A listing of random software, tips, tweaks, hacks, and tutorials I made for Ubuntu
The importance of freedom in software
July 14, 2015Posted by on
Software license agreements (EULA) are generally considered little more than a confirmation on whether or not the user really wants to install said software. Heck, for all that most users care, it could read “Do you wish to install this software?” and their overall reaction would be approximately the same. In fact, I often catch myself using the “I decline” button when I realize that this software is indeed useless.
Of course, in the back of our minds, we know that we really should read it …. but, come on, we have a life to live. We can’t spend it reading license agreements! YOLO.
Many software developers know this fact, and capitalize on it. One good example would be a company named after a fruit that develops smartphone specifications. Have any of you ever read the 60 page long license agreement on a tiny screen, just to install the next Flappy Bird?
I’m no different. I’ve probably only read 3 (proprietary) license agreements in my entire life… and I’ve installed hundreds of proprietary software.
I’ve also found myself accustomed to thinking it’s illegal to share software with my friends. The idea of inspecting or modifying how a proprietary software works (through reverse engineering) feels very risky and only borderline legal. And, actually, both are true in most cases.
For many users, this doesn’t seem like an issue. Most users, and in fact a lot of programmers too, wouldn’t check the source code of a program they are running. And, to be honest, most users would rather just link to the website of the software anyways, even if the software would allow itself to be shared.
However, just because these freedoms are rarely used, it doesn’t mean that they are useless. Think of a self defense class. Unless you’re in a more violent neighborhood, chances are that you will very rarely need to use it. But when you do, you will be really happy that you did invest the time to learn it. After the Snowden leaks, many people started accusing software of sending data to the NSA. Is this true? I don’t know. And that’s the issue: We are not legally allowed to know. We cannot inspect or modify the software in any way. We blindly trust what the developers say about their products.
Of course, there are also more everyday usages of being able to inspect, modify, or share. I’ll use Studio One as an example. It’s a proprietary software. Its bugs have lead me to immense data losses (due to a really badly functioning “Undo” button that can occasionally screw up the entire project file). If I had the source code handy it would be possible to fix this (probably a bit difficult, yes, but possible). But I can’t fix it, because the EULA doesn’t allow me to inspect and modify.
What about sharing software? Because I cannot share the software I use with others, it makes it entirely impossible for me to create truly “open source” music (I’m not sure if the term applies to music, but I think you get the idea). I make breakdown videos, where I show how I made the music, but as far as I know, I cannot legally go any further than that.
This is not because these software developers are evil. They do this to maximize their profits, and that’s understandable. However, the cost of this is our freedom.
Now that I’ve spent some time criticizing proprietary software, I’ll take a bit of time promoting free (as in freedom) software.
First the term, Free Software. “Free” has multiple meanings (in the coincidentally named “thefreedictionary.com”, it lists 38 different meanings for the word “free”), but there are 2 major ones: free as in no price (gratis), and free as in freedom (libre). In order to distinguish between them, I’ll use “gratis” and “libre” instead.
Both the terms gratis and libre can be used to describe software. Hence, using the term “free” can be very ambiguous; “does this specific software respect my freedom? or is it just that my wallet is unnecessary?”. In many software circles, “free software” simply means gratis. In these circles, Skype could be considered free software (even though it doesn’t respect your freedom, among other issues). However, in other circles (generally among libre software developers), “free software” qualifies as “libre”, not “gratis” (and therefore, Skype would not be considered free software).
So what is the purpose of free software? Basically, depending on the license, it enables you to do what proprietary software forbids you from doing. You can share the software with anyone, you can inspect how the program works, you can modify it, and you can redistribute the modified versions too! It allows for an incredible eco-system in which programmers around the world can create new features, fix bugs and security leaks, then submit it back to the project leader for integration with the software. Or, if someone has a wildly different goal than the team who develops the project, they can fork it and create a new project, using a modified codebase of the original!
