Recently, Richard Stallman published an article in Wired about Free and Open Source Software and its alternative, “Proprietary Software”. As he has for 30 years now, he vigorously called for the use and defense of FOSS and warned about the nefarious nature of Proprietary.
As if the worthy Stallman needed an illustration to dramatize his point, the Adobe Corporation last week announced that hackers had stolen from its servers the password and credit card information, of almost three million of its users as well as a huge amount of code from some of its programs — probably ColdFusion and Adobe Acrobat. That theft is potentially the most serious breach of user information in recent history and, because of the popularity of Acrobat, could prove devastating to computer users world-wide. Such theft is, in the end, only possible with Proprietary Software.
Since the spectacular theft is being reported (or under-reported) in ways that miss some important issues, analysis is called for, starting with the pertinent definitions.
Proprietary Software is written and distributed by developers (usually companies) who frequently sell it and never release or reveal its code (the programming that makes it work). It’s their private work product often protected by copyright laws, special “release keys” that prevent people who don’t have the key from using it, and other highly restrictive measures. Most users rely on it for their daily computing.
FOSS, on the other hand, is free and completely open. It can’t be sold. Its source code can be viewed and even changed by anyone who knows how and it can’t be “hidden and bundled” into commercial or proprietary programs. It’s the opposite of proprietary software. You may not use much FOSS on your computer except maybe your web browser and email program) but FOSS programs run the Internet and so all of us are in contact with it and depend on it every day.
The Adobe revelations about user data stolen from its records of customers are dramatic. Having credit card information for so many people (even if it’s encrypted as Adobe’s is) could result in a whole lot of grief for credit-card holders and multi-million dollar losses for banks and companies. But the more potentially damaging part of the announcement is that code theft because, with that information in hand, good hackers can fashion ways to get into just about every computer using the Acrobat program and steal their data, set up programs that transmit personal information and insert viruses that can wreck stored information.
It was a huge screw-up on the company’s part as Adobe sheepishly admitted but the more important issue hasn’t been discussed much. It’s the one Stallman is raising. If this weren’t proprietary software, nothing like this would ever happen. FOSS developers don’t have a cache of credit cards because they don’t charge for their software and nobody is going to steal that code because the code of any FOSS program is publicly available already. With hundreds, even thousands, of programmers reviewing the code, expanding it and applying it to other projects, any piece of code that can be exploited would be picked up by the community in a matter of hours.
If there’s any illustration about the superiority of FOSS over Proprietary Software, this is it.
But the issue goes way beyond security and theft. As Stallman puts it, this is really about freedom, today and in the future. For Richard Stallman, this isn’t a software preference; it’s a matter of social survival. FOSS is a kind of light that flows through all the spaces of our society, democracy and culture. Proprietary software isn’t just an inferior and insecure choice: it’s an assault on democracy and freedom.
In his recent article, one of the finest explanations I’ve ever seen about why FOSS is important, Stallman penned an elegantly powerful sentence. “If the users don’t control the program, the program controls the users.”
For far too many people, the programs are now in control. It’s a control spread through the “installed” software that accompanies Windows computers and the intense, and often unchallenged, marketing strategies companies employ. It’s been secured by the device you don’t leave home without: the cellphone whose web-browsing, data sharing, photo and video publishing and texting is all done, with most phones, by commercial and proprietary software hidden behind nifty icons and alluring features.
Few people reading this column would dispute the political superiority of FOSS. Freedom and control, after all, are major points on the progressive agenda. But many question if it’s worth the time and trouble to switch to FOSS or whether we prioritize the protection and use of Free and Open Source Software when there are so many other areas of protection and use we need to defend? The answer is that the software you use not only defines how you relate to the Internet but how you relate to the rest of the world. Proprietary software mangles those relationships.
The basic purpose of computer software is to tell your computer what to do. But that hardly characterizes its life or its entire function. Software is a productive activity comprising a complex and lengthy process that starts with an assessment of what’s needed, an analysis of how the software should meet that need, a planning process involving how that software is going to be structure and written and the actual work of putting it together. Each of these stages involves intense and collaborative interaction among volunteer (and usually unpaid) software designers who may come from all over the world and never even meet presonally as they are intensely working together. They do it because they believe in it.
