Today is the International Day Against DRM, proclaimed by DefectiveByDesign.org, a campaign of the Free Software Foundation, of which more below. Digital Rights Management is a big deal, and I urge you to check out the site and sign up to take part. However, my topic today is a different form of Defective By Design in software.
The graphic in today's Washington Post poll: Obama 51-44 over Romney in Virginia does not display in the Firefox Free/Open Source Web browser on the Linux Free Software operating system. Neither does yesterday's video, Mark Fiore - Politicizing Politics. This is a big deal for me, since I refuse to use Microsoft Windows or Internet Explorer, Adobe Flash, or indeed any such proprietary software, for many reasons, all of which can be summed up as Defective By Design, not only technically and economically, but politically as well.
This does not have to be so. It is not required that developers of graphics and videos use features of Adobe Flash and other proprietary software that cannot be rendered in Firefox and the Free Software Gnash plugin.
But should you care? Should this be a big deal for you? Should it be a big deal for Daily Kos in general?
Because Intellectual Property, while not the root of all Wingnut evil, is right up there with corporate and fertilized egg personhood, racism, Religious Right bigotry, kleptocracy more generally, and all the rest. Because it is a major obstacle to fighting all of the other factors. Because it robs billions, including you, and kills—Oh, I don't know how many. Far too many, regardless, including far too many children.
Some of you, reading this, know at least some of what I am talking about, and do care deeply about corporations creating not only proprietary software, but DRM and proprietary, undocumented file formats meant to lock users into using their proprietary software, and about the political, economic, and social consequences of locked-down "Intellectual Property". I hope that some of you will join in this discussion along with those I invite to be newly enclued.
Why should you care if Microsoft and Adobe try to force you to buy their products by refusing to document their file formats so that the rest of us can write, or at least use, Free Software to read the files they create?
- Because graphics and videos that we cannot see are merely an inconvenience to us personally (MC Frontalot: First World Problem http://www.youtube.com/...), but are matters of life and death to many millions around the world. Unless, of course, you are one of those who takes the deaths of millions as actual matters of life and death, as I do.
- Because Microsoft and others intend to use these methods to extract trillions of dollars from billions of users in developing countries over time.
- Because, as Gandhi not only said but explained and demonstrated at length and in detail, you must be the change you wish to see in the world.
- Because it is not sufficient to counter the symptoms of corporate wingnuttery. We have to go after the causes, and one of the chief causes is so-called Intellectual Property: copyrights, patents, trademarks, trade secrets and their misuse in restraint of trade and of non-profit activity.
- Because it is not enough to give a man, or a woman, or a child, a fish.
Certainly not a fish that they cannot eat, because some corporation has made sure that it is not compatible with their non-corporate stove or cooking pots.
It is not even enough to teach people how to fish, as the proverb recommends.
We must teach them (or better still, show them how to learn on their own) how to make fishing gear and build boats; to map fishing grounds; to build fish farms; to process fish, and market the products locally and over the Internet; to interrupt the process by which the rich give themselves government subsidies for fishing, but not the poor; to interrupt the process by which rich countries write the international trade laws that concern fish; to interrupt the process which will lead, if not interrupted, to patent-protected GMO fish; and much, much more.
Except that so much of this information is available only on subscription or by buying books and journals and DRM-ed digital media, with an absolute prohibition against sharing in any form.
And that brings us to our need to interrupt the so-called Intellectual Property regimes that we suffer under every day. DMCA and SOPA and PIPA and CSIPA and software patents are merely the symptoms. The disease is the idea that people (=corporations) can and should own information, and that Property Rights are the only Human (=corporate) Rights that matter, and that Free Speech and the Progress of Science and Useful Arts are merely inconveniences to governments and corporations, of no genuine significance to the people.
Oh, we don't have to do it all immediately. Certainly not at the expense of current political battles. Changing which software and file formats you use will not change the outcome of the Obama-Romney Presidential race. It will not of itself win the House for Democrats this year, nor will it hold the Senate. But over time it threatens the entire Wingnut enterprise in a way that Kossacks should cheer, and not only cheer, but take part in, and not only take part in, but work to enhance and speed up worldwide for billion of other people.