What does this mean to users who don’t know how to program? Well, okay, sure, not as beneficial to them. However, practically speaking, since an unlimited amount of programmers can get involved, libre software (especially larger ones) have a much lesser chance of having bugs, security leaks, viruses, or spyware. It can also include many more features than proprietary software does. Libre software is also often updated much more frequently than proprietary software, since any developer can contribute.
It is also possible for users to hire a programmer to make a change for them, in the same way that home owners may hire a plumber to fix a leak (except that, generally speaking, programmers would probably take more time to make the change than a plumber would to fix the leak).
Since the first part talked about the idea of proprietary software, and the second about free/libre software, the third will look at practical usage: How to switch over to libre software.
It can be difficult to switch to libre software, especially when you have proprietary software that you use a lot and/or really like. For example, if you use Skype, it may be difficult to ask your Skype contacts to switch over to Ekiga or some other libre VoIP software. In my case, a surprising number of my contacts were thankfully flexible enough to switch over to some other communication method. However, everyone is individual, and your friends might find it difficult to migrate over (even after explaining why not to use Skype).
However, luckily, most proprietary software have libre equivalents. It is beyond the scope of this post to list these, but, with a bit of research, you can find some online (I would link a list, however, I can’t find any lists that only include truly libre software). I would be happy to help find an alternative if you want too! (just leave a comment or send me an email)
Sometimes though, there are no alternatives. This is especially relevant in the field of modern video games, or music production. It is also relevant with drivers for parts of your system that do not have a libre driver written for it. So what do you do? This is really up to you. Are you okay with using proprietary software for this one purpose? Should you avoid using it period?
For me, I use proprietary software for both music production, and a few video games. I don’t like the fact that I’m using either, but I currently value the features that it provides over what it can control (when using proprietary software, I ensure that internet is turned off, and I don’t have any other software open). Later, once I find OSS alternatives for the music software I’m using, and when I detach myself from video games (I only really play Deus Ex Human Revolution …. it’s a good game, with an amazing soundtrack xD), I will probably finally use 100% libre software (minus the BIOS) on all of my machines.
Lastly, I would like to address the fact that libre software is only one part of the issue in having control over your computer. While it is possible to have full freedom in every single way for software, there are two other major issues: Hardware, and Internet.
Hardware is very difficult, since you can’t easily change the hardware. And, in fact, even if you knew the source code (HDL) of the hardware, it would be very very difficult to reverse engineer it in order to make sure that the hardware is indeed following the source code. There are even theories that Intel and AMD CPUs are sending information to the NSA (evasively worded responses from the companies give credence to this theory). Whether or not this is true is outside the scope of this article, but the point is, hardware is a very big issue, and I think the only true answer that would guarantee that the source code truly is the hardware, would be to create your own hardware. I think it goes without saying that this would be very very difficult. Maybe with the rise of 3D printers this will someday change … who knows!
Internet is the other issue. The internet is a way to access ports from foreign computers. Unless you own the foreign computer, there is no way of guaranteeing that your data will be safe with them. They can do anything they want with the data you send. Getting away from services that are known to spy on you and otherwise harm you (such as Facebook) can be a difficult task, depending on how connected you are with the service. In Facebook’s case, everyone is on Facebook, because everyone is on Facebook. Leaving it can be difficult, since you have to sometimes migrate family members and friends to other websites (same point as I made with Skype).
I hope that you found this post useful! I’m sure a lot of points in here may be wrong (please correct me!!), but I have tried my best in order to make sure that this can be as informative and accurate as possible to those that are new to the concept of software freedom. I know I have missed a lot of other important points in here, but I’m not sure where, or if they should be mentioned, so I will link articles containing those below.
If you have any questions, comments, corrections, or anything else (as long as it is constructive, of course!), please feel free to leave a comment or send me an email!
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.en.html (a very good explanation on what the Free Software Foundation considers libre software)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag1AKIl_2GM (a talk by Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project, about software freedom)
http://www.gnu.org/distros/free-distros.en.html (a list of completely libre GNU/Linux distributions)
https://libreplanet.org/wiki/List_of_software_that_does_not_respect_the_Free_System_Distribution_Guidelines (a list of software that are free and open-source, but not libre … yes, Linux contains non-free code!)