If the software’s done right, the development involves a good cross-section of potential users. From the start, software is a collaborative effort by not only those who produce it but those people who might potentially use it.
As the software develops, it involves constant conversations, evaluations and problem-solving through emails, on-line chats and message boards. It’s as close as we come to a world-wide community in cooperation.
When the software is ready, it’s tested by the user community and the feedback techies get molds what changes and fixes they have to do. That development continues as long as the software is being popularly used, sometimes for years or even decades.
Does it really work? Most of the Internet’s primary server software is written and constantly updated through this remarkable process. It works and, in working, it proves that collaboration among people can produce high-quality, functional tools.
But most of the programs you use disrupt this process. They’re owned by corporations. What’s more, they are designed to capture data that these corporations can horde and use and sell.
The problems with that approach to software abound. It’s often costly. It’s controlling because users have little impact on its design and functionality. It cheats us out of the social power and community-building of software production because, rather than bring collaborating programmers from all kinds of countries speaking many difference languages together with users, it restricts the number of creators and prohibits them from revealing what they’re working or what they wrote.
In short, it’s just plain obscene. The exercise of building and using software reflects the fundamentally democratic and transparent nature of information technology, especially on the Internet. The human race built these technologies as a form of collaboration to enhance and increase our sharing and communication. It’s like an exercise in modeling how we would act in the world many of us would like to see, one of the few genuinely useful “tests” of our ability to collaborate as a species. Proprietary software prohibits sharing, doesn’t even think about productive communication and views the human race as a potential market.
To add poison to this regressive cocktail, commercial software producers horde your data and sometimes share it with advertisers and the government. All NSA surveillance revelations involved proprietary software. You can’t do what they are doing with FOSS. And when they mess up, as did Adobe, the impact is nightmarish.
Most people would be aghast at these horrors but most people don’t even realize they’re using proprietary software. So let’s take the Stallman test. Consider the three or four pieces of software you use the most and ask yourself if they measure up to his four requirements for Free and Open Source Software. They’re in his article and quoted here with some of my comments.
“The freedom to run the program as you wish, for whatever purpose.”
Does MicroSoft Office do that? What about your favorite planning programs? How about Facebook or Twitter? With these programs, you do what they want you to do. It’s like having a screw-driver that only works on certain screws in certain directions.
“The freedom to study the program’s ‘source code’, and change it, so the program does your computing as you wish.”
Sure, most of us can’t make sense of “source code” (the code which runs the program) even when we read it. But programmers, including movement programmers, can. With FOSS, that’s possible. Most proprietary programs are “shielded” in what is called “executable code” that only a computer can understand or locked in some other way from view.
“The freedom to make and distribute exact copies when you wish.”
No charge for the program. No licensing fee. No code that pops up a screen that says you can only use this program on one computer. How do your favorite programs measure up to that?
“The freedom to make and distribute copies of your modified versions, when you wish.”
Try to make copies of your programs, modify them and then distribute them. If your distribution becomes popular, you’re going to get a letter from a lawyer charging you with copyright infringement and you will be sued.
So, do your programs meet these requirements? No. And if you’re telling yourself that not much can be done because we don’t have alternatives to proprietary software, you’re very wrong. Here’s a list of some of the proprietary software you probably use and its FOSS alternatives.
Adobe Acrobat — We can apply every anti-proprietary argument to this ubiquitous program but, after what just happened, do we have to? If you’ve registered any Acrobat software or purchased it or an upgrade, chances are that some information gangster now has your credit card information and many soon try to use it or sell it. There are many alternatives that work perfectly. Do an on-line search for “Open Source Acrobat Alternatives” and you’ll see what I mean. Use one of those.
Microsoft Office — Established as the standard, mainly because it’s distributed with most computers you buy, this restrictive, repressive horror story (often condemning you to years of bug fixes) is completely unnecessary. Libre Office, the FOSS alternative, does everything Office’s basic programs do. Try it and you’ll soon wonder why you’ve been using Office all this time.