OK, so that is the outline of the problem. What can we do about it?
Subvert the Dominant Paradigm
Without the two-dollar words, that means to turn copyright law back on itself, a concept called Copyleft. It means that we can use copyright law worldwide to craft licensing terms that protect everybody's rights, rather than restricting them. This is the essence of the Free Software movement, which wants you to understand, firstly, that they mean Free as in Speach, not as in Beer. As defined by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), there are four essential Software Freedoms:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).
By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
There is also an Open Source movement, with very similar aims and a similar but by no means identical license. The differences between Free Software and Open Source are important for developers, and sometimes for users, but do not affect the political argument I mean to make here.
There are dozens of other software licenses listed as sufficiently Free (in the sense of protecting our liberties) by the FSF. The listing notes the most important differences in terms among the various licenses.
A similar but clearly distinguishable concept is Creative Commons. This is not used for software, but for content: books, music, art, videos, or anything else, in print or in digital form. A critical part of the Creative Commons movement is Open Courseware (mostly at college level) and Open Educational Resources (at any level, preschool through postgraduate). There are now hundreds of thousands of OCW/OER courses, textbooks, and modules on specific topics, such as the original MIT Open Courseware, the Khan academic videos, OER University (free courses, pay only for exams to get the degree), and much, much more. The FSF has its own Free Documentation License, and maintains a list of other licenses suitable for documentation, and for other kinds of content. A subdomain of Creative Commons and related content licenses is Open Access for scientific and scholarly journals, theses, book chapters and more.
Yet another essential concept is the use of openly documented standards for file formats, communications protocols, and so on. Can you imagine where the Internet would be if some corporation owned TCP/IP or HTTP, and we all had to pay its fees every time we went on the Web? Well, that is where we were with the patented GIF format for images. Compuserve invented it, but Unisys had patented the digital compression algorithm that GIFs use. (Oh, evil software patent on a mathematical algorithm! Fortunately, it has since expired.) Any software to create GIFS had to have the patent license paid, although there was no charge for viewing GIFs.
Similarly, several of the video formats that Adobe supports in Flash are protected under various heinous and (in my mind, even if not those of US judges) unconstitutional patents. Adobe and the patent holders are not willing to license their algorithms for development of Free Software, so Flash players are only available from Adobe. If Adobe doesn't support your platform (as it does not provide a Firefox plugin for 64-bit Linux using Debian packages and the apt-get installer) then you are out of luck, as I am. I have to use Gnash, which only plays Flash content that is not encoded in one of these patented formats.
Furthermore, nobody is permitted to redistribute Adobe Flash players. So, for example, One Laptop Per Child cannot include Flash on its XOs for millions of children. Either the countries concerned have to install it manually on each unit, or the children have to do without. The Flash installation has to be repeated after any Sugar upgrade.
This is where it gets really personal with me. I spend my days making presents for millions of children around the world as Program Manager for Replacing Textbooks at Sugar Labs. We do the Free Software and content for education on XOs in Sugar. The goal is to share all of the riches of OERs and the Internet with up to a billion children at a time, and to end poverty. That would mean the end of the various ills associated with poverty, including
- Unnecessary death, injury, and disability from preventable and treatable diseases, and from preventable wars.
- All oppression based on poverty, including exclusion from politics because of lack of access to communications and to political, economic, and social information.
- Most wars.
- Most government corruption.
- Any other Catch-22 shenanigans that They can do as long as We cannot prevent them.
Except, for the moment, in North Korea.
We are talking here about creating a culture of sharing and collaboration among a billion children at a time, to counter the Us vs. Them system that has prevailed as long as most of the population in every society could be excluded from the various conversations going on in the world. This includes the conversations about
- Politics generally
- Voodoo vs. real economics, and kleptocrats vs. the Commonwealth
- Rich White male supremacy, as among the self-proclaimed Southern Aristocracy to this day
- Religious bigotry
- "Peer-reviewed science is the Kool-Aid of the left-wing Liberal conspiracy." (I'm not making this up.)
