It’s Not About the Software

A few days ago, I had an epiphany.  I, like many of my readers, have spent a good portion of my life advocating for libre software.  There has always been a particular glow to the idealistic concept of information flowing through society, and to the possibility of adaptation to a particular context.  Unfortunately, as most advocates and critics alike have come to learn, a good portion of libre software is known to few beyond the developer, and modifications to suit a particular need are not nearly as common as advocates would have one believe.

What, then, is the allure of libre software?  Is it the simple possibility of these theoretical ideals?  Why should we use, develop, or recommend libre software over the alternative proprietary platforms that my have more features?  “The development model,” claim some, “is collaboration based, and ensures no malignancies will enter into the codebase.”  However, only some libre software is developed this way.  Many projects are quite unforgiving to new contributors, and most projects never pique the interest of anyone at all for contributions.  Because of this, malignancies cannot necessarily be avoided.  When nobody is interested in or capable of (without a fork) making changes, the hypothetical options available to prevent intentional dysfunctions dissolve in practicality.

“There are other benefits,” advocates say.  “The developers actually care about the work they do, so it is better written, and more help is available.”  Some projects contain almost artfully-written code.  These examples are frequently studied by new programmers and taught in universities for their quality.  Unfortunately, resulting from the fact that an ideology can’t use a keyboard, this isn’t true for all libre software.   “Spaghetti code” would be a complement for a good chunk of the libre code one could find online.  Developers of libre software also tend to be more approachable, but again, this is only true in some cases.  Plenty of libre software is unmaintained.

Finally, we get to a discussion on “freedom”.  This particular word was enough to segment the community into the free software community and the open source community.  No matter what the reader’s opinions are on the subject, it does bring up many valid points.  All libre software gives its users permission to give away or sell copies to others.  For those that know how to program, libre software does indeed provide the opportunity for modifications to be made.  Consequently, it ensures that those modifications can be sold or distributed.

There are a few flaws to this paradigm, though.  People who do not know how to program and have no capacity to learn do not have the freedom to make changes.  The need to hire someone to do one’s work is not freedom.  Other than having a wider choice on developers to hire, it might as well be proprietary software.  Yes, libre software allows redistribution without cost, but so does freeware and shareware.  Libre software still appears to be much more free than freeware or shareware, though.  Why?

I have been dealing with this question recently, and it has been incredibly frustrating.  Why should I advocate for libre software?  Am I trying to impose something that works well for me onto others and insist that it will work well for them too?  What advantage is libre software to people who will never learn programming?  Why would I never advocate for proprietary software?

Then it hit me.  Like a freight train.  My epiphany.  I would never advocate for proprietary software because it’s a product.  I don’t endorse products; I fight for ideas.  That was it. 

Libre software is not a product.  It’s an idea.

Why had I never seen it before?  Products are marketed and pitched to consumers in hopes that they will buy them.  Ideas are excitedly shared with others by those who create them, and propagated by anyone who is interested.  Libre software gives as much freedom as does an idea.  Just as not every individual can make modifications to software, not every individual can implement every idea.  In fact, most are specific to particular people, groups, or situations.  But ideas are intrinsically free, and no amount of marketing or packaging can change that.

All of the aforementioned benefits cited in libre software packages can be traced to their identity as ideas.  People tend to stand behind their ideas, which is why libre software is usually so well supported.  Ideas can be built upon and improved by others, hence the high quality of some libre software and the general absence of “anti-features”.  The goal of a product is to be used in as many places as possible.  The goal of an idea is to be as useful as possible.  Their forms are sometimes so similar that it becomes difficult to distinguish between the two.  Ideas naturally lend themselves to be duplicated, reused, and adapted for a particular purpose.  Products are sold to meet a need.

This general idea can be used to gain a new perspective on how libre software should be viewed.  Basing one’s infrastructure on ideas instead of products helps to focus the effort on what is really important.  Products can be discontinued forever with the flip of a manufacturer’s wrist.  Ideas are eternal.  They can be used, duplicated, adapted, and discarded at the leisure of the individual.  There is no need for any given software package, free or proprietary.  There is a great need, though, for the functions said software performs.  While products have certainly put dents in human civilization, only ideas have reshaped the word.  In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “It is a lesson which all history teaches wise men, to put trust in ideas, and not in circumstances.”

As I’m sure you know, a blog entitled “A High School Student’s Views on Software Freedom” can’t possibly last forever.  In a few days, that title will become irrelevant as I enter the freshman class at the University of Minnesota to study neuroscience and physics.  As a result, I am shutting down this blog for good.  I’m always up for discussion, so feel free to comment or contact me on my website, and I’ll be sure to get in touch.  Until then, enjoy life, make waves, let those ideas flow, and continue to abide the other side of the divide.

Published in: on August 27, 2011 at 5:44 pm  Comments (13)  

The Decompiler Dilemma

The whole advantage to free software is that you can take it apart and look at it, right? That is what most free software advocates would have you believe. So what would happen if the GNU Project released a Perfect Decompiler, a decompiler that could perfectly decode any binary into source code understandable by humans? (For the theoretical purposes of this discussion, let us also assume the impossible case that the binary is decompiled into a verbatim copy of the original source code.) Would this help or hurt the Free Software Movement?

The only barriers ensuring that proprietary software remains proprietary would be those of law. In a pure state of anarchy, a perfect decompiler would be indistinguishable from having all software released as free software. It would essentially render the Free Software Movement perfectly successful in anarchist states. Complete access to the source code of any application could be obtained with little effort, and modification would be limited only by the quality of the newfound code. In the world as it exists today, however, this would not be the case. Proprietary software licenses across the board prohibit disassembling in the first place, and copyright laws prohibit the possibility of doing anything interesting with the decompiled code. It would seem that, besides abandonware and oddly-permissive proprietary licenses, a perfect decompiler would be meaningless to the Free Software Movement due to the artificially imposed limits of the government. Is that necessarily so?

