Stand for a Free Society

There is much more to software than being trustworthy (being "Open-Source"): what really counts is the freedoms you get over it. Can you learn from it? Can you build upon it? Can you distribute it? That's what we refer to as "free software".

I come up with new words, phrases, analogies, all kinds of fun stuff in the English language and people paraphrase what I had to say and make money talking about some of the same things that I did.

If I try to lock down what I talk about and write about, the same way as a proprietary software company does, then the whole industry of speaking, writing, media, would be overly litigious, and transaction costs would be prohibitive.

Don Marti, 2005 interview

Not a crazy concept

It sounds peculiar to many users that software should be free as in freedom, since none of Microsoft's products are. Yet our society works with many free things in it, for example:

Though no one has a proprietary lock on yoga, it is still a thriving $30 billion business in the United States.

Venkatesh Hariharan [1]
  • No chef would ever forbid you to modify his recipe and make derivatives out of it. The food industry thrives despite being required by law to list ingredients on product labels.
  • A fair law court system permits anyone to read through all the trial hearings and arguments. Not only the result (the final deliberations), but also the process is fully open.

Free software is free as in "free speech", as in a "free market": all are necessary for a free society. Unconvinced? Let us look at proprietary software a little closer.

Proprietary software going wrong

The limits of proprietary software go beyond the security issue (see our article on source code): today proprietary software interferes with the spread of culture and information. This happens mainly through two technologies:

Digital Restrictions Management 1 (DRM)

The main idea of DRM 1 is to restrict access to files. Users encounter this when, for example, they purchase music through iTunes, and then can only play their music with one player, from one brand. With this method, companies fight copyright infringement, but they also severely restrain users' access to their files.

DRM is control over content

Except that the control is not in the hands of the end-user. The original purpose of DRM is understandable, but the implications over the flow of information and culture within a society are frightening.

  • Imagine a book that automatically became glued shut after you read it once.
  • Imagine documents that self-destructed if you tried to take them out of the room.
  • Imagine telephones that only worked if the person you were ringing was renting the same make and model.

Sounds crazy? This is where Trusted Computing comes in.

Trusted Computing (TC)

Trusted Computing (sometimes more accurately called "Treacherous Computing") means a computer can only run "Trusted" Software. It is meant to be an uncircumventable protection against nuisances (like viruses or spyware) and copyright violations (people copying proprietary software).

Trusted Computing is control over the computer

The critical thing about Trusted Computing is that you cannot decide what is trustworthy and what is not. For example, your computer might refuse to run programs that are not certified by the software company –programs that could enable you to take documents out of the office, or play your neighbour's DVD, or send your essay to someone not using the same program.

A whole range of possibilities opens up for companies that benefit from restricting your computing (such as proprietary software and recording companies). It is suddenly possible to rent DVDs that only play two times, or music you can only listen to during September, or information you can read but can't save or copy. All of a sudden, Trusted Computing and DRM enable remote control over content.

Trusted Computing, in effect, enables the publisher to write their own copyright law.

The wider impact

Many cultural products are now emerging "triple protected", not only by copyright and code, but also by contracts or licenses for which users waive all remaining rights.

Increasingly, copyright is replaced with click-through end-user licenses for digital content, using contract law to establish the absolute property rights that copyright laws were originally intended to deny to publishers.

Rosemary Bechler, Unbounded Freedom

Computing is not just about calculations anymore. We use software to communicate: to share information, ideas and culture. Software is in our phones, cars, media players, TVs, and gets to govern just about every new device around us.

DRM Randall Munroe, xkcd

Software is increasingly used to enforce rules. Rules that may or may not be the law. Rules that may or may not be fair. If the software is not free there will be no space for the user to influence these rules.

Trusted Computing and DRM pave the way for a society in which culture and information are not simply turned into products (they are right now, and that is fine), but into consumable products.

Code is power. Most of today's work documents are written and encoded with secret algorithms in proprietary software. What will be of tomorrow's books, photos, films, essays, animations, music, news? Proprietary programs such as Windows have no transparency. A free culture and a free society cannot grow from such software.

May we suggest you switch to Linux?

  1. ^ Note that DRM is often referred to as "Digital Rights Management", although it has little to do with rights – "Digital Restrictions Management" is a more accurate name.

Read more

The Right to Read

What is the Trusted Computing world like? This is a short story by Richard Stallman that describes how this can affect any of us.

The fallacy of DRM

A very well constructed article about DRM by Tim Jackson, and on which we based the present article.

Free Knowledge requires Free Software and Free File Formats

An engaged article by Jimmy Wales, who co-founded the free encyclopedia Wikipedia.

Trusted Computing

Short video animation by Benjamin Stephan and Lutz Vogel. A clear, snappy and convincing argument.

Why Software Should Not Have Owners

A pivotal text for the Free Software movement by Richard Stallman. It clarifies common objections and explains a handful of important ideas.

How to Misunderstand Free Software

More on free software on this website.