even claim that they don't know it's addictive, or that it's bad for you in the long run, like Big Tobacco did.

They really are nothing short of an international mega-drug cartel! Ugh!

Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

A thought-provoking article! It should be added that Microsoft has gone well beyond hidden-agenda "price reductions" and "gifts". The company tries to short-circuit the buying procedures and even manipulate the political processes of various nations in pushing product and attempting to cut out open source.

Learn how the US ambassador to Peru did Microsoft's bidding in trying to derail open source in Peru in Wired's story here (

See why President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil accuses Microsoft of "using the tactics of a drug pusher" (

Simply googling the issue turns up much more documented evidence.

I say let's have a free, open competition between Microsoft and open source. But their actions show Microsoft will not engage on this basis. No wonder the company has concluded that after bankrolling SCO's failed law suit, they'd better launch their own (see,1895,1542865,00.asp).

Microsoft's conviction for illegal, monopolistic behavior has not led them to alter their behavior. The "remedies" failed, and the behavior this article describes is the result (

Author information

David Jacovkis's picture


David Jacovkis has worked as a systems engineer, ICT consultant and editor of educational materials. Nowadays he collaborates with the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya and in the SELF Project. He is co-founder of the Free Knowledge Institute []. His main interests are the ethical and philosophical implications of knowledge sharing, the technical and non-technical aspects of security in systems, and networks and writing about these issues for non-experts.