One current roadblock to the Free Software Movement is the diamond-water paradox. The diamond-water paradox points out the fact that water is necessary for survival, yet free, whereas diamonds are useless but highly treasured. Like water, free software has an infinite availability. Like diamonds, the supply of proprietary software is limited by cost. It makes no difference which is more important or useful; when monetarily limited, proprietary software will be seen as having more value than free software. No matter what the quality is, only a fool would exchange something of greater value for something of lesser value. Free software users simply value freedom much more than purchase price, making the free software option more valuable. This is where free software advocates stumble: in order to change what software people use, they must change their entire set of ideals and ways of thinking.

The most common arguments for the promotion of free software involve uncertainty as to how one is being treated, privacy, the ability to control one’s experience, and the ability to share. With a perfect decompiler, uncertainty and privacy could be addressed very easily. After the release of such a decompiler, a fairly large number of privacy-indifferent companies would have their reputations damaged until they released privacy-respecting software updates. After a package of unapologetic apologies, the effects of distrust would be fairly short-term, and would not in themselves result in a significant drop in sales.

The ability to control one’s own experience is, more often than not, seen as a form of individualism. Big companies can never sue every individual that questions their castle on a cloud. Just like the world of software patents today, the actions of independent developers would go unnoticed, for the most part. In other words, only big companies that made modifications to software (and developers who intended to resell modifications) would be hurt by the inability to modify source code, and individuals would be able to make all the changes they wanted. To individuals, this would sound like something that would trip up only large corporations, when in reality, it is from those large corporations that the most useful and important modifications come.  Plus, nobody would ever come to depend on a platform that cannot be reliably run in any situation.  The mixing of individualism and formal/corporate usage is a difficult concept to understand, and one that many seasoned free software advocates still do not grasp.

Finally, the ability to share is seen by a large percentage of the population as a right that already exists. The sharing and usage of illegal proprietary software is so rampant today that the ability to share decompiled code (modified or vanilla) would not be immediately seen as a problem. While it is debatable whether or not this is the path down which society should be going, many of those savvy enough to legally share software are already doing so.

Keeping these ideas in mind, why would any non-philosophically-inclined individual see the value of free software with the availability of the perfect decompiler? Besides existing free software sympathizers, the grounds for showing the advantage of free software would be so small that even the philosophically inclined would have trouble seeing the value of complete freedom as outweighing the value of practicality.

The relevance of this is fairly straightforward: access to the source code is all that many free software supporters really want. It is hammered into the community members’ minds by the most philosophical among them that the term “free” is what is important; however when asked to justify reasoning, it is much more rare to hear reasoning that protects the freedom to redistribute modified or vanilla copies when given access to the source code. It just makes things more difficult for both parties, and is often left out of the explanation of freedom. But does “freedom” really make sense without the holistic picture?

It would not be logical to discuss only the Free Software Movement, however, without giving a nod to its step-sibling movement, the Open Source Movement. The Open Source Movement has made huge contributions to the Free Software Movement, and a significant number of people consider themselves members of both efforts. Open source, however, respects only the interests of businesses trying to maximize profits, without giving a nod to its consumer-protecting step-sibling.

The two most commonly cited reasons that businesses release their software as open source are to gain more users and to develop a community around it. Open source software will not draw a significant number of new users, as we saw above. Consumer ideals are the greatest draws to free software, so open source’s added appeal would be very, very small if a perfect decompiler was developed, considering our explanation. (This reasoning ignores the “no cost to the consumer” mentality of such software because, if the source code was easily decompilable, the illegal acquisition of no-cost versions of proprietary software would be significantly more user friendly and commonplace than it is today.)

A much more difficult question is whether or not communities could be created around a company’s open source software. Even now, though, communities don’t develop overnight. Many times, they don’t develop at all. So exactly how could companies make the decision to give up their monopoly forever in order to get a piece of the profit the community has to offer? With “trade secrets” now readily available, it would seem that there would be much less harm in declaring a particular piece of software “free”. Does that mean companies would be more likely to make this dive into open source?

Community dynamics in software can generally be simplified by focusing on one target niche at a time. In general, there are a limited number of people in the world interested in contributing to free software projects that fill the niche that scratches their itch. The ideas of game theory and Cournot competition suggest that, if all software in a particular niche is identical, all of that software will eventually be open source. Differences do exist among pieces of software, though, and these differences prevent every company from choosing open source and filling the world with truly free software. Traditionally, open source has been seen as a “last resort.” But it has only been a last resort when one company wants to gain an advantage over its competitors. Because every software company would be equally shaken by the same deadly handshake, there would be no additional incentive to gain a relative advantage. One could go as far as to argue that the availability of community members in each niche would decrease, because some of those once interested in programming free software would begin illegal underground work. But again, this would be an industry-wide decrease in resource availability. The relative advantage gained over competitors would just be less.

It can thus be concluded that, even if all source code was made available, it would not increase the number of companies that elect to “make the most of the situation” by choosing open source. Each company in each niche would not turn their eyes to open source because, when enough companies use this route, the advantage to doing so disappears. The number of software developers in the world (and especially the number interested in contributing to free software) is finite, so additional opportunities for contribution only mean more fragmentation and a shrinking community for each company that has already chosen open source. With lowered overall profits from the state of the industry, it would not be economically wise for companies to take advantage of the situation.

It would be naive to suggest, however, that the proprietary software industry would accept such a decompiler without a fight. Both legal and technical means would be used to achieve the end of keeping software restricted in such a way that makes it marketable using the same strategies as physical products. There would no doubt be at least one massive class action lawsuit from the software industry. Depending on the position of the various governments of the world at that particular time, it may or may not be ruled illegal on the spot. (The American government would probably follow the model of the DMCA and rule the usage of the decompiler itself illegal because it gives citizens the power to do illegal things.) Really, though, decompiling software and improperly distributing copyrighted material is already illegal, so it would never stop the effects. How else would the companies fight?

