GNU/Linux: Source Code and Human Rights

Tuesday May 6th 2008 by Bruce Byfield

By using Free and Open Source software, you are supporting one of the few initiatives that give developing nations and the poor any hope of participating as equals in the modern world.

James Maguire, Datamation's managing editor, claims he has no interest in software whose source code is available for editing. "I'm not a software engineer," he says. "If I can't grab it off the shelf, I can't use it."

He's half-joking, of course. But he echoes the opinion of many people outside the free and open source software (FOSS) community about what its efforts are about. Ask average computer users what FOSS is about, and, if they've even heard of it, they'll probably say something about the source code being publicly available.

The problem is that the community has done a deplorable job of explaining itself to outsiders. Focused on the immediate concerns of developers, the Open Source Definition lists only one right out of ten (to redistribute the software) that might be of interest to average computer users. The more concise Free Software Definition includes two out four points for the average user (the rights to redistribute and to run the program for any purpose). But, in practice, those who use it tend to be focused on the rights given to developers like themselves.

Nor is the matter clarified by the popular use of the term "open source" for the entire movement, since the term refers directly to the source code. (Admittedly, "free software" is equally misleading in its own way, since most outsiders think the term synonymous with "freeware," but that's another issue).

The problem with explaining FOSS in terms of source code is that, unless you're a developer, source code is only the means to an end. As Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, pointed out to me a couple of years ago, promoting FOSS in terms of source code is like promoting recycling in terms of the technical details of recycling, such as the temperature at which certain plastics melt or the chemical processes that occur in an operating smelter -- basically, most people don't care.

Instead of talking technicalities, environmentalists talk about what recycling can do for you and your community. In other words, they refer simultaneously to self-interest and ethics.

If FOSS is ever going to gain a strong foothold outside its own community, its advocates need to adopt a similar approach. Outside of their own circles, they need to stop talking about being able to change the source code, which will only produce stony-faced indifference in the average listener. Instead, FOSS supporters need to talk about the advantages that access to the source code brings to the average user: The consumer rights and the extension of free speech that accessible source helps to promote.

The potential right of modification

Even if you have no ability to modify the code yourself (and I speak as one who can barely cobble together a "Hello, world" script with help), the right is still potentially useful. After all, you may not immediately need the right to freedom of expression, either, but the right's existence still protects you and prevents problems if certain situations arise.

In the case of FOSS, accessible source code means that, even if you can't do more than shrug at it, others can act on your behalf. When the members of FOSS projects fix a bug or enhance a feature, they are acting as representatives of all users. And, in fact, many are more or less aware of this role; I've seen project members book off work to fix a major security problem because they take their responsibilities to users so seriously. Compare such turnaround time to the weeks that elapse before many proprietary software sellers even acknowledge a problem, and the advantage of accessible source code to the average user becomes immediately obvious.

Moreover, if you need a specific feature, you can hire someone to write it, either keeping the modified version for your own private use or redistributing it back to the community. As Bob Young, the former CEO of Red Hat, used to point out, you wouldn't accept a car whose hood was welded shut, so that the engine could only be modified by the manufacturers. So why should you accept a similar limitation in your software? In almost any other consumer product, users expect to have the right to alter or fix it. By sharing the source code, FOSS simply extends this right to your software.

Restoring consumer rights

When you stop to think, all of the rights conveyed by FOSS licenses come down to basic consumer rights. Proprietary software users accept all sorts of restrictions that would outrage them with any other product -- and mostly for no other reason than that's how things have always been since the personal computer became commonplace.

But, when you stop to think, why should you have to enter a registration code or send an activation code before you can your software? Why should you be restricted in how many computers you can install purchased software on? Or prevented from passing it on to a friend? If someone tried to restrict your use of a book in the same way, you'd be outraged. I sometimes think that half the reason for software piracy in the industrialized world is that it's a half-conscious rebellion against the restrictive rules that are the norm in the software industry.

Yet software publishers get away with these practices because their end-user license agreements (which you can't read until you open the package) specify that you are not buying their software but licensing the use of it. This sleight-of-hand justifies not only such everyday restrictions, but also various forms of manufacturer spyware and lockdown technologies that prevent you from using your software in any way that might be illegal.

Probably, you don't remember acquiescing to such actions, since simply opening the box is considered to signal your agreement. Probably, you aren't aware of it, either, unless you use security software that tells you when an executable is sending information unasked. Yet it is simply the norm in modern computing.

By contrast, in giving you broad rights to copy and redistribute, FOSS restores your basic consumer rights to you. All that proprietary licenses forbid you to do, FOSS licenses encourage you to do, making your software no different than anything else in your house. True, the GNU General Public License is not incompatible with lockdown technologies, but if your system uses any, you can easily find out via a Web search -- and find the source code so that you can circumvent the restrictions if you choose.

Free as in speech

All these personal rights are in aid of an even larger right -- the one alluded to in the Free Software Foundation's definition of "free" as "free as in speech." If freedom of speech is to have any meaning in the modern world, then accessibility to computers and the Internet is an inevitable corollary. Just as free speech is not served by one person buying an hour of prime time TV and a rival handing out photocopies on the street corners, so free speech becomes meaningless in the modern world without access to the Internet.

Without this access, people -- in fact, whole nations -- are cut off from not only convenient and efficient communication, but also much of the ongoing dialog in the modern world. Although the cost of hardware remains a problem, the rights inherent in FOSS go a long way towards enabling this access.

By using FOSS and claiming your rights as a consumer, you are also encouraging the spread of this access. You are supporting one of the few initiatives that give developing nations and the poor any hope of participating as equals in the modern world. That is why you should be using FOSS -- not, in the end because you have any interest in tinkering with code, but as a way of extending human rights and dignity.

In the short term, Maguire is right. Why should average users care about accessible source code? But, in the long term, that right to source code is the means of enabling other, even more basic rights, both for yourself and others.

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