Tuesday, August 6, 2002

It's not about popularity--it's about principle.

Bruce Sterling's OSCON speech (mentioned on Slashdot) is a good read, though it's mostly cute metaphor and a lot of whining. The basic message (corporations are evil and Open Source is hard to use) is true enough, but hardly news. It's also not the problem, as far as I'm concerned.

Too much emphasis is put on how accessible the Open Source world is to the average user. But Open Source isn't about being accessible, or being successful, or taking over the world. It's about freedom to do what you want with your data. And while it's important for the average user to have that freedom, it's even more critical that we--the developers, the researchers, the innovators--have that freedom.

Of course, freedom is relative. For example, I don't feel that it's my God-given right to access the source of all the software I use. If you want to offer me software without the source, go ahead. If I don't need the source for that particular product, then maybe I'll give you my money. If I do need the source, I'll go somewhere else.

Hell, if you want to licence your software to me instead of selling it, then go for it. I'll read the terms, do my best to understand them, and decide if I can live with your restrictions. If they're reasonble, then maybe I'll give you my money. If they're too draconian, then I'll go somewhere else.

It is unfortunate that most users don't understand the rights they're forfeiting when they click "I Agree", but hey: they're the ones clicking. It's sleazy that some companies attach license
revisions to security updates, but hey: caveat emptor. Under U.S. contract law, it doesn't matter what rights the consumer thinks he has--it only matters what the contract says. So as long as customers put up with your ridiculous terms (or are too lazy to read them), I say "exploit away!"

We still, today, live in a country where consumers have a choice. If ubiquity and polish are more important to you than flexibility, then use Windows or OS X. If freedom is more important to you than convenience, then use Linux or FreeBSD. You get to choose.

The problem is not that Linux hasn't captivated the nation's grandmothers. The problem is that we--the people who care about freedom, the people who refuse to give up our rights in exchange for convenience--may soon lose our ability to choose at all.

The CBDTPA--being considered in the U.S. Congress now--will make it illegal to develop hardware or software that doesn't make provisions for copy protection. This doesn't just mean that their hardware and software will behave the way they want. This means that if your hardware and software don't behave the way they want, you will go to jail. Even if your hardware never touches their data. Even if all you ever use it for is to manage your own data, that you create in your own home.

This is a very real threat, not just to the success of Open Source, but to the existence of Open Source. It's hard to imagine how the Open Source world could incorporate such measures. And even if it's possible, there's no reason to believe that the proponents of this bill will choose a version which could be compatible with Open Source. After all, they're not pushing this stuff because they think it's right--they're pushing it because they think it will protect their profits.

If you use Windows or OS X, then the fate of Open Source might not seem very relevant to you. But surely you've noticed how your rights are dwindling, with every new release and security patch. Licence agreements are becoming more restrictive, not less. Their programs are getting more powerful, but your freedom in how you use them is weakening. Perhaps you can sleep at night thinking "These terms are bad, but they're not unbearable. I can still live with them, and if they ever get really bad, then I'll look for an alternative."

Well, any minute now, there may be no alternative.

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