Lawsuits would be their best tool. Yes, they would likely use the same technique the entertainment industry uses today (make a big deal out of it every time a consumer is sued), but there would be much worse cases. The most damaging would be those where the software industry creatively manages to persuade the government that causation is synonymous with correlation. With the right (or wrong) wording, the proprietary software companies could conceivably claim the illegitimacy of accessing any source code to which one doesn’t own the copyright. In other words, this would outlaw truly free software. With enough money, who knows how far preposterous claims such as this could make it. These kinds of claims severely damage the freedom of those partaking in legal activities for ethical causes, a very negative yet plausible effect.

There are more fighting techniques beyond lawsuits, though. For example, there would certainly be obfuscater wars, whereby a software company continuously develops a source code obfuscater to bide time before the obfuscation technique is implemented by the authors of the decompiler. There would be company personnel hired exclusively to expose those who use the software illegally. More means would be used, but I won’t detail them here. The biggest thing they have in common is their heightened cost. This is already a problem with proprietary software: part of the purchase price includes the costs necessary to restrict the user. This would only make the issue much worse, and create more of a need for true freedom.

Taking every view into consideration, it is surprising to see how an action most would think coincides with the goals of the Free Software Movement would actually hurt it. People would see free software as having much less value, and there would be less ground for encouraging its use. Companies would not release all their source code to make the most of the situation; if anything, they would change by becoming less likely to do so in the future. The corporations would work through both technical and legal channels to prevent users from changing their software, and in the process, they would tread on the rights that keep the Free Software Movement alive and thriving today.

This just goes to show the importance of finding the source cause of a problem. It would seem (and many assume) that the root dilemma of the Free Software Movement is the inability to access the source code of all software. In reality, though, the problem is about the legal inability to deal with such source code. Free software advocates advocate using free software for reasons involving read access to the source code, but rarely touch on the most basic concepts of true freedom. This example is, of course, a fictional extrapolation, but an extrapolation from which an important lesson can be drawn. Like all things in the world, the Free Software Movement cannot continue stably on any path but one founded on the most basic and important ideals. The foundation of a house only works when it supports the entire structure.

Published in: on August 16, 2010 at 7:52 pm  Comments (11)  
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The Magic Black Box Paradox of Freedom

The free software community understands that free software gives the user more freedom than proprietary software.  Proprietary software confines its users, prohibits them from making changes that would allow everyone to benefit, etc. Free software advocates (myself included) have a habit of claiming that using free (libre) software means the same thing as having freedom.  But does the fact that someone is using free software necessarily imply that the person has as much freedom as is possible?

Freedom is the ability to do what one wants.  Some restrictions to freedom are understandable and necessary.  No sane individual would argue for the freedom to kill, or the freedom to steal.  In modern society, restriction on an individual’s freedom are most acceptable if said restrictions protect the freedom of others.  The freedom to kill takes away the freedom to live from the killed.  The freedom to steal takes away the rights of property from the robbed.  However, an argument against hate speech, because it hurts others’ freedom to feel safe, is much more controversial.  A line must be drawn somewhere that establishes the maximum possible freedom for all individuals.

In the same way that freedom must be balanced to give the maximum amount of freedom to everybody, each of us must make decisions to balance our own freedom every day, whether or not we realize it.  When we purchase a candy bar, we give up our freedom to spend that money elsewhere.  We also, however, gain the freedom to use the purchased candy bar in any way that we choose.  In other words, we exchange one freedom for another.

In computer software, the application of this idea is less straightforward.  Each person must make a choice between free software and proprietary software.  Those who value freedom will always choose free software.  Those who have less respect for freedom, though, will likely choose the proprietary software.  To these people, the restrictions of the software are not worth the possible loss of “the freedom to understand how to use an interface at first glance” or “the freedom to use one’s computer the same way one has always been using it”.  They make the choice to give up “the freedom of not having someone else completely control one’s computing environment” in exchange for some other smaller freedoms.   However, those who recognize the importance of “the freedom to understand one’s computing environment” make a few sacrifices.  They give up a little bit of their “freedom to spend one’s time how one pleases” in order to learn some new ways of doing things.  They may give up some of their “freedom to spend one’s money how one pleases” in order to get some professional help.  But in the end, these fans of freedom are the ones who have more of it.  Those who do not care about their freedom give up a little of it every day when they submit to the developers of the software they use.  Those who care made a small sacrifice which allowed them to never have to worry about these restrictions again.

It is true that the majority of the world does not understand the fact that using proprietary software is a violation of freedom.  This is because, to the majority of the world, a computer is a magic black box.  Various peripherals, such as a keyboard, mouse, or camera, allow information to be entered.  Then, that information is magically spit back out in a different form, possibly to someone else in a different location.  I personally can’t even begin to understand the workings of a computer.  Really, how can a library full of books be stored on something the size of a hamburger?  More amazingly, how can any single word from any of those books be retrieved in the blink of an eye?  I am a programmer, but I still don’t understand how the software I write can be fed through this little chip in my computer and be displayed on the screen as something humans can comprehend and use to be productive.  The inside of my computer is a black box to me.  I lose a little bit of freedom every time I use a computer.

One can lose freedom without allowing someone else to gain power.  If you fall down the stairs and break your arm, you lose the freedom to use your arm, even though nobody else has gained any freedom from your loss.  When you use a computer to accomplish a task, you lose the freedom to completely control what happens with that task.  If you use free software, you are better off, as you can modify the software or hire someone to do so.  But free software does not in any way suggest that you have all of the freedoms you would have if you were to complete the task at hand without the use of a computer.  Think about Frank, the marketing agent who barely made it to his presentation on time, only to discover that his laptop battery had died.  He didn’t think to bring the power cord, because his battery life was very good.  By relying on the computer to keep one’s information, one loses the freedom of having said information in a human-readable form.  Frank doesn’t have the freedom to grab his Impress presentation out of his machine because he relied on the black box for that.