One of the most important methods used to enforce those exclusions has been the Texas hegemony over textbook publishing in the US, now about to unravel with the OCW/OER movement. Newspaper oligopolies of information have been in steep decline, but a significant portion of the population has retreated to enclaves of disinformation sifted to suit their preconceptions.
(The Right claims that we do that here at Daily Kos, but this is yet another instance of false moral equivalence. We are allowed to read what the opposition writes and listen to what it says, and to comment on it. They ostracize any of their own who try to do that the other way around, so that they have to operate entirely within the bubble. I have pointed out previously that they are on this point exactly like the Federalists in the time of Thomas Jefferson, before their complete implosion and disappearance from history. But note that the corporations put the Whig party together immediately after that, and the Republican party immediately after the implosion of the Whigs. So there will continue to be a corporate party. The question is always how many deluded followers they can attract.)
OK. So I have pointed to an instance of a problem, tied it to the larger problem of pseudo-IP, and tied that to pretty much all of the problems we have with the Right, not only in the US, but globally. But what do we do?
We do what we always do, of course. Take over the world. But not with one of Brain's loony schemes. We do it by allying ourselves with forces more powerful than our enemies, such as the movement toward democracy, accountability, and human rights over the last two centuries and more. We can establish the culture of sharing and cooperation on a global scale, and work together toward real, evidence-based solutions. Mere wealth, bigotry, racism, and the like have never been able to stand against any degree of such cooperation except where they could make cooperation impossible. We are about to see cooperation emerge on a grander scale than at any time in history.
Your part in this mission, should you choose to accept it, must therefore be to join with the forces of cooperation and refuse to take part in the corporate plan for your own domination. Not necessarily all at once, but step by step. You are welcome to help out with One Laptop Per Child and Sugar Labs, of course, but you also have to take personal responsibility.
Linux can be Free Software of the highest purity if you want it to be, with exceptions for some hardware drivers and options for non-free repositories. Debian Linux used to be the purest, but Trisquel Linux is now the champion. Unlike the Right, however, we don't require you to begin at the highest standard of ideological purity. Or end there, either.
Apple Macintosh OS, which is based on BSD Unix, is also to a considerable extent Free Software, but they keep it hidden from the user. You have to learn about what you have, and how to use it, and about what you can get.
Windows is the real enemy. Microsoft was adjudged a criminal enterprise in its antitrust trial in 2000, and the Bush Administration did nothing to change that. Microsoft is also the openly-avowed,bitterest enemy of Free Software in general and Linux in particular. But you can still install a wide range of Free Software on Windows, including a Linux-style command line with Linux-style utilities. I helped write the first Linux command line manual created for ordinary users who do not intend to become system administrators.)
You can start with the more obvious instances of Free Software, namely Firefox and Libre Office (formerly Open Office until Oracle [boo, hiss] bought Sun Microsystems and ditched its Free Software projects). The GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) to replace Photoshop, Inkscape for drawing, and so on in that vein.
Then you can get a bootable Linux distribution on a Flash drive to try it out. The GUIs are not identical with Windows or Mac OS, but the icon/mouse/menu ideas are the same. If that works, install Linux in a partition on your hard drive, alongside Windows, and switch as needed. You should find, as I did years ago, that your desire to use Windows diminishes steadily.
If there is some Windows program that you cannot do without, try installing WINE under Linux. It lets you run many Windows programs, in some cases faster and more reliably than under Windows, because it uses Linux filesystem calls rather than the clumsy Windows methods. Linux has journaled filesystems, so that you will usually not lose data even in cases of system crash or loss of power. And you will certainly not suffer the Registry corruption that is a constant hazard on Windows, due to Microsoft's boneheaded insistence on ignoring all of the Computer Science that Bill Gates failed to study after he dropped out of Harvard.
One more point: As soon as I post this, I intend to ask Daily Kos to consider a transition to all-Free Software, including discouraging the use of graphic and video formats not accessible to all Kossacks.