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30 years of GNU

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It’s been 30 years since Richard Stallman announced his project to create a free alternative to Unix. The world has changed a lot since then, the Internet had changed and grown enormously, and Free Software has become a success that not even Stallman might have dared to dream of. Of course, some things didn’t work out quite the way Stallman had intended: The GNU Hurd kernel is still just a curiosity, and most likely will never see widespread adoption. Instead, Linus Torvalds came along with his kernel, and licensed it under Stallman’s GPL, thus making it free for everybody to use, distribute and contribute to. Today the GNU tools and core utilities, and the Linux kernel is used by millions of people every day. Whole businesses, like Google and Amazon, are built around these Free systems. It’d be hard to imagine the world today without Linux and GNU.

Below is the message which started it all. And today Stallman is looking forward, explaining why free software is more important than ever. His main theme and message has not changed much over the years: The freedom to run, study, distribute and modify computer programs is vital to a democracy which relies on technology and computers to function. Without these freedoms, we get exactly the kind of crippled products Stallman warns about: Sony removing features from its products over-night; Amazon deleting books you have bought; mobile phones and computers which only accept software from certain authorities (e.g. iPhone, gaming consoles).

However, the dangers of proprietary software and lock-in are even more sever: NSA has been shown to require back-doors and security holes to be implemented in proprietary software like Microsoft Windows so that they more easily can spy on their targets. Furthermore, centralization and lock-in to services like Facebook and others has led them to be prime targets for dragnet surveillance. This is part of why Free software is more important than before.
 
 
 

Free Unix!

Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete
Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu’s Not Unix), and
give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time,
money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.

To begin with, GNU will be a kernel plus all the utilities needed to
write and run C programs: editor, shell, C compiler, linker,
assembler, and a few other things. After this we will add a text
formatter, a YACC, an Empire game, a spreadsheet, and hundreds of
other things. We hope to supply, eventually, everything useful that
normally comes with a Unix system, and anything else useful, including
on-line and hardcopy documentation.

GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be identical
to Unix. We will make all improvements that are convenient, based
on our experience with other operating systems. In particular,
we plan to have longer filenames, file version numbers, a crashproof
file system, filename completion perhaps, terminal-independent
display support, and eventually a Lisp-based window system through
which several Lisp programs and ordinary Unix programs can share a screen.
Both C and Lisp will be available as system programming languages.
We will have network software based on MIT’s chaosnet protocol,
far superior to UUCP. We may also have something compatible
with UUCP.

Who Am I?

I am Richard Stallman, inventor of the original much-imitated EMACS
editor, now at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. I have worked
extensively on compilers, editors, debuggers, command interpreters, the
Incompatible Timesharing System and the Lisp Machine operating system.
I pioneered terminal-independent display support in ITS. In addition I
have implemented one crashproof file system and two window systems for
Lisp machines.

Why I Must Write GNU

I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I
must share it with other people who like it. I cannot in good
conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license
agreement.

So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles,
I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that
I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.

How You Can Contribute

I am asking computer manufacturers for donations of machines and money.
I’m asking individuals for donations of programs and work.

One computer manufacturer has already offered to provide a machine. But
we could use more. One consequence you can expect if you donate
machines is that GNU will run on them at an early date. The machine had
better be able to operate in a residential area, and not require
sophisticated cooling or power.

Individual programmers can contribute by writing a compatible duplicate
of some Unix utility and giving it to me. For most projects, such
part-time distributed work would be very hard to coordinate; the
independently-written parts would not work together. But for the
particular task of replacing Unix, this problem is absent. Most
interface specifications are fixed by Unix compatibility. If each
contribution works with the rest of Unix, it will probably work
with the rest of GNU.

If I get donations of money, I may be able to hire a few people full or
part time. The salary won’t be high, but I’m looking for people for
whom knowing they are helping humanity is as important as money. I view
this as a way of enabling dedicated people to devote their full energies to
working on GNU by sparing them the need to make a living in another way.

For more information, contact me.
Arpanet mail:
RMS@MIT-MC.ARPA

Usenet:
…!mit-eddie!RMS@OZ
…!mit-vax!RMS@OZ

US Snail:
Richard Stallman
166 Prospect St
Cambridge, MA 02139

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Zeitgeist

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zeitgeist: The defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time.

