[Fsf-friends] Fwd: <nettime> anti-piracy goons considered harmful
Mon, 3 Feb 2003 11:24:38 +0530
---------- Forwarded Message ----------
Subject: <nettime> anti-piracy goons considered harmful
Date: Thu, 30 Jan 2003 21:02:50 -0600
From: Bruce Sterling <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Simson Garfinkel, ladies and gentlemen. You've
gotta love the guy.
Will you become a moth-eaten desaparecido
in a torturer's secret police dungeon because
you foolishly used Microsoft products? Well,
yeah, that sounds pretty likely... bruces
The Net Effect by Simson Garfinkel
For human rights groups, commercial software could be fatal.
You have a moral obligation to use free software. At least, that's the
message that Patrick Ball is trying to get out.
Ball is deputy director of the Science and Human Rights Program of the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. He's best known for
his analysis of the Kosovo refugee movements during NATO's bombing
campaign in 1999. Now Ball is on another kind of mission: he's telling
the world's 10,000 human-rights groups to stop using pirated copies of
Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office and trying to persuade them to
use free software instead.
The best-known examples of free software are the GNU/Linux-based
operating system and OpenOffice=97an application suite that includes a
decent word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation package. You can
legally make as many copies of these programs as you want. Moreover,
because this software is distributed with its source code, any
programmer can examine the code, fix bugs, and tinker with the
Unlike some other advocates of free software, Ball is not fundamentally
opposed to Microsoft or other commercial-software makers. But he worries
that too many people put themselves in jeopardy by illegally copying
programs from these companies. Ball is especially concerned about
overseas human-rights organizations, but his argument is universal.
Illegal software copies are particularly common in poor countries. The
rate is highest in Vietnam, where the Business Software Alliance
estimates 94 percent of all software used in 2001 was illicitly copied.
But bootlegging is common in disadvantaged parts of the United States
too. In Mississippi, 49 percent of the software now in use runs afoul of
Such copying poses a special risk to human rights organizations: U.S.
companies and the U.S. government are working hard to make this practice
a go-to-jail offense worldwide, as it is in the United States. Although
the world frowns on countries that lock up their citizens for crimes of
conscience, it's easy to imagine that some repressive third-world regime
could invoke antipiracy laws as grounds for shutting down a meddlesome
human-rights organization. And if U.S. or other Western governments
object, the regime might logically respond, "You are always telling us
we should be more aggressive in the protection of intellectual property.
And now when we are, you criticize us.g
Would Amnesty International mount a letter-writing campaign to get a
human rights activist out of jail if she had been arrested for pirating
Microsoft Word? Probably not, says Ball. Amnesty International, the
world's richest human-rights group, buys properly licensed copies of
Microsoft Office for its computers. But when rich organizations use
expensive, proprietary software, they implicitly encourage the poorer
organizations with whom they work and share documents to do the same.
And that requires either violating the law or using scarce resources to
buy legitimate software. This is a compelling reason to push for the
widespread adoption of free software. The pervasive use of Microsoft
Office, combined with a staunch antipiracy program, amounts to economic
There is another reason for human rights organizations to eschew Windows:
verifiability. Whenever death squads make threats against a villager who
speaks with rights workers, those workers have a moral responsibility to
be sure their computers are secured with the best technology available.
Lives depend on it. There is no way to verify the security of Windows:
the software is secret. Indeed, Microsoft's latest license agreements
give the company the right to go into computers without their owners'
permission (or knowledge) to load software and retrieve "technicalg
information at Microsoft's sole discretion. A hostile government could
probably exploit these vulnerabilities, reaching through the Internet to
break into a rights worker's computer, never even setting foot in that
The only way a human rights organization (or anybody else) can be sure
there are no back doors into its software is to have an expert remove all
parts of the program that allow remote access. Clearly, this verification
would require access to the source code. In practice, the need for
verification rules out not only Windows but also any other closed-source
system, including those on Macintoshes and on Palm handheld devices.
Even two years ago, it wasn't practical for nongeeks to run Linux and the
rest of the free-software melange. (Articles in computer magazines that
claimed otherwise were prematurely enthusiastic.) But today, thanks to
Red Hat Software and OpenOffice, free software is a viable alternative.
The current version of Red Hat Linux runs on a wide range of hardware,
automatically loads OpenOffice, and provides a usable and visually
There's another reason for my becoming more bullish about free software.
A few months ago, a system administrator in a Central American
human-rights office e-mailed Ball that the office had stopped running
its pirated copy of Microsoft Exchange and had switched its e-mail
system to Red Hat Linux. The reason: it was nearly impossible to run
Exchange without expensive books and training courses. Free software, by
contrast, comes with free documentation. And monetary freedom translates
into political freedom by eliminating at least one way oppressive
governments can thwart these groups' good works.
Simson Garfinkel writes on information technology and its impact. He is
the author of Database Nation (O'Reilly, 2000).
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