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December 4th, 2014

The Ongoing Wars Against Free Tech

After a few months of not hearing much from Microsoft, the company has been in the news a bit recently. First there was the brouhaha when it announced it was offering the .NET framework as open source. Then there were several big security problems with Windows, with one serious vulnerability going all the way back to Windows 95.

Although this would’ve been big news in the old days, the FOSS press has been relatively quiet about all this. There were a few articles about the .NET thing, with some writers pointing out that the MIT license which Redmond is using will offer no patent protection for Redmond owned .NET related patents, and the Windows security issues got next to no FOSS coverage at all.

My how times have changed.

A decade ago the open sourcing of any major program by Microsoft would have FOSS writers in a dither, even if released under the GPL. We would’ve been uber suspicious, certain that this was only the front end of a plan to end Linux and FOSS as we know it. As for the Windows security woes, we’d be rubbing our hands with glee, writing paragraph after paragraph on how much this proves the inferiority of Windows and the superiority of our beloved Linux. In those days, we had to take our good news wherever we could find it.

Back then, Microsoft was very much the “evil empire.” With its billions of dollars in the bank, the company was intent on taking us down. Linux and FOSS were a cancer threatening everything Redmond had stolen created. And they weren’t alone: Novell, Oracle, little ol’ SCO, and everyone else hawking proprietary goods was intent on forever destroying the quaint concept of free and open source software.

As a proprietary rock group once said, “That was then; this is now.” We’re not afraid of Microsoft anymore.

We’re still suspicious of their motives and know they would destroy us tomorrow if they could — but that doesn’t worry us, because they can’t. They have too much on their plate as they fight for survival. But even if they didn’t we still wouldn’t be afraid — not of them, nor of Oracle or anyone else who’d like nothing better than to squish us under their thumbs. We’ve won. As Dwight Merriman, co-founder of DoubleClick – a closed company if ever there was one — told me recently when I asked him about open source in the enterprise, “I think it’s mainstream.” He should know; he’s on our side now.

These days the future of FOSS is pretty secure; we’re not going anywhere anytime soon. We even seem to be slowly gaining the upper hand on the patent front, with many recent court rulings taking the wind out of the trolls’ sails, if you’ll excuse the cliche.

FOSS may no longer be under the big guns, but free tech certainly is.

In other words, the battle lines have shifted. The fight is no longer over open source software licensing, which has been embraced — some say usurped — by big business. There are new battles now, in which the stakes are just as high, maybe even higher, than they ever were.

For one thing, free tech is under attack from governments which insist they have the right — even the obligation, according to them — to monitor their citizens even in their homes, which had been the last bastion of personal privacy.

For the last year and a half or so, when Edward Snowden first began leaking classified NSA documents, we’ve been aware that the U.S. spy guys, along with spy agencies in Canada and the UK, have been spying on citizens. From what we understand, they have the ability to activate microphones and cameras, unbeknownst to users, to listen and watch moments which should be private.

There’s also evidence that back doors have been built into Windows and possibly other operating systems to help them gather information on individuals and companies. They’ve been caught monitoring the phone calls of prime ministers in Germany and Brazil, which is probably only the part of an iceberg we can see. It’s pretty much common knowledge now that nothing on our computing devices is safe from governments’ prying eyes.

Intelligence agencies and law enforcement are a bold lot, seemingly lacking remorse. When Apple and Google reacted to the Snowden revelations by offering strong data encryption systems on iOS and Android, the spooks and cops reacted right back. Never mind the Bill of Rights or due process, they said, we want your data and we want it now.

In October, the New York Times reported that FBI director James B. Comey said that Apple’s and Google’s efforts had “gone too far.”

“He hinted that as a result, the administration might seek regulations and laws forcing companies to create a way for the government to unlock the photos, emails and contacts stored on the phones.

“But Mr. Comey appeared to have few answers for critics who have argued that any portal created for the F.B.I. and the police could be exploited by the National Security Agency, or even Russian and Chinese intelligence agencies or criminals. And his position seemed to put him at odds with a White House advisory committee that recommended against any effort to weaken commercial encryption.”

Thank goodness, I guess, for sanity at the White House — at least for the time being. We’ll have to wait and see who’ll occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 2017. This isn’t wholly a partisan issue either. Hillary Clinton, for instance, would be just as much a threat to tech freedom as anyone the Republicans are likely to run.

Free tech is under attack on other fronts as well. For example, Net Neutrality is another important battle we’re likely to lose, as service providers such as Comcast have more money to pour into congressional coffers than some countries have money.

We’re not afraid of the likes of Microsoft anymore. We don’t need to be, although we must still be watchful. But we do need to be afraid — very afraid — of other ways in which our freedoms are under attack by means of using our personal technology devices against us. This may not be entirely a free software issue, but the most important part of FOSS is the word “free.”

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

6 comments to The Ongoing Wars Against Free Tech

  • miffmiff

    government surveillance is not an issue that Floss can address. and its a mistake to try and connect the two. government surveillance has been a problem throughout history and has a very well defined interpretation in the law and legal studies. before there was the NSA they had teams of people who opened postal mail. undercover agent, ‘moles’ etc. the technology used to preform surveillance is inconsequential.

    Floss as an idea and as a set of licences has no legal standing to challenge government surveillance in any form. civil liberties law and the legal system are the correct domain for these issues. there is no code or technology at the foundation of these issues. its inconsequential.

    its irresponsible for writers to portray these issues as something ordinary citizens can ‘hack’ around with code in some way. interfering with government operations has very severe penalties even in the most liberal countries. in short leave these issues up to organizations like the EFF and support there efforts. they have qualified layers who understand the issues and are working in the publics interest.

  • Anon

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trusted_Computing_Group
    Major CPU vendors include a small coprocessor running special code for possibly “DRM”. Can you control what code runs on YOUR computer? Even under linux? Run ‘lsmod|grep drm’.
    http://boingboing.net/2012/01/10/lockdown.html

  • Mike

    @Anon – “lsmod |grep drm” on most linux systems will return modules for this:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_Rendering_Manager

    This is not for DRM as in digital rights management.

    Your second link is to Cory Doctorow’s article that is an absolute must-read for anyone who thinks FOSS has already won.
    The battle is much bigger than you think and will likely ove to hardware that will restrict what you can do – even if it is running FOSS. We are already seeing it in every modern mobile phone with a locked bootloader and binary blob drivers on closed hardware. Look at the problems the Replicant alternative to Android has run into with hardware. It’s eye opening.

  • Tachyon

    Systemd is the real threat. It is the very back door the intelligence agencies have always wanted in Linux. RedHat, the main force behind systemd, has more three letter agencies involved in it’s funding than you can shake a stick at. It’s no surprise that the Snowden leaks revealed that the NSA considered Linux users a threat due to the lack of system backdoors and general system security. Systemd is the attack vector needed to eliminate that threat.

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