Source: http://twitpic.com/d279tx

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Hollywood Studios Censor Pirate Bay Documentary

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TorrentFreak is reporting that the Creative Commons licensed documentary about The Pirate Bay, “TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard”, is being “censored” by several Hollywood studios through DMCA takedown notices to Google and others. The irony of the debacle is of course not lost on anybody, however, as Ernesto at TorrentFreak also comments, the “more likely explanation is that [it is] collateral damage. Most DMCA takedown processes are fully automated and somehow the TPB-AFK links were (mistakenly) associated with infringing titles”.

However, he continues: “The whole episode shows once again that something is seriously wrong with the current implementation of the DMCA takedown system. At the moment rightsholders get to take down whatever they want, with almost no oversight and no incentive to improve the accuracy of their systems”.

On the positive side, the free documentary is getting some extra publicity. It can be downloaded from The Pirate Bay, completely legal, if you live in a country which still allows you access to that site, that is. However, you can also get it and contribute on its official web site, watch on YouTube, or read up on it on IMDB or Wikipedia.

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Tell W3C: We don’t want the Hollyweb

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defectivebydesign.org is organization a petition against DRM in HTML5. With some 16.000 already signed up, the goal is to reach 50.000 by 3 May which marks International Day Against DRM. It is interesting to see how blatantly they single out American content “owners” as the proponents of this scheme. Maybe it’s time to call for a full-out boycott of their content?

Also interesting is a an overview of the arguments against DRM, over at the Free Culture Foundation blog.

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Internet Censorship and Fragmentation

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Two Google brass, Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen, have co-written an interesting piece on Internet censorship in today’s Guardian. They warn that the Internet might be moving to a fragmented network, filtered and censored by regional political, cultural and religious interests. They even speculate that some states might try to build their own national intranet, completely disconnected from the global Internet. A list of examples are mentioned, including the existing elephant in the room, which is China; but also hypothetical scenarios, where former Soviet states seek to prevent Russian influence; and Arab or Sunni nations that might create a network according to their religious and cultural interests.

However, for all the imagined scenarios, they fail to mention the second elephant: the US, and its heavy handed way of forcing other nations to filter and police their net-citizen, in the interest of US content “owners”. Through international trade agreements (e.g. ACTA); covert diplomacy (e.g. Russian AllOfMp3, and Swedish Pirate Bay raid and court case, and blocking in many countries); and boots on the ground in the MegaUpload raid, to give a few examples, the US is shaping the Internet and international law in their economic interests.

Schmidt and Cohen also speculate that in the future, Internet access will require some form of “passport”, and visiting other “regions” would require an “Internet visa”. Users would be forced to register before they’d gain access, they imagine. Well, Mr. Schmidt, that is happening right now. In Germany, hotel owners have been pressured into registering, with signature, every device they let on their network, so that they are not finned for “illegal” activity of their guests. Again, it is US business interests who have forced through this kind of filtering and surveillance.

Indeed, there are many unfortunate scenarios which might remove the value of the Internet for some users. However, we don’t have to come up with hypothetical scenarios, and point fingers at “other nations”. Instead, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

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iodine – IP over DNS

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A recent stay in a couple of Germany hotels revealed a few things: First, American cultural imperialism has spun out of control, to the point where hotel receptionists are now footsoldiers for those who claim ownership of music and movie content. One hotel owner told us he had been fined two thousand Euros for MP3s downloaded by guests. While in another hotel I was hard pressed to get a second access code on their WiFi, and was not allowed to sign for the it on behalf of my wife. No wonder the The German Pirate Party has wind in its sails.

Secondly, even without these surveillance tactics in place, connecting to the abundance of half-open WiFi networks without authenticating can be useful. They are open in the sense that WiFi encryption is not used, and you can acquire a local IP without password. Most of the time, these networks are set up with a local log-in page, which grants you access for a specific device (MAC based) typically for a fixed amount of time. However, before the authentication code and password is entered, some traffic is let through: DNS requests have to work to get to the log-in page, and local hotel page. This is the basis of several TCP/IP over DNS protocols. I choice iodine, and successfully used the hotel network without log-in.

iodine is a bespoke server/client protocol which lets you tunnel IP4 data over DNS requests/responses. It works by setting up an extra network interface (TUN/TAP device) on both server and client, so that any traffic can be tunnelled. It takes care of a lot of the nitty-gritty settings itself, and probes for best settings. Finally, iodine is available for most popular platforms, including GNU/Linux (in the default repositories of Fedora and Ubuntu), *BSD, Android. However, make sure the same version is running on both client and server, as the author states that compatibility between versions is not a project goal.

