Saturday, December 31, 2005

Free Software and Aesthetics

On August 4th, at the North American Computing and Philosophy Conference held at Oregon State University, Scott Dexter and I presented (Scott did all the hard work by travelling to Oregon, getting up on stage and talking) a sketch of paper on "The Aesthetic Imperative of Free and Open Source Software". You can find a video of the presentation at the conference website. Comments, as always, are welcome.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Business as usual

From a list of things we might have missed this year (courtesy the NYT):

"This year, Yahoo even supplied information that helped the government track and convict a political dissident who sent an e-mail message with forbidden thoughts from a Yahoo account; he was sentenced to 10 years in jail. "Business is business," said Jack Ma, Yahoo's chief in China. "It's not politics.""

Mr. Ma is confused. Business is politics; politics is business. A supposedly apolitical, this-is-only-business stance is political through and through. Please note Mr. Ma, your company is helping enforce the law in China.

Why is this comment appearing in this blog? You're still asking this question after having read the paper on the ethics of licensing schemes? But yes, the answer is straightforward: the business of software is a political business - to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Date change for Video Conference

Just a quick update to let everyone know that the date for the video conference on open source has been changed to February 9th. The relevant information again: A videoconference on the topic of “Ethics and Open Source Software” will take place February 9, 2006, from 12:00-2:00 EST (9:00-11:00 PST), under the auspices of NA-CAP. A link to the conference blog can be found here. The link also contains information on getting access to the video stream.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

The ethics of free software licensing

OK, so here is a description of Chapter 2 in "Decoding Liberation" plus another link to the paper (PDF version here) that is a skeleton for it (HTML version here). We presented this at the Computer Ethics: Philosophical Enquiry Conference in July 2005 (at Twente University in the Netherlands - where I also got to check out some spectacular F-16 maneuvers taking place behind the university!). We discussed this paper in some detail with RMS, and interestingly enough, he felt like we were too harsh on open-source licenses like the BSD license (read on, as they say, to find out why this might be the case).

Chapter 2: Ethical Perspectives on Free Software

Software is subject to the same assessment in a normative dimension as other political and social phenomena. From an ethical perspective, one of the most pressing questions raised by free software is the question of the rights, and the restrictions on them, that are passed on to users and collaborators by software developers. That is, what freedoms do software users deserve, and how can they best be protected? We analyze free software licensing schemes in order to determine which most effectively protects such freedoms. Following the link from freedom to rights, we explore the nature of the right to access to software, locating it within contemporary theorizing on rights, human, social and economic. We conclude that so-called copyleft licensing schemes are the morally superior alternative. Our analysis provides a new perspective on the passionate debate among the free software, open source and proprietary software camps.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Moglen/RMS on GPL V3

An essay providing some background to GPL V3. We will discuss V3 here and also look forward to its first draft releases.

Monday, December 26, 2005

The 'new paradigm'

Tim O'Reilly:

"I have a simple test that I use in my talks to see whether my audience of computer industry professionals is thinking with the old paradigm or the new. "How many of you use Linux?" I ask. Depending on the venue, 20 to 80 percent might raise their hands. "How many of you use Google?" Every hand in the room goes up. And the light begins to dawn. Every one of them uses Google's massive complex of 100,000 Linux servers, but they were blinded to the answer by a mindset in which "the software you use" is defined as the software running on the computer in front of you. Most of the "killer apps" of the Internet-applications used by hundreds of millions of people-run on Linux or FreeBSD. But the operating system as properly defined is to these applications only a component of a larger system. Their true platform is the Internet".

Can you see what the relevance of this little tidbit is to the post below?

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Distro or just net service?

So, here is a question. When you use Google's search engine, are you using a software distribution? If the answer is no, then we have an interesting problem on our hands: if software can be made available in this fashion over the network, then what need is there for those developers to be in any compliance with a license's requirements vis-a-vis distribution? So, for instance, if I were to take code licensed under GPL, make modifications, and then make it available much as Google does, (as a network service), but keep my modifications private, am I in violation of the GPL? It seems not. But then as has been pointed out by Tim O'Reilly, there are "pockets of proprietary opportunity" all over the place. How should free software licenses handle something like this - should the definition of distribution be changed? We're hoping that GPL V3 will address this issue but in the meantime we'll speculate - here on these pages - about how this could be handled.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Political Economy and FOSS

Here is a link to a paper titled The Political Economy of Open Source Software. We presented this at the International Conference on Technology, Knowledge and Society, held way back in February 2005 at UC-Berkeley. While the presentation went well, we didn't get terribly good comments either at the conference, or in the journal refereeing process that followed. (here is the citation for that : The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society, 1(1), 2005.) However, this represents the proto-chapter of Chapter 1 of Decoding Liberation and represents a first stab at that. We've substantially bulked this up with more material now, but thats not ready to be released yet. We'd appreciate comments on this paper!

