Monday, 10 September 2007 20:39

Software Freedom Day and the open source way


Mark this Saturday, September 15th, in your diary. It’s Software Freedom Day and it’s coming to you. That's "free" as in "free lunch" but also "free" as in liberty.

Software Freedom Day is described by its organising body as a global, grassroots effort to educate the public about the importance of software freedom and the virtues and availability of free and open source software (“FOSS”). Previously, Software Freedom Day garnered 200 teams around the world and is sure to well exceed that figure this time around in 60 different nations.

Software Freedom is about more than merely the cost of an item although it is true that most open source software is available at no commercial fee: this happens because the programmers either have altruistic reasons, or have a revenue-raising model based instead on support, customisations, training and other ancillary services.

No, software freedom is about more than this. At its most rudimentary, free software is software that is liberated from constraining licenses. It may be shared with others. It may be installed on multiple computers. More than this, it may be examined. It may be improved. It may be redistributed with the improvements. The software becomes yours to own and to do with as your needs dictate without any fear of violating reams of complex legalese.

But again, there’s more than this. While the above is technically correct, it is the many and varied ramifications that truly define the “free” in software freedom.

Computer programs which are distributed in source-code format are completely transparent. There are no hidden concerns about bundled spyware or adware (or bloatware!). Any worries that the program might act destructively towards competing apps are alleviated.

As an example of the former, one well-publicised case in point is an occasion when Sony’s music label purposely added a rootkit to music CDs; when played on a Microsoft Windows computer, the rootkit was automatically and silently installed and searched the local computer for piracy breaches. This particular application was especially insidious because it actively attempted to mask itself from detection by embedding itself within the operating system. Let’s be clear: nobody objected to Sony fighting piracy or defending its commercial catalogue. However, by the same token, nobody wants unknown software loaded onto their computer, stealing resources.

An example of the latter is easily found among the varied rumours that have found airtime over the years that Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator, in its heyday, would deliberately sabotage installations of the competing product. Or that Windows Media Player and Real Networks’ Real Player would attempt to harm each other. We’re not saying there was any substance in these oft-repeated allegations; far from it – but the point is the rumours rose and were repeated and found some traction.

Leaving Microsoft alone, perhaps you have found a great new e-mail app online but it comes in compiled .exe form only; what is to say it’s not forwarding your ISP username and password? It doesn’t even necessarily matter if you can not prove that it is; the issue is that the software vendor can not easily provide that it does not.

By stark contrast it is impossible, or at least far more difficult, to perpetuate false rumours about open source software by sheer virtue of the very simple fact that the source code can be freely inspected by any person and the truth is laid plain.

Another timely illustration of the virtues of transparency comes with software that “calls home.” The classic modern example is Microsoft’s activation process in its latest line of operating systems and its office suite. Just like above, rumours and talk abound that “Bill Gates is checking up on you.”

This is similarly true for Windows Update and Microsoft Error Reporting; these too send data back to Microsoft and regularly are suspected of reporting possible, or perceived, infringing activities. Now, again, we’re not saying these rumours are true but simply that they exist, and they will always continue to exist wherever the software remains an impenetrable black box. If the application’s behaviour cannot be freely inspected then speculation will run rife, and typically this will tend towards views that regard the vendor with suspicion.

Once again, this is impossible with open source software. If an open source app calls home, the relevant section of code can be easily examined by any person who can read and understand the program code. And there’s definitely no doubt any app with even a whiff of hostility or privacy invasion would be lambasted on SlashDot, Digg and all across the reaches of the Internet.

The above examples are things we’ve all experienced; they’re pretty easy to understand. Let’s step it up a notch. In today’s world, technology is ubiquitous. Software is found in many places, and this can include quite un-technical areas that relate to our basic and simple operation in the world. Consider for a moment that most modern democracies are experimenting with, or considering, electronic voting. Presently, the manual paper- and labour-intense electoral systems are understood. Voters know their identity is crossed from a roll, that their individual ballot paper is marked by them and sealed, and that it is later counted with scrutineers of varying political persuasion watching. The processes, along with its checks and balances, have a transparency about them. They can be understood. They can be trusted.

In complete disparity, electronic voting systems are not understood and nor are they transparent. With automation goes the row upon row of people watching people. If the voting system cannot be trusted then likewise the results it yields can not be trusted either. At best, even if you have full faith in your society and government, it must be conceded that without independent verification of the process, the results can not be free from suspicion or rumour.

It’s at this point that software freedom takes on a whole new meaning and a whole new level. The promoters of Software Freedom Day are striving to bring attention directly to the effect technology today can have on basic human rights. Voting is but one example; education, health, communications, justice and many other areas all use technology heavily. Software freedom is about ensuring your civil rights are protected, through the use of program code which is open and accessible and that can be examined by any third party. Under these conditions it can thus ultimately be trusted – for if the technology is untrustworthy then the results and outputs are worthless.

There is one more aspect Software Freedom Day seeks to espouse, and that is the freedom of data. Undoubtedly, we have all experienced problems retrieving old documents. It might be you have old works on 5.25” Commodore 64 floppy disks; even though you can suck the raw data onto a PC thanks to various hardware and emulation solutions, you still have no easy way to read the information stored within the underlying files.

Or, sticking within the last decade, your Microsoft Word 2.0 documents may seem to be lost, with the latest versions of Word itself no longer having support for its own historic files. And that’s even using the same app; woe betide you if you wish to recover your early Microsoft Works documents and your only tool is Word.

Once more, as society tends to greater reliance on technology, the use of obsolete data file formats limits the exchange of thoughts and the preservation of society’s culture. Future generations will suffer a loss of historical detail because the programs used to record events are out of date and the structure of their disk file is no longer known or supported.

In this respect, Software Freedom Day advocates not just open source software but open file formats. So long as there is a description of just how the file is structured, and that it is available with restriction, any data file can be re-opened, re-read, reprinted, reproduced.

That, in a nutshell, is Software Freedom Day. So, come check it out! A regularly updated list of teams is displayed online, ordered by region. Find your area and see if a team is kicking, and what they’re up to. Otherwise, you can also elect to start your own team and the same page is the starting point.

The overseeing Software Freedom Day committee has made available software CDs, T-shirts and other items, but the teams are autonomously funding their own displays and presentations and augmenting the CDs with copies of different Linux distributions as well as OpenCD, a compilation of open source Windows applications.

I’m especially proud to note that the team in my area is working really hard, with events on both Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th. Come one, come all.

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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.

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