Detailed setup is covered by several people, including their own HowTo and README; a CentOS compile example; and one for Debian. Thus, I wont repeat those details, and only cover some of the gotchas I stumbled upon and lessons I learnt:

  1. Start small and expand: The client/server can be brought up on the same machine, so make sure to try that first. Then try on the same local network, or remote but open networks, and finally on a semi-open network.
  2. Watch your firewall! The default DNS port, 53, is typically blocked, so you’ll have to punch through and forward that. Also make sure you open for UDP on that port! Use nmap from different locations to confirm that the port is open throughout. nc (Netcat) is useful in debugging the connection, but again make sure it’s UDP.
  3. Make sure the DNS entries for your domain are correct. You need two entries, and with some providers, it might not be obvious how to fill in their web-form to achieve the exact settings. I found this example most helpful.
  4. Debug the DNS setup using the CLI command dig, and the DNS web-tool by MXTools. For dig usage, this comment was useful.
  5. Use the test page provided by the author of iodine. It gives detailed and useful error reports on how far you’ve come with your setup.

With some luck, you’ll have a working setup, and will now be prepared for the next time the hotel receptionist does not give you enough WiFi vouchers for all your devices. Having said that, it does not really replace full access, as the connection will be “modem-slow”, or even worse. However, you do get access, which is sometimes what counts.

A client is is also available for Android from iodine, and Marcel goes into details on how to compile and run. I’ve not tried yet, and it seems there’s room for an easy to install F-Droid package there. More about that later.

Mobile lockdown?

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In his insightful piece on Andy Rubin’s departure from the helm of the Google Android division, Charles Arthur looks into the future to see what’s next for the Android platform. He makes a case for a merge between Android and Chrome OS, however that has been speculated for four years already; even from the horse’s mouth.

What’s perhaps more interesting, is Arthur’s observation that Rubin was in fact a proponent of open source, and Android as a free platform, even though that was difficult to see at times. Arthur contrasts Rubin’s stance against Google’s and possibly Sundar Pichai’s (Rubin’s succeeder) desire to control the Android ecosystem. That path could conflict with handset manufacturer’s wish to brand and distinguish their products from their competitors. Arthur points out that about half of the 145m Android phones shipped in Q4 2012 were in fact not Google enabled (with a Google account, Gmail, etc). He speculates that the logical move for Pichai is to tighten control of the platform; making it less open.

That brings us to another headline: The general fight for control of devices, not just mobile phones, and the right to do whatever we want with the hardware we’ve bought, paid for and own. Kyle Wiens makes the case that we should be allowed to unlock any device, with tractors and cars as prime examples. These farmer and household items have become so complex to repair and maintain, that independent mechanics can no longer do the work. And even if they could, they are barred from access to embedded computers, sometimes based on proprietary tools and software, but also based on copyright, of all things. The access codes (passwords) are copyrighted, as are the service manuals, and only licensed technicians are granted access.

So are we headed towards the locked down nightmare Stallman warned us about sixteen years ago in his 1997 easy “The Right to Read”? If we keep letting mega-corporations have their way, that is a danger. However, as Wiens points out, Massachusetts passed Right to Repair legislation to make it possible to repair automobiles; other states are following. The White House petition to make it legal to unlock mobile phones did get a response, however, it is unclear if it is enough to avoid the criminal law which now applies to phone unlocking. Maybe there is still hope.

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The fragile cloud

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It was less than two months ago that I echoed John Naughton’s warning that “nothing lasts forever”. Naughton was talking about the “empires” of Facebook and Apple, but it is certainly true on a small scale for individual services as well. Google just announced that they will shut down their RSS Reader, along with a few other APIs and services. The reader in particular seems to have sparked a bit of an uproar, since it has small but loyal crowd of followers.

Many users feel betrayed, however as Alex Kantrowitz points out in Forbes, none of them actually paid for the Reader services, and thus the feeling of ownership is misplaces. As the old cliché goes: If as a user of a web service you don’t pay, you are the product, not the customer. You’d think some have learnt by now, but it will take many more of these stories before that message is clear.