Freedom is about so much more than knowing what is happening.  It is just as much about being able to do something about it.   Even a full understanding of what is going on means nothing if nothing can be done about it.  As our technology infrastructure gets more and more advanced, we must give up more and more freedom.  Let’s say, for instance, Frank was ready for technology problems and saved a backup of his presentation online.  When he did this, he gave up his freedom of privacy.  He gave up his freedom of controlling exactly what process the file went through.  But, the root of the problem is still there: he lost his freedom by putting it into yet another magic black box. Using more than one magic black box will never solve the problem; it will only alleviate certain symptoms.  Frank will never be able to give his presentation anyway if his co-worker spills his coffee on the overhead projector, something beyond his control. The fact that the information is “safe” does not mean that the information is free.

When it comes to software as a service, does the term “free” mean anything?  The GNU AGPL license is currently seen as the benchmark for a “free web service”.  Even though the software is provided by some 3rd party, it somehow gives the user the impression that they have complete freedom.  If that user wants to put the software on their own web site, they may do so.  But there are so many other things that are being exchanged for that, to a point that makes it unrealistic.  Any data will likely disappear.  Any connections to other users on the site will likely be lost.  The identification associated with the service (the URL) will no longer exist.  Most importantly, though, most people do not have the time or money to put into running such a service.  Running a reliable, dependable web server requires too many sacrifices of other freedoms, so much so that it is often not worth the use of the software in the first place.  I use Identica, MediaWiki, and Launchpad regularly.  This blog even runs WordPress.  All of these are “free software”, which means I have slightly more freedom than I would otherwise.  But I do not expect these pieces of software to give me anywhere near complete freedom.  They are not just on a magic black box; they are on somebody else’s magic black box.

But, then again, one also must look at the other side of the argument.  Services such give users other freedoms they would not otherwise have.  MediaWiki gives me the freedom to collaborate on documents with people around the world.  Identica gives me the freedom to write about random snippets of my life nobody really cares about.  WordPress gives me the freedom to share with you, the reader, this post.  But at what expense do these benefits come?  No reasonable amount of time or effort is ever going to allow anyone to increase their freedom significantly.  Distributed systems, such as Identica and the future GNU Social, would help a great deal, but in most instances such systems would destroy many of the freedoms granted by non-distributed platforms, namely reliability and time.

Am I suggesting that free software doesn’t matter when speaking of freedom?  Not at all.  What I am suggesting is that, on a case by case basis, we need to review how our freedom is affected by decisions related to technology.  The biggest loss of freedom comes from using a magic black box to solve all of our problems.  Using free software helps a great deal, but each instance of computer usage comes with a loss of freedom.  Most of the time it is worth it.  It is much more effective to type documents on a computer.  Corrections can easily be made, additional copies can quickly be produced, and spelling is ensured to be correct.  But the loss of freedom isn’t worth it for every task.  Maybe it would be more reliable to use a pencil and paper calendar instead of putting it into your magic black box.

Things get much more complicated, however, with the introduction of the internet.  Freedom stops becoming black and white, and new problems show up.  Obviously Identica gives users much more freedom than Twitter, but is it enough?  Is the stream of random life events provided by micro-blogging worth the freedom it forces us to give up in the first place?  (Or should we just forget about society’s conclusion that a web page can come even remotely close to representing someone’s life?)

The point I am trying to make is that there are advantages and disadvantages to each decision we make, and in those decision, we have to take freedom into account.  Maybe those funny pictures you posted to Facebook last night don’t bother you now, but who knows what implications they will have when you no longer have control over your information.  Every decision has benefits and disadvantages, and the decision to use technology to accomplish a task should not be made until all of the positives and negatives, especially those representing changes in freedom, have been carefully weighed.

Published in: on May 1, 2010 at 5:07 pm  Comments (14)  

The Fear of Knowledge

I had the opportunity of listening to a presentation by a poorly-informed faculty member at my school regarding copyright laws.  This was an eye-opening experience for me into the way those who believe to have a solid grasp of copyright view it.  My class of 30+ students listened intently, believing everything they were told, as Mrs. Smith started her lecture…

This teacher (whom I’m referring to as Mrs. Smith) is very knowledgeable about what she does.  Her job mandates that she know a lot of “facts”  about copyright.  (“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts.  Facts can obscure the truth.” – Maya Angelou)  It is quite apparent that she learned about copyright from the same place as other teachers who are obsessed with “facts” about it.  Just do a Google search for “copyright for teachers” to see what I mean.

The presentation started with Mrs. Smith explaining to us a very basic overview of what copyright it, things even monkeys probably know. (Though, I admit, the class was not packed with monkeys.)  “Any violation of copyright law is called plagiarism,” she explained.  She went on to tell us a story about a woman from Duluth who was caught downloading only 24 songs illegally, and was charged over $200,000.  “You will get caught,” she exclaimed.  The truth behind this court case was obscured by her “facts”.  The lady in question, Jammie Thomas, a single mother of two, was sent a text message by the record companies telling her that they knew she was sharing at least 1,702 songs, and that she needed to stop immediately.  She didn’t.  She received a letter in the mail asking her to settle for a rather small amount of money.  She replaced her hard drive, and took the issue to court.  The lawsuit itself was over only 24 of those songs, for which she was charged $222,000.

