Free Software Essay
Below is an essay that I wrote my English class at school about free software and the Free Software Foundation. I thought it may be interesting to include here.
H English 10
25 February 2022
The threat that information-hungry governments and private entities pose to people in the information age makes it difficult to have confidence in the privacy, security and trustworthiness of electronic devices that the majority of people orchestrate their lives through. Whether by using social media, operating a “smart” home appliance or driving a car, people entrust their leisure, money, and even lives to inherently untrustworthy computerized devices. According to the Free Software Foundation there exist four essential freedoms that make a piece of software free and by extension trustworthy:
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1).
- Access to the source code is a precondition for this.The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3).
All four of which require accessible source code (GNU Project). Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, notes that the foundation supports software development that is “free as in freedom, not free as in free beer.” Free beer comes as a cost to someone, freedom comes at a cost to no one who consents to it (GNU Project). People close to the whistleblower Michael Hastings know the cost of untrustworthy software all too well after he tragically died at the age of 33. His family members described Michael as a rule breaker, starting from a young age. He never liked unchecked authority, he sought to challenge and disassemble it. Despite him not living an ideological ideal according to many people, the United States guarantees freedoms that cannot be taken away without a trial to people, among them, that to life. Michael served as an invaluable asset to a team of people trying to expose great injustices happening in the United States government. For this reason, many believe that the federal government as a whole wanted him dead, something that, according to many experts, would later say caused Michael’s silver Mercedes C250 coupe to speed into a tree on June 18, 2013 at 4:20 AM going over 100 miles per hour (Wallace). Without the ability for people to freely audit and modify the source code of the software that they use, they cannot know what happens inside of it or stop bad actors, public or private, from interfering with citizens’ private dealings (GNU Project). Any device with a computer that runs non-free software becomes a target for corrupt people to infiltrate. For example, a leak in the Vault7 archive on WikiLeaks details exactly how CIA agents can exploit vulnerabilities in Samsung TVs in order to turn them into remote microphones that will not shut off even after the user powers off the TV (WikiLeaks). In addition to mistakes, software proprietors commonly build “backdoors” into their software so that the creators of the app and their constituents can remote control users' devices and track their usage/gather data (qtd. in Pakman). Without society placing more emphasis on computational freedom, good people will continue to subjugate themselves to oppression by their reliance on devices with code built on an untrustworthy foundation.
Instead of relying on proprietary software that users cannot audit and cannot trust, the Free Software Foundation instead pushes for developers to release software under freedom respecting licenses, one that conforms to the four essential freedoms mentioned above. One such license is the GNU General Public License or GPL. Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman first created this license in the late 1980’s and designed it from the ground up to allow the user of a piece of software complete freedom to do what they want with it (Free Software Foundation). In order to conform with these licenses the Free Software Foundation recommends that all software created by or for businesses that primarily create something other than software should have a release under a free license. This way people can have confidence that the companies they work with do not misuse customer data and make sure that the platforms that they support actually do what they say they will do (GNU Project). Some companies that do this include Proton Technologies who provide online email, vpn and file storage services (Proton Technologies), Raspberry Pi Foundation, the creators of many different single board computers (Raspberry Pi Foundation), and Pine64, manufacturer of laptops, phones and other mobile devices (Pine64). Without the ability for private researchers to examine software for vulnerability, governments and private groups can place the malware they develop into cold storage or on a target’s computer without their knowledge and sit there until they have a need for it. Since the code that runs proprietary systems usually does not get looked at unless the proprietor notices an error, these vulnerabilities rarely get found. According to WikiLeaks:
Unlike bullets, bombs or missiles, most CIA malware is designed to live for days or even years after it has reached its 'target'. CIA malware does not "explode on impact" but rather permanently infests its target. In order to infect a target's device, copies of the malware must be placed on the target's devices, giving physical possession of the malware to the target. To exfiltrate data back to the CIA or to await further instructions the malware must communicate with CIA Command & Control (C2) systems placed on internet connected servers. But such servers are typically not approved to hold classified information, so CIA command and control systems are also made unclassified (WikiLeaks).
Even if citizens can trust the government can never misuse weaponized software, they can lose control of it to malicious hackers who can use it for their attacks. Benjamin Wallace from New York Magazine reports that:
By the end of 2016, the CIA's hacking division, which formally falls under the agency's Center for Cyber Intelligence (CCI), had over 5000 registered users and had produced more than a thousand hacking systems, trojans, viruses, and other "weaponized" malware. Such is the scale of the CIA's undertaking that by 2016, its hackers had utilized more code than that used to run Facebook. The CIA had created, in effect, its "own NSA" with even less accountability and without publicly answering the question as to whether such a massive budgetary spend on duplicating the capacities of a rival agency could be justified (Wallace).