The chapter description from the book proposal will give you some idea of where this chapter is supposed to be headed (and where we're taking it, no worries!).

Chapter 1: Free Software: A History and Political Economy

We begin with a history of software development as an industrial process, characterizing the emergence of the GNU free software project in the 1980s as a natural step in the evolution of software, one that represents a challenge to entrenched interests such as Microsoft. We investigate the political economy of software, examining the extent to which free software invokes or revises traditional notions of property and production. In this narrative, the 1997 schism between the free software and open source movements—where a faction within the free software community changed tactics and language to court commercial interests—is a crucial event. We critique the open source movement’s co-optation of this project while arguing that free software remains committed to an anti-technocratic, emancipatory, yet pragmatic vision.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Video Conference on Open Source

Some more news:

A videoconference on the topic of “Ethics and Open Source Software” will take place January 9, 2006, from 12:00-2:00 EST (9:00-11:00 PST), under the auspices of NA-CAP.

Jon Dorbolo has posted a link to the conference blog.

Panel on FOSS at APA Central Division Meeting

Here is some information on the Free Software and Open Source Panel to be held at the APA Central Division Meeting in April:

American Philosophical Association Central Division Meeting - Spring 2006 | April 26-29, 2006, Palmer House Hilton Hotel, Chicago, IL

Thursday, April 27th 5:15-7:15 pm

Participants: Scott Dexter, Samir Chopra (Brooklyn College-CUNY, CIS), John Snapper (IIT- Chicago), George Thiruvathukal (Loyola - CS), Matt Butcher, Thomas Wren (Loyola - Philosophy)

Hope you can make it - it promises to be a lively discussion.

Will Google show us the code?

A couple of weeks ago, we attended a talk given by a Google researcher here at the CUNY Graduate Center. I went expecting a technical talk about Google's search algorithms, and found I had stumbled into a recruitment talk, complete with swag and brag.

As the slides went on, one thing became apparent: Google doesn't want you to know what its up to. On every second slide, our guest would point to some details about Google, and then remark, "of course, lots of things are just kept secret". (like how many Linux servers they own in their giant server farm). The irony of this state of secrecy maintained by a corporation whose mission is to make information available in the most convenient form possible was clearly lost on him (despite a question to this effect from me later on).

In any case, at question time, I asked him about whether Google had plans to release its source code. A rambling reply followed, about how Google does "want to give back to the community", how APIs have been released and so on. He then proceeded to make the following astonishing remark, "well, you know, we did take some stuff from the community like the code for the Linux kernel, but you know, we've customized it, so its completely new". Or words to that effect. Google picked Linux for technical reasons like customizability; something only possible on free software projects. But there is little that suggests that they will support the FOSS community other than the few bones that are being thrown out here. Perhaps I'm being too harsh; if so, feel free to write in, and tell me why Google's code offerings are significant.

In any case, a more interesting discussion followed shortly afterwards - more on that later.

Monday, December 19, 2005

What is "Decoding Liberation" about?

Software is more than instructions for computing machines: it enables (and disables) political imperatives and policies. Nowhere is this potential for radical social and political change more apparent than in the practice and movement known as free software.

While it is theoretically possible to determine (and subsequently modify) the design and function of a computer program by examining its 0s and 1s, it is time-consuming and rarely attempted. Instead, modern software is written in ‘high-level languages’ which are based on natural languages, enabling programmers to read, understand, and modify each other’s work. Automated translation programs then convert this ‘source code’ into computer-executable binary code. Most commercial software is distributed in binary form only, thereby concealing the programming techniques by which these programs achieve their purposes. But there is an alternative: to distribute software with its source code. This is the guiding principle of free software.

Free software makes the knowledge and innovation of its creators publicly available. This liberation of code—celebrated in free software’s explicatory slogan “Think free speech, not free beer”—is the foundation, for example, of the Linux phenomenon. Some facets of the free software movement have been extensively documented: questions of the microeconomics (i.e., the individual motivations of free software developers) and macroeconomics (i.e., structures that support successful free software development) have been considered both by ‘insiders’ and by outside observers. Other questions, such as the place of free software with respect to labor and technology, and its role in the future regulation of cyberspace, have been examined by some theorists but remain analytically underdeveloped.

This book provides a synoptic philosophical perspective on the fundamental relationships between free software and freedom. Focusing on five main themes—the emancipatory potential of technology, social liberties, the facilitation of creativity, the objectivity of computing as a scientific practice, and the role of software as a language of interaction in a technologized world—we ask, What are the freedoms of free software, and how are they manifested? Free software continues to be hyped in the computing community; we show that the hype is well-founded and yet too narrowly focused: free software promises to transform not only technology but society as well.