“Do you know who you are stealing from?” she asked.  “The artists.  Every time you illegally download a song, those artists lose the money that is rightfully theirs.”  In reality, though, the artists only make about $1 from every full-length CD sold.  Online, it can be an even lower percentage.  It has been shown that illegal file sharing actually helps the artists, though no major media company will allow these types of stories on their news networks.  Think about it this way: the artists see so little of the money that their music sells for.  Sharing this music gets it out to more people, boosting the popularity of the artist.  If you were an artist, would you rather have your music reach everybody in the world and become extremely popular, or reach fewer people and make a small sum of money from the sales?  Most of an artist’s revenue comes from live concerts, and ticket prices are directly correlated with popularity.  “Some artists put their music in the public domain, just to get it out there, but almost all free downloads you find are illegal,” stated Mrs. Smith.  Artists don’t benefit from public domain music, which is probably the reason that very few public domain tracks exist.  Most prefer a Creative Commons (or another “some rights reserved”) license, which carries the attribution clause.  She made the assumption that anyone with a copyright will protect all of his/her rights.  This is not the case with the music I compose, nor is it the case with the thousands of people on Jamendo and similar sites.

Regarding academic copyright, Mrs. Smith explained the concept of “fair use”.  “If you are working for academic reasons, you get additional benefits from this system.  You can use any copyrighted material you find in schoolwork, as long as you cite the creator appropriately, and use only pieces small enough to be accepted as ‘fair use’.  Now, fair use includes…”  I raised my hand.  “What about the DMCA?”  “What about it?”  “If it comes from an encrypted source, we are not permitted to touch it, even for ‘fair use’.”  “You’re right.  Every now and then you come across a website that doesn’t allow you to right-click and copy.  Those sites are the exception to this rule, but for everything else, this rule is effective.”

The worst part about Mrs. Smith’s presentation, though, was that the only argument she gave was fear.  Her message can be summed up in a quote of hers: “Don’t do it – you will be caught.”  When her husband brought home illegal DVDs, she apparently told him, “You may not play those on our DVD player.  They are against the law, and we will be caught.”  She told us about how the computers at school were constantly being monitored, and how any administrator could view the screen of any computer at any time.  “Does anyone monitor your computer at home?” she asked random students throughout the class.  Mrs. Smith “explained” to us who was monitoring our computer at home; she claimed that the police, the government, and our ISPs are monitoring our desktops at all times.  The examples she cited mostly involved students getting seen with drugs/alcohol on their Myspace pages.  Our government is becoming more and more involved as a Big Brother every day, but it still cannot watch desktop activity.  It does have the ability to monitor packets from suspicious parties, but those parties are untouchable if they properly anonymity themselves.  Microsoft has the ability to do so much more than the government, so why didn’t she mention them?

Copyright infringement should not be based on fear.  Fear is a very powerful tool that is all to often exploited by governments and those in power to get the information they want stuffed into people’s minds.  Where do you think Mrs. Smith learned this information?  Was it a credible source?  Chances are it was, which brings up the question of who you can really trust.  If people stopped blindly trusting the government, what would happen to fear as a propaganda technique?  When discussing copyright, it is best to decide where your ethics are.  “Should I share an ogg (or mp3) of this out of print CD with my friend?”  “Should I consider a small violation of the DMCA a crime if I will only be using the content for what used to be called ‘fair use’?”  “Should I cite this public domain resource?”  “Should I tell my friends about this artist and give them this audio file to get them interested?”  “Should I download this BBC documentary I found on BitTorrent so I can learn about Elephant migration patterns for my report on African mammals?”  There are so many possibilities.  The government has drawn an unreasonably inhibitory line in the dirt, and used fear to enforce it.  As a result, the only way to figure out what is right or wrong is to make the ethical decision yourself.

Published in: on May 3, 2009 at 11:03 am  Comments (9)  
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What happened to Free and Open Knowledge?

Recently in US History class we have been studying The Gilded AgeAndrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and other businessmen ruled the US with such power that it made the government useless.  When the government could do something about the problem with the cases that came through Supreme Court, it almost always sided with the corporations.  After many of the “successful” businessmen retired, they ran around doing philanthropy.  Are you starting to see a parallel to modern day society?

Yes, there are a bunch of parallels between the current monopolies of the software industry and the robber-barons of the Gilded Age, almost enough to make it scary.  They both made money by putting others through misery and hardships.  They did not care about their customers, as long as they continued to buy their products.  In the same way, many software companies today lock people into their platforms, making sure that once you use their product, you are never going back.  Back then, trusts were developed by the biggest railroad companies to ensure competition would not get in the way of money.  Now, this comes back as a deja vu in the form of software patents.  Huge companies allow other huge companies to use their patents, excluding the patent-less home user and small developer from the mix.  Both the businesses from the Gilded Age and those today managed to control the government as well.  Back then, they managed to get the government to go along with Laissez-faire economics, even though it was obvious that the common man was being trampled over as a result.  The government even issued huge land grants to the already gigantic railroad companies to build new lines.  In a similar way today, the DMCA “protects” “intellectual property” and DRM through law, software patents are given away like they are going out of style, and citizens are required to be subjected to these companies (in many cases) in order to interact with their own government.  Certain companies even have control of the ISO!

There is a major difference between these two time periods, though.  In the past, the most important thing in society was still free and open: information.  While monopolies back then could jack prices up, they couldn’t control the freedom of redistribution or modification.  If somebody wanted to resell the kerosene they bought from Standard Oil, nobody had any problem with that person doing so.  If that person wanted to try to use the kerosene in a new way, the companies would most likely encourage the practice, as new discoveries would increase the value and demand of the products created by Standard Oil.

Now, however, software companies “create knowledge”.  This practice is sort of like a restricted version of an encyclopedia.  Imagine what outrage the public would have been in years ago if some major encyclopedia company required that no information learned from their encyclopedia could be used or applied for any purpose without explicit written permission.  What would be the point in purchasing this encyclopedia set?  I can assure you the publisher would convince you of its importance anyway.  Notice how I said, “…the public would have been in years ago…” earlier though.  People have stopped appreciating the value of Free and Open Knowledge because companies today have convinced our consumer-based society that it isn’t important.  Ironically, the philanthropists from the Gilded Age gave huge amounts of money to spread Free and Open Knowledge by building libraries and founding universities, yet big business today relies on secrets and preventing the free flow of information.

