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A little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man-in-the-middle attack on human civilization
May 28, 2012 12:14 PM   Subscribe

Disintermediation -- the movement of power out of the middle of the net -- is a crucial fact about 21st century political economy, says Eben Moglen in a passionate keynote address at the Freedom to Connect conference yesterday. The ability to hack software and hardware ensures that we retain our civil liberties and ability to innovate.
posted by xenophile (38 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Speaking personally I'd love to have a smart network but it appears that smart can be easily defined as 'designed to nickle and dime you' and 'will lock out free devices' so yeah, I'll take the dumb pipe and my smart endpoint thanks.
posted by jaduncan at 12:45 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, and 'will be used to crack down on your freedoms'.
posted by jaduncan at 12:46 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is an interesting angle, but I grow more and more frustrated with FLOSS-is-freedom ideologues with every passing speech and article.

Disintermediation is not a consequence of open source; open source's widespread success is an example of disintermediation. Confusing the nature of that relationship is an ongoing problem for those who believe that software licensing is one of the great evils of our time, rather than A Way Some Companies Extract Value From Their Work. Open Source and open computing platforms are not the trigger events for a wave of innovation: they're pretty standard examples of distributed user-driven innovation that's been around in many industries for centuries.

I mean, I get it -- it's an article of faith that a core human right is the ability to legally modify and share modifications to any piece of software or hardware you encounter in daily life. Like faith in the power of markets to make life better for everyone or an unwavering belief in biblical inerrancy, the idea that open software makes for better lives appears everywhere. The problem isn't that FLOSS is bad, or that closed devices are inherently good, it's that these ideologues mistake their own frustrations for the rest of the world's pain points.

"Increasingly, around the world, the actual computing artifacts of daily life for individual human beings are being locked so you can't hack them," says the speaker -- except that the real change is not increasingly locked down traditional computers but an explosion of smaller microcomputing devices. "The individual computing laboratory in every 12-year-old's pocket is being locked down," says the speaker, alluding to a generation of smartphones and table devices that are not out-of-box hackable. Except that they are hackable by anyone with a USB cable.

The problem is not that FLOSS is bad, or that commercial licenses and/or closed platforms are good. The problem is that FLOSS-is-Freedom advocates behave as if root access to hardware devices is the only barrier between People and What They Want Or Need To Do. In the real world, lots of things -- economics, fundamental lack of device or software features, lack of technical expertise, lack of legal access to make customizations, lack of sufficient time, and more -- keep individuals from realizing their goals with technology. The locked-down world of walled gardens and restrictive licenses is just one of many barriers, and they all need to be addressed.

As long as FLOSS ideologues pretend that licensing issues are the be-all end-all -- the primary obstacle -- they will continue to be applauded by like-minded programmers. Like artists who insist that "making art" is the basis for all human society, though, they'll be a sideshow to the real action of solving peoples' larger problems. That's a shame, because the FLOSS advocates do have a really important piece of the puzzle.
posted by verb at 1:10 PM on May 28, 2012 [16 favorites]


I'm really not comfortable with discussing civil liberties and innovation in one breath. The only relationship between those two things is that they're both trigger words in America.

There's a really complex, convoluted argument here and he's conflating a lot of different things. It stands up pretty good as a bar room rant, but it's op-ed, and the analysis doesn't hold up terribly well to scrutiny.

The tag line seems to be that it's revolutionary to be able to flash the firmware on your iphone, and I don't even know where to start with that.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:12 PM on May 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


I guess I agree with Eben. Facebook is the ultimate example of keeping all of the logic inside the network; indeed it hoards the data to make any replication of the social graph outside of it extremely hard. The end points are increasingly locked down phones that are sometimes even encrypted to ensure they can't be altered, largely for the benefit of legacy media companies but also so a carrier or manufacturer can attempt to artificially limit what my little handheld computer can do.

Every movement is recorded, and the data recorded is not transparently available to the user. It's a smart network with endpoints that are hostile to the user, interactions mined to enable greater and greater monetisation of my real life and online friendships, with carefully quantified and manipulatively gamified site interactions to keep me locked in the Skinner box.

I reject that future.

I do, however, apparently choose to spend my time with a different proprietary site at Metafilter.
posted by jaduncan at 1:16 PM on May 28, 2012


Moglen is a wealthy lawyer, and university professor not a coder, programmer or software engineer. I wish he'd focus on open source and freedom I. His chosen profession before lecturing me about mine.
posted by humanfont at 1:16 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


The browser made the Web very easy to read. We did not make the Web easy to write. So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man-in-the-middle attack on human civilization.

That's a bizarre claim and requires more specific terms or some kind of proof. I'm seriously not sure what he's talking about here. Is he claiming that HTML was designed by corporate drones in suits, and that Dreamweaver was made by scruffy hackers in a basement?
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:24 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's a bizarre claim and requires more specific terms or some kind of proof. I'm seriously not sure what he's talking about here. Is he claiming that HTML was designed by corporate drones in suits, and that Dreamweaver was made by scruffy hackers in a basement?