So are the alternatives? Well, but of course there are! Many of them! Each user will have to decide for himself what fits his purpose and use best, but that’s a choice which is worth appreciating. Some will maybe continue with a web service style application, while others have learnt that “the cloud” can evaporate right in front of their eyes, with little chance of saving the remains of what once was.

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DIY Internet – Fiber by Farmers

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The online magazine Motherboard recently ran a feel-good story about a community of British farmers in Lancashire who dug their own ditches to put down Internet fiber. The background was the ever so typical story about the big telecos not bothering with sparsely populated areas because it’s not worth the investment on their bottom line. So the a local group got together and found that they might as well build their own high-speed connection. Any nothing should stop them from doing that, right?

Well, the article also mentions a few similar stories from “The Land of the Free”, where digging your own ditch is now legislated against. In the interest of the free market economy, of course. Parallels are drawn to big company lobbying and FUD in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when rural communities formed their own electric utilities. It states optimistically that there are to this day thousands of local communities with local electric services, but also that most of it was (and is) consolidated into a small group of companies.

Another interesting approach to Internet build-out which is mentioned is Google’s Fiber project, with Kansas City as the Guinea pig. However, there the roll-out is in “big company” fashion, with marketing “threats” of missing the boat if they don’t sign up NOW. Not your friendly farmer dig-out, in other words.

Regardless of strategy though, the local, sometimes DIY, approach to physical layer last-mile build-out fits very well with the scale-free network topology of the Internet. It is with this kind of ungoverned and unplanned growth it thrives best. Legislating against it of course make no sense at all, but waiting for a big tele or cable company to do the job should really not be encouraged either.

Again, small and decentralized triumphs over big and inefficient. It’s simply the way of the future.

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The CitizenWeb Project

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At the end of last year, I wrote about DIY “cloud” services; how to get started with your own web server, blog, e-mail server, chat server, VOIP server. Add to that distributed services for social networking and micro-blogging like Dispora and Identi.ca; free software for file sharing like GNUNet; and even free and intendant dark / mesh nets. The trend is clear, there is strong momentum towards free software and alternative services.

Now there is also a public face to this, in the form of a new initiative: The CitizenWeb Project.

“The CitizenWeb Project is a mission to fight for a free, open, and above all a decentralized Internet. In order to achieve this, it aims to empower everyday internet users with the information and resources they need to take matters into their own hands. We seek to spread the word about how to secure yourself online and how to declare “digital independence” in this age of the Google hivemind and Facebook privacy nightmares. While these services may be convenient, they carry very dangerous implications for our freedoms. This is only getting worse with time, as the corporations behind these services become entangled and indiscernable from government services and real-life social obligation. And it is only getting worse for the most sensitive users: journalists, activists, muckrakers and whistleblowers.

There are viable alternatives to these invasive and ubiquitous services. The CitizenWeb Project is therefore focused on giving the tools to each individual user to become an independent “citizen” of the Web — to decentralize their social networks and platforms, to become the TRUE owners of their data, and to communicate and network in security.”

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Buying music online is a bad deal

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An insightful comment by Richard Stallman, originally published in the Guardian:

Danny Kelly says good riddance to HMV because it was sickly for some years before it died. I suggest however that the fact it took time to die does not make its loss (and that of its high street competitors) any less regrettable. What replaced them is a disaster for freedom.

I miss stores like HMV because I could go there with cash, buy records (usually CDs), and take them home as mine. These large stores had a wide range of music, and I could listen to records in-store (mostly music I had never heard of) to find what I liked. Once I had bought the records, I was free to give or lend them to friends. Under copyright law, I could even copy them, to audio tapes in the old days, and give those to my friends. All this without the state’s knowing anything about it.

You can’t buy music that way on the internet. You are forced to identify yourself to the seller (and to Big Brother, watching over his shoulder) — and if it’s not a CD, you have to sign a restrictive contract which denies you the rights we all enjoyed. I say “you” because I won’t go there.

For those who love both music and freedom, today’s form of internet sales is out of the question, which leaves ever fewer opportunities for us to buy music. Aside from disks sold by musicians, and a few surviving large record stores such as Amoeba in San Francisco, the only way a self-respecting person should get copies of music is through digital sharing.