What this does is create artificial barriers.  I am not saying that the tactics used by the captains of industry were necessarily moral, but they did not create artificial barriers.  The oil, steel, or whatever was only available through one company at high prices back then.  That is bad, but not horrible.  Once you got your hands on that product, you could do what you wanted with it.  Forget about that now.  The reason you can’t do what you want with that piece of computer software is because the corporation says you can’t.  There is nothing physically preventing you from spreading that knowledge.  Most computer users today are fully capable of sharing that knowledge with others, but the law gets in the way.

On a related note, I worked with another student on a music project recently.  We were discussing when we would be able to have a performance of a piece that we wrote.  I suggested, “If we are done in 2 weeks, we should be able to have it performed right after that.”  He said, “Well, you know, you can’t just print off a piece of music you made and put it in front of some people and say ‘Play this!’ [chuckle]  There is a copyright process you have to go through first.”  Even though this piece of music was 100% original, he believed that we still had to “get permission” to perform it.  This shows exactly how used to and accepting of this kind of thing my generation has become.  Before we do anything, we must “make sure it is okay” with a “higher power”.

People have been bullied through laws and propaganda into “helping” those corporations (and supposedly society as well) by treating abstract computer-readable files as physical objects.  This information could be shared freely and benefit all.  Advocates of this technique say that it is the only way to promote progress, but in reality, it does nothing but diminish its importance.  I suppose I can see how some could confuse “progress” and “private inside information”, as they look the same from the outside.  What is the purpose, however, of useful information if it cannot be built upon and actually used?  Think about if your grandma had a “secret recipe” for the greatest cookies in the world.  If she kept this recipe to herself, nobody but the people in your close family could enjoy these cookies.  Master chefs could, no doubt, fiddle with this recipe for years trying to find an improvement or inventing ways to adopt these cookies for other cultures.  If they were unable to improve perfection, they could still learn new techniques from your grandma and apply those to other recipes.  They are unable to do so, though, because your grandma has kept it a secret.  When she passes away, this recipe may or may not be saved, depending on whether she decided to share it with anyone.  The same thing may or may not happen with the “products” created by most “information” companies today.  It is really difficult to call something an “innovation” when the strides made by that something cannot be innovated upon.  Do we trust one company to do all of the innovation for it’s respective market?

I am not trying to insult your grandmother, but rather, get you to think about this from another angle.  In the whole scheme of the world, your grandma’s cookies are probably not the most important thing.  They do, however, represent a small model of a bigger problem.  Progress, especially in todays time, is one of the most important things in the world.  Small additions or changes to software unavailable for modification could mean significantly less carbon emissions to help the environment.  The company that “owns” these ideas may not think this environment-friendly change would increase sales, so they don’t bother to implement it.  Some piece of highly-urgent medical software could have a small bug in its core that stops doctors from accurately saving several lives.  Obviously these are extreme situations, but image what would happen if educational software was made open and freely modifiable!  Educators would be able to make the classrooms into what they should be, instead of training students through mouse clicks how to make a PowerPoint Presentation or an Excel Spreadsheet.  Educators could turn the classroom into that of a 21st century school, something most schools have yet to accomplish.

The main problem with the current approach is that the major companies today are guarding “knowledge” and “information”.  They are treating ideas as commodities, instead of as the ideas they really are.  If we both have apples, and exchange them, we each still have one apple.  If we both have ideas, and exchange them, we both now have two ideas.  Keeping ideas private will not help the world progress.  Did you appreciate the Wikipedia links I provided in this article?  It shows just how much Free and Open Knowledge is available now that we, as a consumer based society, tend to take for granted.  Wikipedia is not enough, though.  There is so much knowledge in the world that goes far beyond the scope of Wikipedia.  Our society could advance in ways we never thought possible if we could learn to collaborate.  So, whether you are J.P. Morgan, Richard Stallman, Joe the Plumber, or Steve Ballmer, please remember to keep in mind all of the ways Open and Free Information will benefit not only you, but society as a whole.

Published in: on December 20, 2008 at 11:21 pm  Comments (6)  
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Is Free Software dependent on the Internet?

Is Free Software dependent on the Internet?  I have fantasized a (hopefully) comical situation that describes where I believe Free Software would be today if the Internet had never been invented.

Once upon a time the was a man named Tommy.  Tommy’s loved his job as systems administrator for the grain distribution giant Garcill.  He never had to do any real work; he could get by fine by doing almost nothing at all.  Every now and then someone would have a problem with one of their computers.  No worries; it didn’t take any effort whatsoever to throw a new cd in the cd drive and wait for Windows to reinstall itself.  Other than occasional responsibilities, Tommy was free to sit at his desk all day, eat popcorn, and play hours worth of “Captain Comic”.

