Code Behind Bars

Mon, 12 Feb 2024

A troubling truth emerges in a world increasingly reliant on software: governments sometimes act as gatekeepers, dictating where code can roam. These restrictions are implemented as export controls and trade sanctions for various reasons, from claims of national security to foreign policy reasons. Still, the reality is often far more complex and troubling. They usually have a collateral victim by applying a chilling effect to freedoms #2 and #3, the fundamental right to share code freely across borders. The collateral victim isn't just about lines of code; it's about isolating communities and undermining the very freedoms that everyone deserves. Software freedom is for everyone, even those we may not like. In this battle between government policies and digital rights, the ethical dimensions are stark - and the battleground stretches from your keyboard to Capitol Hill.

The digital walls erected by export control laws feel cold and unforgiving, especially when they run smack into the warm bonds of friendship. Imagine being unable to share a needed encryption program with a friend that's a journalist in a sanctioned country relying on encryption tools to protect their communications.

Suddenly, you're caught in a vice. This is no mere file transfer: On one side, there's your friend, your desire to help, and the principle of sharing underpinning the free software movement. On the other looms the law of your country, the threat of fines or even imprisonment. Export controls translate into a chilling reality for many people, and let's be clear: restricting software sharing is unethical. I won't go into all of those details here, but check out the information about the ethics of the free software movement on gnu.org or in any of Richard Stallman's speeches.

It's a cruel bind and not some dystopian fiction; it's the lived reality of countless individuals where export controls create seemingly insurmountable barriers, leaving individuals and communities snagged in an intricate web, vulnerable and isolated. These people need software and should have access to free software to do the jobs they need, but these laws treat the very tools that could empower them like bullets fired across geopolitical fault lines. We believe in universal software freedom for everyone, but what happens when lines on a map are enforced with the cold steel of regulations and the sting of potential punishment?

The impact is deeply personal. It pits friendship against the state and forces good Samaritans to become digital smugglers. It's a system that breeds fear and hurts those who need it most. When people cannot get copies of free software, they're being denied control over their own life. If we go along with it, such as configuring our server to refuse downloads to people in sanctioned countries, we are withholding crucial tools for human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society groups operating in repressive regimes. This is not merely inconvenient; it's a direct assault on the right to information and expression, fundamental pillars of a democratic society.

So, what can you do? You could share the software with your friend by going through an intermediary, perhaps someone in a country with no export ban to the country that your friend is in. That helps at the moment, but more significant steps are needed:

First, we can help to prevent these laws from spreading. We must refrain from requiring that people follow export control laws as a condition of the software license. This helps to ensure that people outside of the jurisdiction where those laws apply aren't impacted and helps that earlier example of using an intermediary.

But don't stop there. Be a code smuggler of sorts. Spread awareness about organizations like Tor Project, who work tirelessly to provide access in restricted environments. Learn about decentralized technologies like mesh networks, which can bypass traditional channels and deliver essential software directly to those who need it most.

Next, we can explore alternative software-sharing methods with those in sanctioned countries. Exploring alternative distribution channels beyond Tor can help bypass the limitations imposed by export controls. While these methods are not foolproof, they offer a glimmer of hope in a landscape increasingly dominated by digital barriers. Think of it as a form of civil disobedience.

And perhaps most importantly, we must raise our voices. Don't let these digital walls stand unchallenged. Contact your congressional representatives and senators. Let them know that you oppose restrictions on software sharing and demand they prioritize software freedom in their legislative agenda. Let them know that these restrictions are ethical failures with real-world consequences.

This is not a call for recklessness or disregard for legitimate concerns in export controls. It's a call for nuance to protect the fundamental right to share with others. We must hold our governments accountable and push for policies that embrace software as a tool for empowerment, not an instrument of control where our governments decide who we can and cannot share with.

By raising our voices, supporting those on the frontlines, and exploring alternative solutions, we can ensure that our code doesn't become a prisoner of politics but a tool for empowerment and liberation.