Facebook gave people an easy way to write stuff on the web, and is obviously easier than Dreamweaver. Like Myspace and Frendster, it had huge growth based on that ease of use, and reaches demographics who would vomit at the sight of the simplest raw HTML.

Because of that ease of use, people now depend on FB to broadcast messages to their friends. That's his point. It's a mediated and monetised interaction in an increasingly disintermediated world.
posted by jaduncan at 1:30 PM on May 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


>So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write

Without listening to his presentation, I assume he means FaceBook's Zuckerberg.
posted by darth_tedious at 1:30 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


It has to be said it's quite a dickish way to refer to Zuckerberg, and Zuck isn't the one who comes out of Eben's sentence diminished. It's surprising in a lawyer.
posted by jaduncan at 1:32 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]




>So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write

Without listening to his presentation, I assume he means FaceBook's Zuckerberg.
posted by darth_tedious at 1:30 PM on May 28 [+] [!]


Oh, putting a status update on Facebook is "writing the web."

I see now. :-/
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:40 PM on May 28, 2012


I'm really not comfortable with discussing civil liberties and innovation in one breath.

Agreed - there's a clever sleight-of-hand at work here, where corporate abuses and monopolies are refashioned as a corruption of "real" capitalism from people who've been inspired by government centralization.

That's a common idea among libertarians, but I've never seen this before:
Disintermediation is beginning to come to higher education. [Coursera vs. MITx] Every society currently trying to restart innovation needs more education, delivered more widely at lower cost. Free software is the world's most advanced technical education system.
Universal access to information on the internet becomes an argument for removing tuition subsidies and public support for educational institutions. Students will gain skills by working for free on corporate-sponsored open source projects, putting the higher education of citizens under total corporate control.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:43 PM on May 28, 2012 [9 favorites]


Because of that ease of use, people now depend on FB to broadcast messages to their friends. That's his point. It's a mediated and monetised interaction in an increasingly disintermediated world.

I suppose that's the point I was getting at: the ability to muck with one's own web werver is, in the eyes of the FSF folks, a fundamental right and software that doesn't afford users that freedom is fundamentally broken, like a car that doesn't move.

The problem with that framing is that most people don't give a shit about mucking with their web server -- they want what lies on the other side of it, and they are not stupid or lazy or ignorant for feeling that way. The majority of people would in fact be better off with a turnkey black box -- the number of compromised WordPress installs floating around in the wild is a testament to the fact that many people who tak advantage of Free Software's freedom are non-developers, and are frustrated by the fact that they're expected to become developers.

For the vast majority of the population of the planet, "I can't share my patched version of the software with others" is not the problem. Rather, human problems like "I wish I could understand how to find trustworthy information," "I wish I could share pictures with my friends and family easily," and "I wish I could tell other people in my area about my small business" are problems. FLOSS advocates are solving their own felt problems -- software licensing and network access issues -- and acting as if the solution to every OTHER problem is to just become a programmer.
posted by verb at 1:47 PM on May 28, 2012 [5 favorites]


>So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write

Without listening to his presentation, I assume he means FaceBook's Zuckerberg.


no, he meant mathowie.
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 2:21 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


It's like they're having an open-source haters convention in here or something.
Moglen is a wealthy lawyer, and university professor not a coder, programmer or software engineer. I wish he'd focus on open source and freedom I. His chosen profession before lecturing me about mine. -- humanfont
Huh? Unless the code you're writing is the code that locks down various devices or vacuums up 'social' data I don't think this applies much to your typical 9-5 programmer. It's about what gets programmed, not now.
That's a bizarre claim and requires more specific terms or some kind of proof. I'm seriously not sure what he's talking about here. Is he claiming that HTML was designed by corporate drones in suits, and that Dreamweaver was made by scruffy hackers in a basement? -- Stagger Lee
He's talking about Facebook, and one of the main reasons it (and things like myspace) is that they made it easy enough for someone to have a 'web page' and link to their friends that the average person actually do it without investing much (or any) time in learning markup languages and URL schemes and how to use FTP.

There is a huge difference between "easy for a geek to figure out" and "easy for a normal person to figure out"
Universal access to information on the internet becomes an argument for removing tuition subsidies and public support for educational institutions. Students will gain skills by working for free on corporate-sponsored open source projects, putting the higher education of citizens under total corporate control. -- AlsoMike
*blink*

That statement is far more paranoid then anything I've ever heard from open source nerds. And I've heard some pretty paranoid stuff.

I mean, you think the availability of some PDFs and videos from private, not-for-profit colleges and foundations (like MIT, Harvard, Stanford or like Khan Acadamy) is going to be more controlling then giving every a massive load of student loan debt, and requiring them to pay hundreds of dollars for same information as paper textbooks, or even limited access websites?
The problem with that framing is that most people don't give a shit about mucking with their web server -- they want what lies on the other side of it, and they are not stupid or lazy or ignorant for feeling that way. The majority of people would in fact be better off with a turnkey black box -- verb
I don't think I've ever heard a non-programmer say they wish they had less control over some piece of hardware or software. Instead I keep hearing programmers insist that's what they actually want.