In order to make it seem like he was really motivationally driven to create the best possible technology system for Garcill, Tommy would occasionally attend technology conferences.  The Chicago Mid-summer IT Convention was one of his favorites.  You see, most of the people attending this conference were going for technology news and advice.  This was one of the few places these pieces of information could be obtained, other than the occasional newspaper or TV story.  Tommy thought differently.  He knew the tourist attractions in Chicago were plentiful, all of which could be paid for through company money.  Plus, the presenters never used microphones, so they couldn’t wake you up during a well-deserved nap.  Life was good, thought Tommy, as he loaded up his suitcase with the things he would need to have a blast roaming the streets of Chicago.
Tommy arrived at the convention ready for a good time.  Every year, he would compare the sessions he attended with the ones from the previous year to see what the worst one was.  So far, the most boring one was “Understanding the Security and Compliance Implications of Large Scale Data Management” from 2005.  Would this year be better or worse?  By the sound of the first session, it would be worse.  “GNU: The Operating System of Hackers”.  Wasn’t a gnu another name for the wildebeest, and what the heck was a hacker?
When he walked into this session, there was some hippie standing on the stage.  A hippie?  Why in the world was there a hippie standing on the stage?  What could he possibly lecture about, freedom?  Yeah right.  “Go back to the 70s,” Tommy thought to himself.  While waiting for the lecture to start, though, it started to bother him.  What could a hippie possibly lecture about.  He obviously wasn’t going to lecture about freedom.  What did freedom have to do with technology? “Maybe it has to do with saving the wildebeests,” he thought.  “But they aren’t endangered.”

Tommy’s mind kept ping-ponging until the hippie stepped up to the podium to begin his lecture.  He introduced himself and claimed he was the last true hacker, and that a hacker was someone who programs for fun.  When he wasn’t allowed to modify the source code to a printer during his days at MIT labs, he decided to make a complete operating system that allowed anybody to modify it.  He called this operating system “GNU”.  Releasing GNU this way allowed people to have the freedom (“uhhh”, Tommy moaned) to use the piece of software, make changes to it, and give away the original program with or without your changes.
The presenter went on to talk about how he created the GNU project.  In the 1980s, he started working on some of the basic components of GNU.  He continued working faithfully on it, and had a usable operating system by 2005.  Another benefit, he explained, was that it kept growing.  If somebody wanted to add a feature, they could add it, and then give away the new modified version to anyone interested.  Then this person could modify the modified version, and give that away again.  After explaining all of this, the speaker put an old computer disk on his head and said he was “Saint IGNUtious, of the church of Emacs, granting computer freedom to all.”

“That was different,” Tommy thought.  “Some of these presentations are really boring, but that was just plain stupid.  How many times am I going to find someone who just made the changes I need to a piece of software?”  As he walked out, he noticed that there were some demonstration computers set up.  Tommy thought he would try one out, just to see how powerful this GNU thing was.  Tommy sat down at the computer, and stared blankly at a screen that was, well, almost blank. It was a terminal.

“What does this thing do?” he asked the man next to him.  “Type ‘ls /usr/bin’,” he replied.  Tommy typed ‘ls /usr/bin’ and words were printed on the screen.  “Those are all of the files in the ‘/usr/bin’ directory.”  “What else does this do?  I can do that on any UNIX machine.”  “Not much.  I suppose, though, that no one person can program a good operating system all by himself.”  “I am sure there are a bunch of people out there who really want to work on GNU, but have no way of doing so.  How would that person get his/her changes integrated into the code?”

“I should have probably introduced myself.  I am Dan, from Indianapolis.  I work in the Garcill IT department.”  “You work for Garcill!”  Tommy exclaimed.  “Yeah.  I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I do a lot more work than you probably think.  The technology director in Minneapolis doesn’t exactly do what he is supposed to, so I am usually stuck cleaning up after him.  So, where do you work?”  “Uh… I…” Tommy stuttered.  “I am on the All-Mart IT staff in Kansas City,” Tommy lied.  “Sounds much more appealing than my job cleaning up after that buffoon,” Dan joked.

Not finding that joke very funny, Tommy quickly looked back at his computer screen.  It still had the output of the command he had typed earlier on it.  Among those words listed was word ’emacs’.  “Wasn’t Emacs the name of that ‘church’ from the presentation?” asked Tommy, trying to change the subject. “Yeah, I think it was.”  Tommy typed ’emacs’, expecting something amazing to happen.  A text editor popped up.  After a few minutes, the two men gave up trying to figure out how to actually type something into the text editor and left to go their the next presentation.

“What is your next session?” Tommy asked.  “Caldera UNIX Desktop Deployment for the Medium-sized Business.”  “I’ve got the same one.”  As the two men walked to their next session together, their conversation had nowhere to go but back to the previous presentation.

“So why would anyone ever use GNU over a more powerful version of UNIX?” “It seems to me that he has this insane dream of everyone working together to create software for the greater good.”  “Unless people printed out their changes and mailed them to a central developer, there is no way to communicate changes to the main developer.  It’s impossible for anything productive to ever happen.”  “Yeah, it’s not like computers can call each other up on the phone and have a conversation!”  They laughed, but the laughter was short-lived.  For the next seven hours, Tommy got to sit through session after session after session.

After the convention, and some fun roaming the streets of Chicago, Tommy caught the flight back to Minneapolis.  He forgot about the presentations he attended at the conference, but he didn’t forget about the fact that someone else had to clean up after him because of his laziness.  Tommy learned that the time he put into his job really did make a difference.  He had a good feeling that he was, ethically, doing the right thing.  He walked hastily down the hall to help some co-workers with their Windows computers.

Published in: on August 2, 2008 at 9:55 pm  Comments (1)  
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Explaining Software Freedom to a Beginner

I needed a good way to explain software freedom to people who have little to no computer experience (possibly parents or grandparents, kids, stay-at-home moms/dads, etc.), so I created the following blog post.  Many of these people could benefit from free software, but aren’t going to learn about it through mainstream media.  These people are usually easy to convert to Free Software, because they don’t already have blind opinions about the benefits of proprietary software.  They also don’t resist with the “I don’t want to learn a new program” excuse, because they haven’t put much time into learning any software yet.

You are free to modify and distribute the following under the terms of the GNU FDL.  To redistribute this, you can download it in PDF format or ODT format.

What is Software Freedom?