The superficial convenience of internet music sales is the bait; in the UK, the Digital Economy Act is the jaws. And HMV was the safe and ethical road to music, which a society focused on the short term has not kept open.

Copyright 2013 Richard Stallman. Released under Creative Commons Attribution Nonderivatives 3.0

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Freedom is not a matter of principle

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In today’s news, the terms of the Android SDK has changed. However, it seems it was not open source in the first place. What’s always interesting though, is the discussion it spurs, with insightful comments on Slashdot.

Comment by “rtfa-troll”:

“Freedom is not (just) a matter of principle. The reason that people take your freedom away from you is because they want, later at their option, to be able to take other things from you that would naturally be yours. Microsoft locks people into proprietary licenses because they know that, after a few years of using the OS they buy from them you will need a new computer and a new system, either because your old one broke or because an associate wants to do the same things as you do already. Normally, if you were allowed your natural right to copy things you own, you would just be able to copy the old one and that would work fine. By taking away that freedom, Microsoft is able to take away your money from you again later for nothing more than you could easily have done yourself if they didn’t interfere with your copying.

Google’s aim here is to make life difficult for competitors such as Amazon and the Chinese Android clone makers (not that these will care). This allows them to interfere with the free market for their own benefit. For programmers reading Slashdot, that means that, instead of being four or more potential developers of mobile software you can work for, Amazon, Google, Apple and the Chinese, there may well only be two: Apple and Google. With the possible exception of Jolla and Ubuntu, there is almost nobody else in the market who could consider competing. For people buying mobile phones would mean that, instead of having widespread choice from different vendors, everything would go through Google or Apple.

This is one of the key reasons why licenses such as the AGPLv3 as well as free software foundations which can provide a neutral holder for coyprights are so important. Look at how FreeBSD development has been absorbed by Apple even though it was supposedly “Open Source”. Without strong copyleft licenses the only choice will be which set of chains you wear. Once you are wearing those chains the only choice will be to give the mobile vendors what they want to take.”

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The Do-It-Yourself Cloud

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“In the cloud”

The buzzword “cloud” seems to be here to stay for quite a lot longer. The problem is that it is rather ill-defined, and sometimes it is used to mean “on the Internet”, regardless of how or where a particular service or content is hosted.

It is not before we pick up further buzzwords that we can add some meaning to the term: Although there are even more terms used, I would like to focus on two of them: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), or what traditionally has been called “hosting”; virtual or dedicated machines which you can install and operate on OS root level with little or no oversight. Examples include your local hosting provider, and global businesses like Amazon EC2 and Rackspace.

Secondly, Software as a Service (SaaS), where you don’t write the software or maintain the system yourself. All it takes is to sign up for a service, and start using it. Think Google Apps, which includes GMail, Docs, Calendar, Sites and much more; or Salesforce, Microsoft Office 365, etc. Often these services are billed as “free”, with no financial cost to private users, and the development and operating costs of the provider is financed through various advertisement programs.

Black Clouds

The problem with the later model, Software as a Service, is that it can put many constraints on the user, including what you are allowed to do, say, or even make it difficult for you to move to another provider. In his 2011 essay “It’s the end of the web as we know it”, Adrian Short likens the later model to tenants: If you merely rent your home, there are many things you will not be allowed to do, or which you do not have control over. Short focuses on web hosting where using a service like Blogger will not let you control how links are redirected, or were you to move in the future, take those page-clicks with you onto your new site. The same goes for e-mail: If AOL decides that their e-mail service is not worth-while tomorrow, many people will lose e-mails with no chance to redirect. Or look at all the storage services which collapsed in the wake of the raid on MegaUpload. A lot of users are still waiting for FBI to return their files.

More recently, the security expert Bruce Schneier wrote about the same problem, but from a security perspective. We are not only tenants he claims, but serfs in a feudal system, where the service providers take care of all the issues around security for us, but in return our eye-balls are sold to the highest bidder, and again it is difficult to move out. For example, once you’ve invested in music or movies from Apple iTunes, it is not trivial to move to Amazon’s MP3 store; and if you’ve put all your contacts into Facebook, it is almost impossible to move to MySpace.

In early December, Julian Assange surfaced to warn about complete surveillance, and governments fighting to curb free speech. His style of writing is not always as straight to the point as one could wish for, but in between there is a clear message: Encrypt everything! This has spurred interesting discussion all over the Internet, with a common refrain: Move away from centralized services, build your own.

