Monday, July 07, 2014

Free Software Foundation (FSF) is even more relevant now than ever before

Originally published August 11, 2013

I have been supporting the FSF since before it was created as an organization in 1985 - I bought tapes with GNU software and the Emacs book from Richard Stallman in the late 1970s. Even though I have written and sold commercial software products for the Xerox Lisp Machine, Macintosh, and Windows in the decade from 1982 to 1991, since the mid-1990s my work and business has been largely centered around using and writing free software or open source software.

I just listened to a recent talk by Richard Stallman (he starts at time point 1 hour, 41 minutes into the video). I think that Richard really gets it in many ways. I understand if some people don't agree with his more extreme views of freedom and privacy, but I try to follow his suggestions (and that is what he does, offer suggestions) as much as I can within the limits of earning a living (e.g., many of my consulting customers do not support development using free software or open source licenses). In case you don't have time to listen to him, here are some of the topics in his talk:

  • We need fair governments to protect people from the excesses of powerful corporations and individuals. Unfortunately, most governments more serve the interests of the rich and powerful, something that people need to push back against. Effective law enforcement is absolutely necessary and it should be done under rule of law with proper court orders.
  • People should be anonymous in their purchases. As much as possible avoid being tracked by online sellers like Amazon (my wife and I live in the mountains in Central Arizona, so unfortunately we rely on ordering things from Amazon and other online sellers).
  • As usual, he talked briefly about the four software freedoms supported by GNU software licenses.
  • With the recent revelations about NSA "collect everything they can" operations (and similar activities by and with other governments) having free and open software systems with documented hardware is more important and relevant than ever. He makes the point that with free software we can at least try to preserve our rights.
  • There are good and bad ways to use the Internet. Good: maintaining control of your own data, using your own software on your own computer and using the Internet infrastructure carefully to preserve your privacy and your rights. Bad: providing a lot of personal information; allowing your activities to be tracked unnecessarily.
I do sometimes use the (often very useful) services provided by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Apple but I try to be aware of what information that I am providing. I like to use one web browser for accessing these services (e.g., logging on to Facebook to see what family members are doing, and selectively using Google services) and a separate web browser with locked down privacy controls for everything else. Using two different web browsers really helps me keep straight whether I am temporarily using useful services and sharing some personal data as a trade for those services, or, I am in a "privacy and freedom safe" mode.

We need to all make our own informed decisions on how we use technology and different people have different needs and concerns. I do enjoy talking with less tech savvy friends and family about these issues, not so much lecturing, but just so they know what their options are. My wish-list for technology that preserves freedoms is:

  • Use of free software on my computers. This is possible since GNU/Linux provides all of the tools that I need for writing and software development.
  • Privacy of data stored as backup and for convenience "in the cloud." This is also possible and very easy to do. For customer and my own proprietary information and data, I have backup scripts that ZIP and encrypt backups for automatic storage on DropBox, SpiderOak, S3, etc. Encryption is an absolute requirement for securely doing business on the Internet. As much as we can, we should all try to encrypt as much of our private data, emails, etc. as possible. It is a good habit to have. Please consider teaching less tech savvy friends and family members how to use encryption.
  • Secure and private communication. This I do not have. My cellphone company Verizon does (I believe) pass on all of my voice calls, text messaging, and Internet connections to my government (against my wishes !). In a similar way, all of our Internet traffic is stored for possible future analysis. Again, I am not happy about this since I believe in the proper rule of law: it is legally correct to get individual court orders to gather data for criminal prosecutions. No court order should equal no wide spread data collection. This seems like a no-brainer requirement for a free and open society, but the news media and most elected officials do too good of a job fooling people into accepting giving up freedom for incorrectly perceived extra safety. I have never received a warm response from my elected Congressional representatives when I bring up this subject in correspondence. The defense industry and the "forever war on terrorism" is BIG BUSINESS and has disproportionate influence on our elected representatives; unfortunately, this is not going to change - a case of wealthy and powerful special interests getting their own way.
  • Privacy-supporting web services for search and social media. I am probably in the minority in this, but I would prefer paying a monthly fee for services and receive a strong guarantee of privacy except, of course, in the case of a proper and legal court order in the pursuit of specific investigations that is fully compliant with our rights under the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

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