Beyond simply gaining control of information not intended for them, the widespread use of untrustworthy software can also lead to many other unintended consequences. In an interview I conducted with Richard Stallman he mentioned that although he believes that people should have the ability to do what they want inside their property with whatever software they please, unchecked surveillance software monitoring other people’s property poses a huge issue. He notes that a property owner can point a camera at someone else’s property and begin analyzing what happens on it, without that person’s consent. Even if the person getting monitored eventually notices the other person monitoring him, he has no way of knowing what will happen with the collected data. Richard also noted during the interview that we can draw a distinction between devices and software designed for security and those designed for surveillance, calling to my attention that surveillance primarily relies on the retention of information and the availability of information (Sands). Many businesses discount the messages of the Free Software Foundation, they argue that it is unsustainable for them to give away their software, and they need to sell it in order to make money. In this case the Free Software Foundation recommends that businesses whose mainly work on software development should shift their business models so that they do not rely on selling software, but rather on supporting software and commissioning software (i.e. they will build it to their customer’s specifications, but they will still release it under a freedom respecting license) (GNU Project). Alternatively, the Qt Project’s founder recommends that companies follow a dual licensing scheme where they license their software under the GPL for people who want to make and support the GPL and also allow for others to purchase the software wherein they retain unfettered rights to redistribute and sell anything created their software. In his own words “‘To us, it comes down to a matter of quid pro quo, hence our dual license, [...] to those who directly profit from our work, we ask only that they either also support the community by sharing their work -- as we have done and continue to do -- or support the continued development of Qt by buying appropriate development licenses’” (qtd. in McAllister).
The Free Software Foundation has taken steps in order to spread that liberation of technology everywhere. However, one of the most respectable aspects of the Free Software Foundation is that it uses purely freedom focused principles to enact its policies. Instead of trying to force its way of thinking on to others by petitioning the government to exercise force over them, it instead tries to convince people that their way of thinking works better and get them to voluntarily license their software under the GPL and other freedom respecting licenses (Free Software Foundation). The Free Software Foundation leaders also practice what they preach, Richard Stallman, for example, uses only computers with free software installed on them. Despite having to use older, slower hardware and cumbersome methods for accessing the internet, he still continues to fight for and work with the tools that he believes in (Pakman). Based on his own account, Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in the mid 1980’s when he researched AI at MIT. During this time the AI lab he worked at changed, it went from a place where everyone wanted to share their code, to a place where sponsorship by companies caused them to not share anything. In order to solve this, Richard began rewriting his own version of the software his colleagues worked on that had complete compatibility, but did not use any of the same code. In this way he did not violate any laws, but he could give away his code and keep the lab as a place where people continue to share code. This way of working resonated with other people, eventually leading them to become the first members of the FSF and supporters of freedom respecting software (Pakman). In an interview with Stallman I further inquired to his philosophy regarding free software and while he made it very clear that he thinks that non-free software creates injustice, and it should not see use, however, he does not “advocate making it a crime, forw the same reason I [He] oppose[s] the War on Drugs. Cocaine and heroin are dangerous, but we should not put people in jail for using them” (qtd. in Sands). One of the main ways the FSF works toward this goal without making proprietary software illegal is by holding copyrights on a large proportion of the GNU operating system, and other free software. They collect these rights from thousands of individual software developers and corporations working on free software. They then register these copyrights with the US copyright office and enforce the GPL licensed under. They do this to ensure that free software distributors respect their obligation to pass on the freedom of software (Free Software Foundation). In order to help support the Free Software Foundation and the licenses that it promotes one can use conventional means of support: make a cash donation to them, spread their message by passing out leaflets with their mission on it or you can volunteer to help keep their operations running. However, perhaps most importantly for the movement, people can take time to develop and use freedom respecting software. As Neil McAllister notes “The GPL is a political tool designed to promote the concept of free software. For a profit-minded business, that can be scary, but only if you presuppose that producing and encouraging free software is a bad thing for your company to be doing” (qtd. in Pakman). In reality; by using the GNU General Public License software companies can make their software more friendly and trustworthy for all consumers while providing an easy cost effective way for hobbyists and individual people to get involved in their project or ecosystem. This can not only allow for outside people to become familiar with their product, increasing brand recognition, global skill level and market adoption, but when licensed under another license it can also allow for a business to retain almost the same profit potential it had before.
Pakman, David, director. Richard Stallman Explains Everything. YouTube, MidweekPolitics, 1 Feb. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUibaPTXSHk.
McAllister, Neil(2005, March 11). What's so bad about the GPL? InfoWorld. Retrieved from https://www.infoworld.com/article/2671617/what-s-so-bad-about-the-gpl-.html
Stallman, Richard. “E-Mail Interview.” Sands.
Wallace, Benjamin. “Who Killed Michael Hastings? -- New York Magazine - Nymag.” New York Magazine, New York Magazine, 8 Nov. 2013, https://nymag.com/news/features/michael-hastings-2013-11/.
“Free Software Is a Matter of Liberty, Not Price — Free Software Foundation — Working Together for Free Software.” Free Software Foundation, 2022, https://www.fsf.org/about/.
“Philosophy of the GNU Project - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation.” Philosophy of the GNU Project, GNU Project, https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/philosophy.html.
“Philosophy.” Philosophy | PINE64, PINE64, www.pine64.org/philosophy/.
“The GNU Operating System and the Free Software Movement.” GNU Project, 2020, https://www.gnu.org/.
“Raspberry Pi Foundation - about Us.” Raspberry Pi, Raspberry Pi Foundation, 5 July 2021, https://www.raspberrypi.org/about/.
“Security Features.” ProtonMail, Proton Technologies AG, https://www.protonmail.com/security-details/.
“Vault 7: CIA Hacking Tools Revealed.” Vault7, WikiLeaks, 7 Mar. 2017, https://wikileaks.org/ciav7p1/.