Technology That Empowers Me

Thu, 11 May 2017

Digital technology seems to be everywhere. In the past, someone might go to a library and check out a book to read. No one else could check out that copy until it was returned. With digital technology that's no longer an issue - there can be an inifinite number of copies - enough for everyone to read - without waiting for a copy to be returned.

Digital technology can be used as a tool to spread knowledge and information. It drastically lowers the barrier for people to create, modify, publish and distribute creative works. It can empower the masses. Anonymity can be available to everyone. Censorship could become impossible. Easy copying could destroy the traditional movie and music industries. There is much potential for technology to liberate people and make society a better place. It could also turn out that digital technology is a disaster for us because it also enables things like Digital Repression Management (DRM), mass surveillance, and more. There are individuals and organizations out there actively working against this utopian vision. The war over whether digital technology will empower or repress us is ongoing but one thing is certain: Things won't be the same anymore.

It should be clear which side of the fight I'm on, and I try to use all of the means available to me to help the fight. This usually comes in various legal, technological, and political means. One of those methods is using strong copyleft licenses like the GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL) to prevent covered works from being proprietarized and used against us in this ongoing fight. I also ask others to use it, and tell others what I am doing. Using a strong copyleft licenses like that doesn't stop those who are working against us from continuing to do that, but it does remove one possible piece of ammunition, and it works as a sort of "shield" around the thing so-licensed, so as to protect it. As more people adopt these sorts of "communal shields," the more protection there is.

Drafting licenses is hard work. Indeed: The Free Software Foundation's drafting process for version 3 started in January 2006 and went until the final version was published in June 2007. And, January 2006 is when the first "discussion draft" was published so this timeframe doesn't include the FSF's own internal deliberations on what they wanted to accomplished with v3, making the actual drafting timeline even longer.

While drafting licenses that try to address social and political problems you try to anticipate future issues as best you can but this isn't always possible. Indeed: version 3 addressed problems like Tivoization, which had not been envisioned when version 2 was written back in 1991 - a full 16 years earlier. The technology world moves fast and 16 years is a lifetime. In fact, 1991 saw the first version of the kernel named Linux announced. Gorbachev was still in office, until the Sovient Union was dissolved later that year, and a man named Bill Clinton announced that he would run for President of the United States. It feels like such a long time ago.

Despite putting forth the best effort to forsee future problems, no one is perfect. There had been numerous legal and technological changes in those 16 years and it was time for a new version to address those matters. Fortunately the Free Software Foundation predicted that this might be necessary and recommended that people include the words "or (at your option) any later version" when licensing something under the GPL family of licenses. Allowing upgrades to future versions provides an escape hatch through which those community shields I mentioned earlier can be upgraded.

Depsite this I have talked to some that refuse to use those seven words. One argument that they've used with me is a purely hypothetical scenario of not wanting to give the FSF control over what the license says in the future, using the argument along the lines of "what if the FSF 'goes bad' and makes a proprietary license"? It's important to keep in mind that this is purely hypothetical: The FSF has shown itself to be a very good copyright and license steward since it started in 1985. Contrast that to the very real attacks against our freedom that are going on non-stop as individuals and organizations work to find ways around the GPL. It seems like being penny wise but pound foolish.

In truth the FSF has several levels of defenses to prevent such a thing from ever happening:

  • One is Stallman himself. He'll never allow it.
  • Nor will any of the other board members.
  • Another is that the FSF is a 501(c)(3) charity and needs to operate for the public good. Making proprietary software licenses would run contrary to their mission and put their status at risk.
  • Another is all of those copyright assignments that people have assigned to them over the years. They included GPL-like language in them to bind the FSF.
  • The final level is the public: Even if everything else were to somehow fail the ability to upgrade is specifically worded as "at your option" so we'll be able to review things and decide to upgrade for ourselves.

But for this last option to work permission to upgrade must be granted. Upgrading isn't possible if the copyright holder(s) didn't authorize such. Yes, there can be discussions after the fact but this works only so long as all of the copyright holders are both alive and contactable. It quickly falls apart once either of those two things change. This also contributes to "permission culture."

The argument presented to me is so hypothetically remote while the other problems are so real and present that it's almost like arguing that they don't want people to be able to upgrade their shield generators to provide better shields (after it's been compromised) because the generator itself might theoretically explode some day and harm them. But I'll tell you what: Not upgrading is a way to guarantee failure and harm, because those working against our freedom haven't stopped. I don't know what will warrant GPL version 4. Or 5. Or 6. But, it will surely be something significant that needs addressing. I want for our community to be in a position where it can be.

Don't forget that we're in the middle of a war that will determine whether digital technology will empower or repress us. Please don't undermine community defenses by not allowing upgrades to our collective shields. Let's use technology to empower people, not cripple them and let it be used to repress them.