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The subversive power of free software. Many in the Linux community are attracted to the system because they want control over what they do with their computers. The freedom of free software allows us to know what goes into our systems, and to fix, improve, and change it as we see fit. To many, such freedom seems so fundamental that it is not even thought about all that much.
Free software is increasingly running afoul of those who wish to exercise control not just over our ability to access source, but over what we can know and do. And, in the process, free software is proving itself to be an agent of freedom beyond just the keyboard. As a result, there may be a confrontation brewing in our future. Not everybody will like the subversive power of free software.
This confrontation can be seen in the ongoing DVD and "cphack" affairs. But perhaps the first real demonstration of what free software can do was the release of PGP by Phil Zimmerman, years ago. The U.S. Government's desire to prevent the spread of cryptographic knowledge and code was frustrated forevermore. It was an exquisite act of subversion, and one for which Mr. Zimmermann paid with years under the shadow of a federal investigation.
21st century subversives are busily building an infrastructure to help let future cats out of the bag, and to keep them out. The FreeNet project is a classic example, but the real tool of the future may be the newly revitalized Gnutella project. Gnutella may look like a Napster clone to some, but it's much more interesting than that. Gnutella will be able to distribute any kind of file in an anonymous fashion, and in a way that is inherently difficult to shut down. If Gnutella works as planned, it will soon be a simple task to get a copy of DeCSS, cphack, or tomorrow's hot hack from the distributed network.
Free software is a great way to codify (and improve) many types of information. The Internet already makes it easy to spread such information widely; with a suitably-designed decentralized distribution infrastructure built on top of it, the net will move further toward being the uncontrollable space that many have made it out to be.
It would be foolish to expect that those who have something to lose in such a world will not fight back. The DVDCCA, the MPAA, and Mattel have already demonstrated that nicely. The responses we have seen so far, however, have mostly been of a panic-stricken, "throw lawyers at it" variety. Sooner or later, corporations and governments may start seeing free software itself as a threat. The nature of their reaction at that point is impossible to predict, but is guaranteed to be interesting. It's going to be a wild time.
(Acknowledgements: very little of the above is original. The What is Gnutella? page gives a good overview of what they are about. See Upside's talk with Eben Moglen, the FSF's lawyer, for his view on the subversive side of free software. Anybody interested in these topics should certainly have a look at Lawrence Lessig's Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace as well. See also Jungle Monkey for another approach to distributed file sharing.)
The Maryland General Assembly has passed UCITA. Maryland thus becomes the second state to adopt this law, which has a number of unfortunate implications for users of licensed software. The lawmakers in Maryland have, however, marked up UCITA considerably (detracting from the "Uniform" aspect of the legislation). Among the changes they made are restrictions on remote disabling of software, some "fair use" protections, and requiring licenses to adhere to Maryland's "fair competition" law - a change which is alleged to protect reverse engineering, at least in some cases.
Those who want to see what passed can go to the House Bill 19 page and download it in RTF format. (Thanks to Bob Kopp).
No joy at Linuxcare. Back toward the beginning of the year, when Linux stocks were still flying high, Linuxcare was often named as the company most likely to produce the next spectacular IPO. They duly filed in January, but the actual offering never quite seemed to happen. People were starting to wonder what was going on.
Now it appears that the offering will not happen for some time. On Friday, April 9, the company confirmed the rumors that had been circulating with this press release. The release, which still contains most of what is really known about this affair, stated the following:
Linuxcare may well recover. There are many good people working there, and their business plan may yet yield strong rewards. Assuming that there are not more surprises in store, the company should be able to regroup and move forward. We wish them luck.
Minix is free software. After many years, Andy Tanenbaum has finally released the Minix operating system under the BSD license. Had Minix used this license from the beginning, Linux may have never come to exist. As it is, Minix certainly provided some of the inspiration for the creation of a free, Unix-like operating system for PC-class computers. It is an important part of Linux history, and it is good that it is free at last.
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April 13, 2000