Windows — This is a toughie because most computers bundle it as the Operating system (the brains of your computer) although Apple computers have their own Operating System. At some point, based on the experience of just about every person I know, Windows will start giving you performance problems and you won’t know why. In the interim, it will saddle you with self-installing programs (like anti-virus software) that you don’t necessarily need or want. And, speaking of viruses, Windows attracts more viruses than an Emergency Room during flu season.
It’s not easy to substitute an OS on your computer if you don’t know what you’re doing but it’s easy if you do and there is a lot of help if you search for it. Install Debian Linux (or its cousin Ubuntu) and live a life of stable performance, elegant interface, literally thousands of free programs and virus-free computing.
By the way, if your office uses Windows network, you are going to experience lots of headaches in addition to the bang on your bank account that this clunky, insecure and super-expensive program introduces into your life. Linux (the same program you install on your personal computer) is the best Operating system for any network and it’s free and just as “installable” for a techie as Windows. If your techie doesn’t know Linux, get one who does.
Internet Explorer (or Chrome, etc.) — Download Firefox, use it for a day or so and save me the effort of explaining why.
Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express — Yes, they work but these email programs cost money, are code-hidden, have license requirements and can be unstable and complicated to configure. Thunderbird, the FOSS email program, is free, easy to install and configure and better performing. It’s a program that has almost no downside.
Gmail — It’s the world’s most popular webmail program — that’s an email program that uses a web-browser and stores email on a server — but it’s a hotline to the NSA. You simply have no data protection. Don’t use it. The problem is you have to get your provider to offer you something else as a “webmail” alternative because it’s the provider that offers webmail. At May First/People Link, we use or horde. Look for a provider that offers those programs or other FOSS webmail software. A hint though: while webmail is good when you’re traveling and don’t have your computer with you, it’s most advisable to use a regular email program when you’re on your own machine; it’s faster, more efficient and more secure.
Adobe Photoshop — This is, without question, a great program. It’s also obscenely expensive and the upgrades cost almost as much as the originals. That’s not to mention how proprietary the thing is, violating every FOSS principle we mentioned above. There’s an alternative and a good one: GIMP, the GNU Information Manipulation Program. “GNU” is the FOSS project founded and led by, you guessed it, Richard Stallman and this graphics program adheres to GNU’s principles. GIMP takes getting used to because the logic of the program and the feature lay-out differ from Photoshop’s but, once you’re acclimated, it’s superb. Download it and give it a try if you do lots of graphic work.
Facebook — If you’re part of the human race, it’s tough to wean yourself from this monstrosity which offers limited flexibility in your options and collects everything you’ve posted on its own servers. The user base is pretty much everyone so, if you use something else, you aren’t going to reach most people. But try Friendica, the FOSS social networking program, and get your close community to do the same. It does everything Facebook does and is completely decentralized so anyone can run it off any computer. That protects privacy, data and independence. It’s a nice alternative for an organization or community-based movement and, at some point, it may “massify” and you can take credit for having changed social networking.
Project Management and Wiki programs — There are so many of these programs that everyone you meet seems to have a favorite but most of them are commercial and some of them retain the data you enter on their servers. Trac is one good alternative for planning, sharing and work collaboration. Not fancy or “over-coded”, it’s simple yet as expandable and powerful as you’ll probably need. There are others identifiable with a search.
There are, of course, limitations in the FOSS world. If you do video work and are using Final Cut Pro, you’re not going to find an adequate FOSS alternatives quite yet. Twitter is…well…Twitter and, while there are plenty of messaging programs around, the huge user base of something like Twitter means you’re going to use it no matter what’s said here. But the point isn’t to completely convert, it’s to choose the programs you use with FOSS in mind.
Using FOSS programs that are stable, free and just powerful as the proprietary versions will make your computer more secure and more in line with the approach to information many who are reading this column favor. Most of all, it will heed Richard Stallman’s warning: now, rather than the program controlling us, we can control it. The social and political benefits of that are limitless.