Computing Our Liberty: June 2005

Posted by VISITOR on Jun 17, 2005 4:11 AM EDT; By Guy Dalziel
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"We live in a time where the days of picking up a gun and starting a revolution are over, you don't need 100,000 people to take to the street for things to be "that bad", the wars are still taking place, battles being valiantly fought, yet they're done in court rooms and behind people's backs."

Loosing the spirit?

"Linux", "Open Source", "Free Software", these are just some of the new major buzzwords floating around in the information technology world, each one having a different meaning to all of us, each one capable of inducing a different image in our minds of what the true sense of those words are. The average person might only see them as merely a great contribution to any young revolutionaries lexicon, and in this capitalist society made to believe that these things are somehow wrong.

Free Software is making a major breakthrough in the market, there are more GNU/Linux users around these days and even more corporations trying to take advantage of that very fact. Some are scared by it, others are excited by it, but somewhere in the mist of all the excitement did we somehow forget what these things really mean to us. At what point did it become ok to make money from "free" software, at what point did we say to ourselves, we have the right to have access to the source code. The truth is both are true, at one point it was black and white but somewhere along the line, the neat little line got smudged, turning black and white into black white and grey, it's this grey area that makes people unsure as to what "Free Software" truly is.

The "free" in "Free Software" has always meant freedom, the ability to run, redistribute, study, modify and improve the software, a program is "free" when the user has all these freedoms, to truly understand it you should think of it as in "free speech", not "free beer". The word is often misunderstood as not having to pay a price for the software in question. Richard Stallman is often found quoting the fact that he feels there's a major difference between "Open Source" and "Free Software", where the goal of "Open Source" is to make a program the best it can be, and the goal of "Free Software" to allow people the freedom to use the software in any way that they see fit, yet in the long run both see freedom as a necessity, yet neither advocate the necessity of non payment.

While Free Software is making a large stand in the commercial market, opportunistic corporations merely see this as a great opportunity to make money, after buying their products you may find yourself using proprietary components that you have no access to the source code for. Commercialization of Free Software is not only natural to the growth of its adoption, it was always natural to Free Software. There is a distinction between "commercial" and "proprietary" and Free Software strongly embraces the former firmly rejecting the latter. Free Software was never about providing anything free of charge and as much it was never even about making better software. It was about computing freedom and it still should be.

So if it's all good what exactly is the problem? The problem is free-loaders, people who expect to get everything for free and yet refuse to embrace even the basic principles of what Free Software is all about, these are the kinds of people you'll often find saying, "wow, you actually paid for that? why didn't you just download the iso's and burn yourself some disks?", i'll tell you why, because it's about freedom, the freedom to use the software any way i see fit and making a contribution to the community in the process, after all isn't that what this is all about, the spirit of the community.

The community has just gotten bigger and is consisted of many more "sub-communities" as it has many more people involved than ever before. Some use commercial GNU/Linux distributions, but still participate more or less in the community process. Those who don't are usually paying for the substitute. They are business users, people who don't have too much time to participate in the "community". They do what they do and they use GNU/Linux, their money in turn contributes the company they got GNU/Linux from which in turn contributes the community. GNU GPL ensures that it is so.

Just look at the GNU/Linux forums or #linuxforums IRC channel! If the community is in any danger, then why is there so many people still *communicating*, helping each other, sharing ideas, collaborating? Why are the community produced GNU/Linux distros still quite a match for the commercial ones, sometimes even regarded with more value than commercial ones? Why are there so many smaller GNU/Linux distributions being made to satisfy the unsatisfiable diversification? I'd say that there is no signs in sight of any dieing off of the community or its spirit of cooperation. Instead it is just getting bigger, better and more powerful, but we need to embrace it's values to keep it the way we intended it to be.

As for the specifics regarded as threats such as those business ecosystems and branding, those who worry about that often seem to be missing the fact that in the Free Software world you have a choice, and you have lots of choice. That means that even if you'd choose to go with the GNU/Linux brand for your computing (such as RedHat, Mandrake, Novell etc.), no matter how nicely their ecosystem has been built to make you choose what they want you to choose, your simple awareness, your choice can break you free of them if you only wish so. Those companies deal with Free Software and Free Software cannot be made unfree (speaking of the GPLed majority). Thus, it is simply impossible for you to get locked up into one option as it is with proprietary software.

Software "idea" patents in Europe: The last call!

A patent is a right to monopolize an invention, that invention being something you can see and touch, that otherwise wouldn't of existed had the inventor not taken the time and energy to design and make the invention in question. Let's ask ourselves, what do patents really cover? when the engine was made and if a patent had been issued, assuming that it hadn't already, the patent would have covered the design of the particular engine in question, not the idea of an engine itself. I'm as sure as you probably are that someone else would of come along one day and thought up the same idea and made a fairly similar engine, however the design of it would not be the same. In each design there are variations, different ideas of getting something done, the prospect of another person making an engine of exactly the same design are so remote that the possibility of it happening are practically non existent.

