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<nettime> anti-piracy goons considered harmful
Bruce Sterling on Fri, 31 Jan 2003 11:06:54 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> anti-piracy goons considered harmful

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
February 2003

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—an 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 software's features.

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 copyright laws.

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 colonialism.

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 person's office.

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 
attractive desktop.

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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