Finally, Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE), touced on the same theme in is talk at the LinuxCon Europe in Barcelona, in November 2012. He highlighted the same problems with centralised control as discussed above, and also mentioned a few examples of free software alternatives which distributes various services. More about those below.

Free Software

The stage is set then, and DIY is ready to become in vogue again. But where do you start, what do you need? If not GMail or Hotmail, who will host your e-mail, chat, and other services you’ve come to depend on? Well, it is tempting to cut the answer short, and say: “You”. However, that does not mean that every man, woman and child has to build their own stack. It makes sense to share, but within smaller groups and communities. For example, it is useful to have a family domain, which every family member can hinge their e-mail address off. A community could share the rent of a virtual machine, and use it for multiple domains for each individual group; think the local youth club, etc. The French Data Network (FDN), has a similar business model for their ISP service, where each customer is an owner of a local branch.

For the software to provide the services we need in our own stack, we find ourselves in the very fortunate situation that it is already all available for free. And it is not only gratis, it is free from control of any authority or corporation, free to be be distributed, modified, and developed. I’m of course talking about Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which has much to thank Richard Stallman for its core values, defined in the GPL. (“There isn’t a lawyer on earth who would have drafted the GPL the way it is,” says Eben Moglen. ["Continuing the Fight"]). We may take it for granted now, however, we could very easily have ended up in a shareware world, where utilities of all kinds would still be available, but every function would come with a price tag, and only the original developers would have access to the source code, and be able to make modification. Many Windows users will probably recognize this world.

Assuming one of the popular GNU/Linux distributions, most of the software below should already be available in the main repositories. Thus it is a matter of a one-line command, or a few clicks to install. Again a major advantage of free software. Not only is it gratis, it usually refreshingly simple to install. The typical procedure of most proprietary software would include surfing around on an unknown web site for a download link, downloading a binary, and trusting (gambling really) that it has not been tempered with. Next, an “Install Wizard” of dubious usefulness and quality gives you a spectacular progress bar, sometimes complete with ads.

The DIY Cloud

The following is a list of some of the most common and widely used free and open source solutions to typical Internet services, including e-mail, web sites and blogging, chat and voice and video calls, online calendar, file sharing and social networks. There are of course many other alternatives, any this is not meant to be an exhaustive list. It should be plenty to get a good personal or community services started, though.

  • The Apache HTTP web server is the most widely used web server on the Internet, powering shy of 60% of web sites (October 2012). It usually comes as a standard package in most distributions, and is easy to start up and configure. For the multi-host use-case, it is trivial to use the same server for multiple domains.
  • If you are publishing through a blog like this one, the open source WordPress project is natural companion to the Apache web server. It too is available through standard repositories, however, you might want to download the latest source and do a custom install, both for the security updates, and to do custom tweaks.
  • For e-mail, Postfix is typical choice, and offers easy setup, multi-user and multi-domain features, and integrates well with other must-have tools. That includes SpamAssassin (another Apache Foundation project) and Postgrey to handle unwanted mail, and Dovecot for IMAP and POP3 login. For a web-frontend, SquirrelMail offers a no-frills fully featured e-mail client. All of these are available through repository install.
  • Moving into slightly less used software, but still very common services, we find the XMPP (aka Jabber) servers ejabberd and Apache Vysper, with more to choose from. Here, a clear best-of-breed has yet to emerge, and furthermore, it will require a bit more effort on the admin and user side to configure and use. As an alternative, there is of course always IRC, with plenty of software in place.
  • Taking instant chat one step further, a Voice-over-IP server like Asterix is worth considering. However, here setup and install might be tricky, and again, signing up / switching over users might require more effort. Once installed, though, there are plenty of FOSS clients to choice from, both on the desktop and mobile.
  • Moving on to more business oriented software, online calendar through the Apache caldav module is worth exploring. As an alternative the Radicale server is reported to be easy to install and use.
  • A closely related standard protocol, WebDav, offers file sharing and versioning (if plain old FTP is not an option). Again, there is an Apache module, mod_dav, which is relatively easy to set up, and access in various ways, including from OSX and Windows.
  • DIY Internet

    That list should cover the basics, and a bit more. To round it off, there are a number of experimental or niche services which is worth considering to their propitiatory and closed alternatives. For search, the distributed YaCy project looks promising. GNU Social and Diaspora aim to taken on heavy weights in social networking. Finally, GNUNet and ownCloud are peer-to-peer file-sharing alternatives.

