GNU/Linux: Source Code and Human Rights: Page 2

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Moreover, if you need a specific feature, you can hire someone to write it, either keeping the modified version for your own private use or redistributing it back to the community. As Bob Young, the former CEO of Red Hat, used to point out, you wouldn't accept a car whose hood was welded shut, so that the engine could only be modified by the manufacturers. So why should you accept a similar limitation in your software? In almost any other consumer product, users expect to have the right to alter or fix it. By sharing the source code, FOSS simply extends this right to your software.

Restoring consumer rights

When you stop to think, all of the rights conveyed by FOSS licenses come down to basic consumer rights. Proprietary software users accept all sorts of restrictions that would outrage them with any other product -- and mostly for no other reason than that's how things have always been since the personal computer became commonplace.

But, when you stop to think, why should you have to enter a registration code or send an activation code before you can your software? Why should you be restricted in how many computers you can install purchased software on? Or prevented from passing it on to a friend? If someone tried to restrict your use of a book in the same way, you'd be outraged. I sometimes think that half the reason for software piracy in the industrialized world is that it's a half-conscious rebellion against the restrictive rules that are the norm in the software industry.

Yet software publishers get away with these practices because their end-user license agreements (which you can't read until you open the package) specify that you are not buying their software but licensing the use of it. This sleight-of-hand justifies not only such everyday restrictions, but also various forms of manufacturer spyware and lockdown technologies that prevent you from using your software in any way that might be illegal.

Probably, you don't remember acquiescing to such actions, since simply opening the box is considered to signal your agreement. Probably, you aren't aware of it, either, unless you use security software that tells you when an executable is sending information unasked. Yet it is simply the norm in modern computing.

By contrast, in giving you broad rights to copy and redistribute, FOSS restores your basic consumer rights to you. All that proprietary licenses forbid you to do, FOSS licenses encourage you to do, making your software no different than anything else in your house. True, the GNU General Public License is not incompatible with lockdown technologies, but if your system uses any, you can easily find out via a Web search -- and find the source code so that you can circumvent the restrictions if you choose.

Free as in speech

All these personal rights are in aid of an even larger right -- the one alluded to in the Free Software Foundation's definition of "free" as "free as in speech." If freedom of speech is to have any meaning in the modern world, then accessibility to computers and the Internet is an inevitable corollary. Just as free speech is not served by one person buying an hour of prime time TV and a rival handing out photocopies on the street corners, so free speech becomes meaningless in the modern world without access to the Internet.

Without this access, people -- in fact, whole nations -- are cut off from not only convenient and efficient communication, but also much of the ongoing dialog in the modern world. Although the cost of hardware remains a problem, the rights inherent in FOSS go a long way towards enabling this access.

By using FOSS and claiming your rights as a consumer, you are also encouraging the spread of this access. You are supporting one of the few initiatives that give developing nations and the poor any hope of participating as equals in the modern world. That is why you should be using FOSS -- not, in the end because you have any interest in tinkering with code, but as a way of extending human rights and dignity.

In the short term, Maguire is right. Why should average users care about accessible source code? But, in the long term, that right to source code is the means of enabling other, even more basic rights, both for yourself and others.

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Tags: open source, developer, security, consumer, recycling

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