Articles / Use of Open Source Software…

Use of Open Source Software Should Be Restricted

Information should be Free... but what if it's used to take away the freedom of others? The GPL places technical restrictions on the use of the software it protects. Bjorn Gohla believes it should also place political restrictions on it. The advent of the Internet and Linux spurred interest in Free Software that even made it into the general media, and millions of users around the globe are happily running computers without having paid for any software. Along with the casual home user, numerous companies and governments are discovering the power of the Open Source approach.

With non-free commercial software, there is always a chain of legal contracts connecting the software producer through various intermediaries to the user, thereby theoretically giving the producer control over who can have the software and under what conditions. Usually, this involves payment of money and exempting the producer from any damages the software might cause.

With Open Source software, there is also a legal connection between the producer and the user, but it's weaker and less formal. The producer will never even know how many people use the software. With the GNU GPL, the user is allowed to do anything with the software as long as any changes to the program are also licensed under the GPL. Anyone may change or use the software, even in ways the original author does not like (see GNU Emacs versus Lucid/XEmacs). In general, the Open Source paradigm leads to consensus-based collaboration, with influence based on the participants' knowledge and dedication. This approach easily extends beyond software, and could have political implications.

This philosophy produced some solutions that would have hardly been possible under the conventional paradigm of commercial software, and along the way, it promises to promote a sense of altruism and social responsibility that's very necessary in today's seemingly egotistical world. This philosophy of openness and freedom is being extended to other areas such as music, so one may say that the Open Source philosophy is the enlightenment of the information age.

But think about this: Some time ago, I created a firewall for a medium-sized company. It included an HTTP cache that scanned the company's Web traffic for viruses and bad Javascript. While working on that, I was struck by how easy it was to modify and redirect requests. You could just take out the virus scanner and plug in a Perl script that scans for words like "democratic", "liberal", and "human rights" and, if it finds them, denies that the page was available or, even worse, substitutes something "harmless". It would be a perfect tool of political repression, at almost zero cost. And one could think of many more such scenarios; just think of IBM's alleged involvement in the holocaust. I had been aware of the possibility of using information technology to those ends, but was disturbed when I stopped to consider that you can do it with Free Software, perhaps even better than with commercial software.

So it is possible to turn Free Software against itself and the ethics it stands for (I hold it to be implausible that any Open Source programmer could want this). The possibility is frightening, but if it is possible, someone will do it.

What should be done about it? For a program published under the GPL, the copyright holder could extend the license so that the use of the software shall not infringe on anyone's rights, but how should this restriction be phrased? What would be a reasonable demand? A company denying its employees access to porn sites probably seems reasonable to most, but what about a government doing the same to its citizens?

Enforceability is another question. Open Source licenses (GPL or any other) constitute legally binding contracts but have hardly been tested in the U.S. courts, much less outside the United States.

The best one can hope for is a symbolic move, perhaps a clause appended to the GPL stating that in using the program or any derived work, the user explicitly acknowledges, fully supports, and complies with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (or something similar, to avoid suspicion of moral imperialism).

Recent comments

12 Mar 2003 00:11 Avatar aviyag

Re: Cultural differences
boycutting and GPL
i'm caling all , not to look/download or use
any of your software !!!
i'm sure it's not worth to look at.
add this to your license !

today you boycutt israelis, tomorrow you
(or some other fool who will follow you)
will boycutt americans, africans or anyone else.
the GNU/GPL is about giving freedom of use,and programming
to all. even to ones you don't agree with :)
i could add some explanation on the israeli point of view,
but, since i think that the GNU/GPL should leave politics outside i will leave this to other forums :)

10 Mar 2003 16:32 Avatar parasew

too long for a comment but too short for a full article
i didn't read all the comments, as the list of postings is far too long, but as i see that may people are interested in this discussion i wanted to point you all to some references, that seem to fit in here.the free speech movement from the 60's ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank)`Free software'' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept,you should think of ``free'' as in ``free speech,'' not as in ``free beer.'' ( target=_blank)what also totally fits inside here, is part of the works of michelle foucault ( target=_blank)especially Discourse and Truth ( target=_blank)but also ( target=_blank)there have always been restrictions and laws, that are existing mostly because of powerful people and lobbies set them up.the best example is in austria and germany after the second world war: the political parties (equal if left or right wing) decided to stop returning so called "arisiertes eigentum" after some years of the war, because they had the fear of losing potential voters. this term used, means property which the nazis took from mostly jewish people and gave it to members of their movement (mostly they sold to raise money for the war). even if you look at this time, during the nazi-regime, information was hidden and destroyed that would not fit into their ideologies - disinformation and propaganda ruled.after the allies won WW2, in the places where the former 3rd reich was set up (germany, austria, etc.) they prohibited the party, the movement and all related iconographics, texts and so on (that's why extreme-right-wing parties still can exist in the us and everywhere else) -- from the point of free speech and free information also not the right decision.the strange thing is the fact that "hidden" or prohibited knowledge or information is even more attractive to some people. see ( target=_blank)foucault:discipline and punishment ( target=_blank)eye of power (on the panopticon-architecture in prisons) ( target=_blank)the Subject and Power ( target=_blank)not really the same but similar strategies can be watched nowadays when watching copyright issues and so on. ( target=_blank)dmca ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank)information wants to be free! ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank)but even when making all information digitally available, this doesn't mean that is is accesible for most of the people.the digital divide ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank)how much are online? and where? ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank)the idea of free speech, same rights for everyone and free information is very old, but still not understood by the majority of people. actually some of them keep things like they are, to have their domination on some field ( target=_blank)see noam chomsky, ( target=_blank) ( target=_blank)especially the publications"war against people""profit over people"btw: why are these publications not freely available? ;) parasew-------------------- ( target=_blank)

20 Oct 2001 11:06 Avatar stevow

Lions and tigers and bears . . . OH MY!
Ill take freedom of choice over freedom from anxiety any day. Justifying a viewpoint by using "WHAT IF . . . WHAT IF . . . !" hand wringing would have left us wondering if we should wear animal skins to stay warm. Just because an issue has not been considered before, does not mean it cannot be resolved.

P.S. To those involved in animal rights, please substitute "polyester" for "animal skins".

26 Aug 2001 02:53 Avatar pom

A very old problem
This is a very old problem that the lack of control of the use of intellectual productions. Adding any kind of "legal restrictions" is clearly no use, as the ones you would like to attack have all the legal ways to get ride of it. A similar problem happens in Science: shall I or not publish my results, given that I do not know exactly what can be done with it, and given that I have exactly no chance to know what will be all the possible positive vs negative consequences.

"Science sans conscience n'est que ruine de l'âme"
Science without conscience is only ruin of the soul (?)

-> No kind of contract may limit the intrisc responsability of the authors. But the inexistence of contract does not limit
the responsability of the user. In case of human-rights viloation, this later cause might be a reason for attacks, not the only misuse of a software.

-> As the dictators have usually more money and access to information than their victims, GPL is a way to decrease the importance of money and increase information, so that both parts eventually get equal access to softwares.

01 Jul 2001 11:21 Avatar windozesux

Information, like any powerful tool, can be misused and used against other people. The intentions of this article are respectable, but the approach is wrong, and I don't think there's any real way to do it. If we start to "restrict" information because it could be used against us/others, that's just the first step to a Microsoft EULA.

Free information and software carries great benefits, but also risks, such as these political issues. That's just the way things are.


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