    The future lies in distributed services, with content at the end-nodes, rather than the hubs. In other words, a random network, rather than scale-free. Taking that characteristic back to the physical layer (which traditionally always has been scale-free), there are “dark nets” or mesh nets, which aim to build an alternative physical infrastructure based on off-the-shelf WiFi equipment. Currently, this at a very early experimental state, but the trend is clear: Local, distributed and controlled by individuals rather than large corporations.

4th of July: Higgs boson found, ACTA rejected

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Big news today: The scientists at the Large Hadron Collider at Cern could report today that they have observed a particle that is very likely to be the previously only theoretical Higgs boson.

In other news, the European Parliament rejected the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, seeking to require excessive measures against sharing of culture, and free speech. Slashdot summaries:

“Today the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Despite attempts by the EPP Group to delay the vote until after the Courts have ruled on its legality, the Parliament voted against the Treaty by 478 to 39; apparently the biggest ever defeat the Commission has suffered. However, despite this apparent victory for the Internet, transparency and democracy, the Commission indicated that it will press ahead with the court reference, and if the Court doesn’t reject ACTA as well, will consider bringing it back before the Parliament.”

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FSF on Secure Boot

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There has been a lot of heated discussion about the upcoming Restricted/Secure Boot requirement from Microsoft for its new Windows 8 OS, and how it will be implemented in the new BIOS defined by the UEFI standard. Free Software Foundation recently posted a nice write up of what this means to the FOSS movement, including Fedora’s and Ubuntu’s attempts to work with and around the issue.

Also, it’s interesting to note the distinction which has been made by Microsoft and the phone industry between the x86 PC and ARM platforms. The former has had a tradition of openness since the early IBM PC, with an environment for hardware and software makers, third part producers of all kinds, and hobbist to thrive. There is a large and healthy hardware industry offering extensions, additions, upgrades and alternatives for every main component of the PC. Likewise, there is a vast selection of applications, utilities, games for many different OSes. This is in stark contrast to the various ARM platforms, which are typically completely locked down like Apple’s devices, or very hard to change the OS like most Android devices. Microsoft is now taking this further, and creating its own “locked garden” around its new ARM based tablets. FSF takes a strong stand against this.

Here are some excerpts from the FSF paper, with my emphasis:

We have been working hard the last several months to stop Restricted Boot, a major threat to user freedom, free software ideals, and free software adoption. Under the guise of security, a computer afflicted with Restricted Boot refuses to boot any operating systems other than the ones the computer distributor has approved in advance. Restricted Boot takes control of the computer away from the user and puts it in the hands of someone else.

To respect user freedom and truly protect user security, computer makers must either provide users a way of disabling such boot restrictions, or provide a sure-fire way that allows the computer user to install a free software operating system of her choice.

Distributors of restricted systems usually appeal to security concerns. They claim that if unapproved software can be used on the machines they sell, malware will run amok. By only allowing software they approve to run, they can protect us.

This claim ignores the fact that we need protection from them. We don’t want a machine that only runs software approved by them — our computers should always run only software approved by us. We may choose to trust someone else to help us make those approval decisions, but we should never be locked into that relationship by force of technological restriction or law. Software that enforces such restrictions is malware. Companies like Microsoft that push these restrictions also have a terrible track record when it comes to security, which makes their platitudes about restricting us for our own good both hollow and deceitful.

Secure Boot, done right, embodies the free software view of security, because it puts users — whether individuals, government agencies, or organizations — in control of their machines. Our thought experiment to demonstrate this is simple: Microsoft may be worried about malware written to take over Windows machines, but we view Windows itself as malware and want to keep it away from our machines. Does Secure Boot enable us to keep Windows from booting on a machine? It does: We can remove Microsoft’s key from the boot firmware, and add our own key or other keys belonging to free software developers whose software we wish to trust.

We will fight Microsoft’s attempt at enforcing Restricted Boot on ARM devices like smartphones and tablets.Like any other computer, users must be able to install free software operating systems on these devices. We will monitor Microsoft’s behavior to make sure they do not deceive the public again by expanding these restrictions to other kinds of systems.

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