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Stallman

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NSA’s Social Graph

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NSA is creating a social graph of everybody. That is the latest NSA story based on Snowden’s documents. “The agency can augment the communications data with material from public, commercial and other sources, including bank codes, insurance information, Facebook profiles, passenger manifests, voter registration rolls and GPS location information, as well as property records and unspecified tax data”

On Slashdot, user jbn-o has an insightful comment, regarding Eben Moglen’s warnings about exactly this scenario:

“I was talking to a senior government official of this government about that outcome and he said well you know we’ve come to realize that we need a robust social graph of the United States. That’s how we’re going to connect new information to old information. I said let’s just talk about the constitutional implications of this for a moment. You’re talking about taking us from the society we have always known, which we quaintly refer to as a free society, to a society in which the United States government keeps a list of everybody every American knows.” —Eben Moglen, “Innovation Under Austerity”

Eben Moglen gave a talk where he warned us about a conversation he had with an American government official who wanted a “robust social graph” of Americans. And again at Moglen’s re:publica talk as Nicole Brydson reminds us. Of course, I’d prefer to point to a copy of this talk in a format friendly to free software, but I don’t know of one.

Moglen reminds us in his talks about how right Richard Stallman (RMS) is, and how we need to do the work of sharing what RMS teaches to others. RMS was right (as per usual) we need software freedom more than ever. Social action based on an ethical grounding (not mere technical convenience or speedy development) is exactly what this situation calls for. I hope everyone will take the time to read or listen to Moglen’s insightful talks and take them seriously. They’re deeply engrossing and filled with interesting history, so much so that they reward repeated listening and social action.

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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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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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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.

The Right to Read

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There is something depressing and chilling when the most dystopian prophecies come true. Especially, when those dystopian prophecies are written by Richard Stallman, who has spent the better part of his life trying to tell the world it’s going in the wrong direction. Yet, his writing is spot on, only 15 years before its time.

Last week, Joseph Henry Vogel was granted a US patent that aims to prevent students from sharing textbooks or copying pages. Of course all in the name of protecting the authors and publishers. It almost seems as if Vogel got the idea from Stallman’s 1997 essay, The Right to Read. He just didn’t understand that this was a cautionary tale. The patent itself is actually an interesting read, and touches on problems like universities and professors which “facilitate piracy by placing texts in the library reserve where they can be photocopied”. To avoid the loss of revenue from this, students will have to pay for access to a discussion forum, and participation here is part of the final grade. I believe Stallman could claim prior art here, and invalidate the patent. That would of course not help much, as the greed does not go away.

However, maybe not everything is lost. In Stallman’s story, the young has been indoctrinated to believe that “sharing books was nasty and wrong – something that only pirates would do“. At least the comment threads from Reddit and Torrent Freak show that somebody cares and calls out the emperor’s new clothes.

On a side note, the class identifiers for the patent gives further interesting patents. 705/51 – Usage protection of distributed data files, and the sub-class 705/57 – Copy protection or prevention. Some people just want to watch the world burn.

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Is Android really free software?

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In an article in the Guardian today, Richard Stallman asks “Is Android really free software?Slashdot sums it up nicely:

Google has complied with the requirements of the GNU General Public License for Linux, but the Apache license on the rest of Android does not require source release. Google has said it will never publish the source code of Android 3.0 (aside from Linux), even though executables have been released to the public. Android 3.1 source code is also being withheld. Thus, Android 3, apart from Linux, is non-free software, pure and simple. … Android is a major step towards an ethical, user-controlled, free-software portable phone, but there is a long way to go. Hackers are working on Replicant, but it’s a big job to support a new phone model, and there remains the problem of the firmware. Even though the Android phones of today are considerably less bad than Apple or Windows smartphones, they cannot be said to respect your freedom.

Further into the article, he also explains the difference between GNU/Linux and Android/Linux, in a I’ve-told-you-so-for-20-years manner he of course is completely entitled to:

Android is very different from the GNU/Linux operating system because it contains very little of GNU. Indeed, just about the only component in common between Android and GNU/Linux is Linux, the kernel. People who erroneously think “Linux” refers to the entire GNU/Linux combination get tied in knots by these facts, and make paradoxical statements such as “Android contains Linux, but it isn’t Linux”. If we avoid starting from the confusion, the situation is simple: Android contains Linux, but not GNU; thus, Android and GNU/Linux are mostly different.

FSF announces publication of two new books by Richard Stallman

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Free Software Foundation just announced that two new books by Richard Stallman are available. They can be ordered from their web site, with both for a total of 36 USD. However, Mr. Stallman also signs your copy for 50 USD each. And soon, I will be the proud owner of two signed copies!