Software patents are different, don't let the name fool you, what they really are is "Software Idea Patents", the right to patent the idea of, for example, a packet sniffer, an anti-virus, a firewall, the use of scrollbars, clickable html links, the list goes on. This is a very bad thing, it would mean that the very first person to think up the idea of an anti-virus could patent the idea and have all other companies pay royalties to them for the fact that they also have anti-virus software. Developers have the right to protect their work should they so choose, and this protection comes in the form of copyright, copyright protects the code itself and the actual way in which it was written right down to the name of the variables used, so why the sudden need for patents if the code itself is already protected?

We live in a commercial capitalist society, so it comes as no surprise that these patents can be nothing more than an attempt to get more money. A software patent would mean that you couldn't take the idea of a packet sniffer, and then take the time and effort to program your own, even if there is absolutely no chance of the code being copied such as the original being written in C++, and the version in question being written in Java or Turbo Pascal. Patents in the long run are of no use to small time developers, it costs around $30,000 just to get one in the first place, assuming that the patent was accepted, yet the patent itself by no means offers protection. The patent itself is the weapon of choice to use in court battles, the cost of enforcing a patent by taking it through the justice system are so high that the prospect of having it in the first place is just plain ludicrous.

If software patents become law, it will hurt the Free Software Community very badly, you can forget about the days spent having fun trying to overcome the challenge of writing a particular program, they'll be a distant memory. If Europe can overcome Software Patents, then at least it's a start, perhaps it's a short step from worldwide "enlightenment" but at least it's a start.

We live in a time where the days of picking up a gun and starting a revolution are over, you don't need 100,000 people to take to the street for things to be "that bad", the wars are still taking place, battles being valiantly fought, yet they're done in court rooms and behind people's backs. Corporations are the new superpowers, patents are their weapons of choice, and just like any war there are casualties. Do what you know is right, if you don't, don't expect anyone else to either

You can find more information at this address, and also this site for explaining how you can play your part

Microsoft reaching out

China was in the news for their efforts of the communist government to police the world of cyberspace, asking all commercial publishers, advertisers, private and noncommercial bloggers or Web sites to register their sites or face fines of up to 1 million yuan ($120,000) for failing to register by June 30. 74 percent of all sites have so far registered in China's attempt to enforce laws regarding freedom of political expression.

Following on from this, Microsoft recently made the choice to help China to censor it's Internet users through the use of it's software in MSN Spaces, a blog services launched by Shanghai MSN Network Communications Technology, one which Microsoft currently holds a 50% stake in. Should users try to include terms that are blocked are met with the warning message "This topic contains forbidden words. Please delete them.". The list of some of the blocked words are as follows, "freedom", "democracy", "human rights", "communism", "socialism", "capitalism", "taiwanese independance", "tibet", "dalai lama", "falun gong", "terrorism", "massacre".

In reality what Microsoft is trying to is to say to China, "hey, look, we're on your side, we're not such bad people". Microsoft currently have a very bad name in China and are finding it very hard to get a foothold in the market when linux is very much favored, so for them this is the perfect opportunity to try and get into their good books, it's quite disgusting how low they'll go just to try and make some money. We're not people to them, we're a source of money, their loyalty is to the stock holders and nothing they say or do will change that.

What's important to note is that the laws being enforced are Chinese laws, and Microsoft is an American company, this is the Internet, just because you have one countries citizens accessing the servers doesn't suddenly mean that you have to obey their rules, just like a website can't be shut down if one country happens to disagree with it but it's running in a different country where the laws allow it. Many people will say, "but they have no choice in the matter", or, "if they didn't do it, someone else would have".

That's all well and good apart from the fact they have every choice in the matter, this is why the internet is such a threat to them, because it offers a loophole to laws that could never otherwise be bypassed.

Article 35 of the Chinese Constitution states that it's citizens do have freedom of speech, and with freedom of speech being the liberty to freely say what anyone pleases, they obviously don't have that luxury where it is understood to outlaw government censorship. Most people adopt the attitude of, "if it doesn't effect me, i don't care", and that's exactly the kind of attitude that comes back to bite you, what about when France said that they wouldn't join America in the war against Iraq, how much slur and hatred was spread about France after that. Did people say, well it doesn't effect them, so why should they care, no. What happened was people acted as if they'd just been spat in the face, they're so used to getting, but never giving, i wonder sometimes how many people would have freedom of speech if you had to earn it.

The people of China deserve, as human beings just like you and I, to have the right to freely say anything they please and not live in fear that something they say would result in execution or imprisonment like it did just 20 years ago. Bill Gates was quoted as saying "It is a brand new form of capitalism, and as a consumer it's the best thing that ever happened". What can we compare this to, ah yes, the Nazis, they controlled every newspaper and television broadcast in community centers effectively making the people see whatever they wanted them to see. What surprises me is that we don't seem to have learned a single thing from this, and here we are with history repeating itself.

I can only hope that people will begin to see the kind of people Microsoft are, if you fell over and broke your leg and they could make $100 from it they'd do it. Believe nothing, find the facts our for yourself, if you refuse to believe otherwise then they've already won. George Orwell's 1984 was a bed time story compared to what we live in today.


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