Let us discuss the technology and the associated legal practice that has socialised research and development in infrastructure software around the world – Free Software. A just society requires an ethical foundation built on principles of sharing and community among the citizens of the world
by Christopher Dimech
This is a modified version of a more nuanced original article which is available here. The document also contains a GNU Free Documentation License
The revision of the GNU General Public License Version 2 (GNU GPLv2) by a large scale international legislative activity conducted without government authorisation or hierarchy over the course of 18 months (January 2006 – June 2007) constitutes the most important example of genuinely democratic, participatory and enforceable law-making in the 21st century. It proved that citizens are indeed capable to fight back and win legal cases against corporate power.
However, in 2001, Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Movement, asserted that if citizens are widely scattered and unorganized, working without a large scale international public consultation, the possibility of democratic control is doomed. At the time, Stallman was talking specifically about the democratic control of technology, the right of users of technology to control the technology they use. But in 2015, it was not the rogue elephants of corporate software developers that trampled on citizen’s civil and political rights, but the gremlins within the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to the Eurogroup. The Greek People had famously rejected the austerity measures against them by more than 60% during the polarising referendum of July 5. Yet, the powers that be, still managed to subjugate the Greeks to a third unsustainable loan they could not repay, due to their already high debt level. This shows that establishing and safeguarding democratic control it is going to be really hard, as noted by Eben Moglen in 2012:
We are no longer living in a stage in our history where we can think in terms of a country at a time. Globalization has reached the point at which these questions of surveillance of society are now global questions; and we have to work on them under the assumption that no government will decide to be more virtuous than the super powers
Contemporary technology and democratic control have a difficult relationship. As hardware and software present in most of the technology we use (in game consoles, in smart phones and mobile computing, in tablet and personal computers) continue getting nastier, surveillance-infested products deserve contempt and disrespect (including the companies that produce them and their lackeys in politics and law), and ought to be made illegal. We must not be distracted by statements of what the state or companies will do with the information they collect (e.g., by policy clauses claiming that only aggregate, non-personally identifiable information is shared with third parties).
The Free Software Foundation argues that collected information can be easily distributed through data breaches or taken by subpoena and by changing policies at will and at any time. Sets of aggregate anonymized data can be digitally processed to reidentify and reattribute it back to the specific individuals. If there is a way to prevent misuse of surveillance data, it is to never collect it in the first place. Furthermore, we ought to respect our freedom by using anonymity and encryption systems (for instance, by using The Onion Router).
The surveillance is carried out using a collection of instructions first written in code, called Software Source Code, which runs the devices we use. Consequently, if we loose control over the code, these devices run us. What control should we have over this code so we can exercise individual and collective autonomy? Free Software is one answer to a world built in code. Software is the end product, in execution it is what an electronic devices does. Free software means software controlled by its users. Specifically, Free Software guarantees four essential freedoms to users.
Freedom 0 – The freedom to run the program as you wish, in order to do what you wish. In other words, the code must not restrict how you use it.
Freedom 1 – The freedom to read and change the code (e.g., program) to suit your needs.
Freedom 2 – The freedom to redistribute (share) exact copies of the code and be a good member of your community.
Freedom 3 – You have the freedom to distribute modified versions of the code, so that the community can benefit from your improvements.
Proprietary software development does not contribute to our community; its owners (e.g., developers, corporations, companies, businesses, and nation states) often want to mistreat us while taking handouts from us (e.g., money, information). The Free Software Movement seeks to eliminate the intrusion of the corporate-owned software into people’s private lives. GNU Software Licenses permit users of software (and so of source code) to freely use, read, share and distribute unmodified and modified versions of software code, and encourage others who write software to make it respect user’s freedom as well.
One of the threats GNU Licenses remedy is the dangerous introduction of Technological Restriction Methods (TRM), a measure that restrict the user’s freedom to modify the software on the devices they use. Code restrictions are like locks placed on you by someone else, who refuses to give you the keys to open them. Locks are not necessarily oppressive or bad if you own the keys (or codes) and you are able to use them. You may find them useful or troublesome, but they don’t oppress you, because you can open and close the locks as you wish.
An example of digital restrictions is the code that operates ebooks. These books are interconnected to code that also controls the way we can use them. Many publishers deploy restrictions on books not only to stop people from being good members of their community (e.g., by sharing copies of books); but to introduce malicious software functionalities (features) to remotely spy on who reads them or to be able to delete them. For example, people who were reading the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four on Kindle experienced the Big Brother move first hand when Amazon erased their book, because Amazon is able to obliterate books remotely.
Furthermore, Amazon forces users to reveal their identity so it would know which books each user is reading. This spying capability greatly assists the authorities in countries such as the UK, where you can be prosecuted for possessing a forbidden book. In other words, many ebooks are available only at the price of freedom and we should not be willing to pay such a price.
We must revolt against surveillance, harassment, and mistreatment by governments and corporations. Work together to produce books and reading material in ways that respect readers; and critique many aspects of state policies and activities; as we work to stop or change them, much like the dissent activity of the Samizdat publication and distribution system. To ensure the necessary conditions for liberty and freedom; direct action founded on three pillars is needed – Education, Self-Protection, and Collective Action based on the Respect of Individual Autonomy.
Because human history is oversaturated with examples of state surveillance and the lack of oversight regarding surveillance activities; and the eventual persecution of surveilled individuals by virtue of their dissenting voice or political advocacy. Further examples include Chelsea Elizabeth Manning (formerly Bradley Edward Manning), Julian Paul Assange, Edward Joseph Snowden, and the arrests of Palestinians for Facebook posts. And considering the systematic government led mass murders of the twentieth century (e.g., the 1.5 million Armenians slaughtered by Ottoman Turks; the extermination of at least 6 million Jews, 3 million Soviet POWs, and 2 million Poles by the Nazis; the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan; and the combined death tolls that occurred under Joseph Stalin (at least 20 million), Mao Zedong (30 million), the Khmer Rouge (1.7 million), and Saddam Hussein), mass surveillance constitutes a fundamental threat to humanity.
Christopher Dimech is the founder of the Shuhdha Hackers’ Club, and the Acting Chief Administrator of GNU Behistun and GNU Recutils. He is a Computer Hacker dedicated to users’ freedom and community, for users of technology to control the technology they use. He provides Pro Bono Services to Isles of the Left in the areas of Technology and Computers, and their effect on Civil and Political Rights; rights aimed to protect individuals’ freedom from infringement by governments, social organisations and private individuals.