Many years ago, when computers were just being invented, people really didn’t care about computer software. If a company or organization was lucky enough to own a computer, it would find or create a piece of software to use on it afterwards. Other companies or organizations with computers would be nice enough to give away the software they had written, because it really didn’t mean that much to them. People had all the freedom they could want with this system. They had the freedom to give away their own software, and to receive software from others. They had the freedom to change any piece of software to accomplish the task at hand. They even had the freedom to give their modified version of a piece of software away to someone else in need.

Since then, the times have changed. Now, many pieces of computer software are locked down in a way that prevents people from making changes, just so that the software can be sold for a profit.

What is wrong with most software?

The reason companies lock down their software is because know they can make money off something that should be shared among everyone. Under normal circumstances, there isn’t any problem with people trying to make money. There is a problem when people want to make money so badly that it interferes with progress and innovation.

Different companies and individuals had to keep reinventing the wheel in order to sell their software; they couldn’t just change someone else’s software to fit their needs. Lots of people spent a lot of time writing computer software that somebody else had already written. If these people had shared the software they wrote with everybody, all of the time spent duplicating an existing program could go to improving it.

Another problem with not sharing software is the fact that one company or individual maintains complete control over what that piece of software does. More often than not, that person or company will be interested in making money instead of making the software as powerful and useful as possible. Therefore, the program’s creator is free to put obtrusive or unobtrusive advertisements into the program.

Obtrusive advertisements are pop-ups, nagging screens asking you to buy the “full version”, and other advertisements that ask you to spend your money in a certain way. An example of an obtrusive advertisement that you may be familiar with is the MSN icon (the butterfly) on the bar at the top of Windows Media Player. Another example of obtrusive advertising is when the Apple iPhone adds the text “Sent from my iPhone” to the bottom of all emails sent.

Unobtrusive advertisements are certain features or the lack thereof that force you to use software from a certain company again in the future. Unobtrusive advertisements are far more common than obtrusive ones. An example of unobtrusive advertising is the fact that Microsoft Word saves in Microsoft’s “.doc” format instead of the international standard, “.odt”. This forces you to use Microsoft Word again in the future if you want to view or edit that file. It also forces anyone else who wants to view or edit that file to use Microsoft Word.

The History of Software Freedom

One of the first people to realize a problem existed was Richard Stallman. In the 1970s, Stallman became frustrated when he couldn’t make an improvement to a piece of software he had received at no cost. This made him start to think about the computer software market. He was talented at creating software himself, and he knew several other people who were as well. They decided to create all of the software that a computer needs to run, and then share it with anyone who wanted it. It would be free of cost, but more importantly, anyone would have the freedom to change and redistribute it. Stallman wanted to make sure that, if modifications were made to his software, other people would be able to benefit from those modifications as well. Therefore, he put a modest requirement on his software that stated, “If you make changes to this software, those changes need to be shared as well.” He called this collection of software “GNU”. In 1991, another component was added to GNU to complete it called “Linux”. Therefore, the complete system was called “GNU/Linux”.

What is is called?

Stallman called this form of software “Free Software”. Most people incorrectly call any software that is free of cost “Free Software”. In true Free Software, the “Free” part refers to freedom, not cost. While it is true that most Free Software is free of cost, not all software that is free of cost can be called “Free Software”. Many times, applications that are free of cost are marketed as Free Software. There have been other names given to Free Software to help differentiate it, including “Freedomware”, “FOSS”, and “FLOSS”. Often, is is also called “Open Source Software”, or “OSS” for short. (Open Source Software has a few very minor differences from Free Software, but for our purposes, they are the same concept.)

Stallman also called any piece of software that wasn’t Free Software “Proprietary Software”. He carefully chose not to use the term “Commercial Software”, because he knew that some companies have indeed found ways to make money off Free Software. Calling freedom-subtracted software “Commercial Software” would give the impression that Free Software can’t be used in the industry, which is far from the truth.

Why Free Software is great

Free Software is generally much higher quality than Proprietary Software for several reasons. Many of the people who create Free Software do not get paid for doing so; it is created completely in their free time. These people obviously have a passion for creating software, since they are willing to do it in their free time. This gives the free software community the cream of the crop developers. There isn’t anyone working on Free Software who does it just for the paycheck.

In addition, all software is shared. This means that, unlike proprietary software, the wheel is never reinvented. Let’s say an German developer spends several years of his life creating a computer program that does the user’s yard work, and decides to make it Free Software. Now let’s say that a Russian software developer wants to create the same program, but in Russian. All that Russian developer has to do is go through and translate the existing piece of software. In the world of Proprietary Software, that Russian developer would have to start from scratch and recreate the whole application. Free Software just saved this person years of work. After a while, you can see everyone’s hours, days, and years start to add up to a considerable amount of time saved. This time saved directly translates into quality and progress

Free Software won’t always do everything people want, but it is guaranteed not to do the things people don’t want. If there is anything that the world as a whole does not like inside a piece of Free Software, it will eventually be removed by someone who feels strongly about its removal. This system of checks and balances is one of, if not the best, system of quality control ever created.

Final Comments

Free Software is any software the gives people the freedom to do what they want with it. Proprietary Software is any piece of software that is not Free Software. Free Software offers a massive number of advantages over Proprietary Software, because it is created by people, for people. Features are not added to or subtracted from Free Software based on how much money they will generate, but instead on how useful they will make the software.

One of the reasons not many people know about Free Software is because Free Software projects usually don’t advertise. The creators of software usually prefer to use all of the money available to them to improve the software. The only advertising these projects get is word of mouth.

To help promote the spread of Software Freedom and the advancement of technology, try using some pieces of Free Software instead of Proprietary Software. Two very well known pieces of Free Software you may want to try are the Firefox Web Browser ( and the OpenOffice Productivity Suite ( There are Free Software applications to replace most Proprietary Software. Two good sites to go to to find more free software are Osalt ( and the Free Software Foundation Directory ( Together, we can help spread Software Freedom.

Published in: on July 4, 2008 at 12:45 pm  Comments (13)  
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