And serious question, have you ever actually asked a normal person if they'd like to be able to program their phone? Or do anything like that?

Back before smart phones came out, I would sometimes get into conversations with non-technical people about cell phones in general, and I would complain about how they were locked down. I mentioned two things I thought people should be able to do with their phones: Load any program onto them, and critically move your phone from provider to provider. I basically said I thought the phone should be like a regular home computer. You buy service, but you own the device and you can do whatever you want to with it.

Anyway, basically every single person I talked to about it agreed with me. And how could they not? They were only hearing my side of the argument.

For the most part, non-technical users don't have opinions on the issue at all. You can probably get them to say whatever you want since they're only hearing you. But a lot of them do have minor quibbles or things they'd like to change, or they have ideas for apps or websites they'd like to do if they had the knowledge to do so.

And that's the real issue. Because of the knowledge gap between programmers and non-programmers, even if something is totally open, the average user can no more hack it then they could if it were totally locked down. A Linux shell might as well be a elliptic curve DRM key.

However, if a platform is open then you have the possibility of getting at least some stuff by using turnkey solutions other people provide. MIUI ROM is a fork of android designed around things that 'normal' people might want, rather then being nerd centric. (Not that it isn't easier to protect users from malware if you have central control, it obviously is. But it's not impossible on more open systems)
posted by delmoi at 2:50 PM on May 28, 2012 [7 favorites]


I don't think I've ever heard a non-programmer say they wish they had less control over some piece of hardware or software. Instead I keep hearing programmers insist that's what they actually want.

I've never heard that specific phrase, either. Instead, I hear things like "This is too complicated," or "This gets in my way constantly," or "This is incredibly confusing," or "I'd learned how to do my job before they installed this," or "I wish I could just do what I need to do," or "I can't remember how I turned that on, but I wish I could turn it off," and so on and so forth.

As I said earlier, the issue isn't that people "want less control" -- it's that "more control over the hardware or the software" is a separate, orthogonal desire voiced by tinkerers who think they could fix the problem themselves if they had enough time to monkey around.


For the most part, non-technical users don't have opinions on the issue at all. You can probably get them to say whatever you want since they're only hearing you. But a lot of them do have minor quibbles or things they'd like to change, or they have ideas for apps or websites they'd like to do if they had the knowledge to do so.

You're engaging in a subtle semantic shift here: the kinds of users you're talking about rarely have things "they would like to change." They have things they would like to be different, in the same way that drivers wish the seats of their cars were more comfortable. Wanting a manufacturer to change a product and wanting to make that change one's self are two different things, and in the realm of software they are very different. My friend, for example, wants to record audio on his phone. He does not want to learn Java. A programmer might say, "The solution is to learn Java and write an app for your phone!" but that implies either a pre-existing skillset or copious quantities of free time.

FLOSS advocates are an important part of the software and legal landscape. They'll continue to push the boundaries and advocate for specific changes (like the ability to move from carrier to carrier with a given phone) that are of interest to the general public.

As long as they treat "Become a programmer" as the meta-answer to all problems, however, they will continue to be an aggrieved minority, and their software contributions will be steadily absorbed into a commercial ecosystem that does not realize the grand vision they dream of. As long as they treat every user need as something that is -- axiomatically -- best served by root access, their impact will be confined primarily to the world of plumbing and infrastructure.

There is a big world of human problems out there. Some (like carrier lock-in) are solvable using OSS principles. Many others are not. Blindness to the ones that are not, and an eagerness to interpret every human struggle through the lens of IP law, is one of the biggest navel-gazing traps facing the OSS movement today.
posted by verb at 3:12 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]



It's like they're having an open-source haters convention in here or something.


I love open source, but this piece doesn't show a terribly good understanding of what it is, and more importantly what it isn't. Open Source is really about code, and if you want to play fast and loose you can apply it to hardware, but that's the end of it. This is not a revolution.
posted by Stagger Lee at 3:19 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Open Source is really about code

Crucially, FLOSS is not simply about coding; it's a legal movement as well as a technical one. The success (however qualified) of the GPL, for example, was achieved not through coding but lobbying, litigating, and lecturing.* FLOSS should not be treated by coders as a coders-only club -- it should be obvious that that would be self-defeating, on the movement's own terms. Freedom to code / tinker / hack / etc. is valuable insofar as it serves to advance the project of real freedom for everyone, more generally.

*(I wanted to say "education", but the hell it with it, now I want the alliteration.)
posted by Yesterday's camel at 3:57 PM on May 28, 2012


verb: "The individual computing laboratory in every 12-year-old's pocket is being locked down," says the speaker, alluding to a generation of smartphones and table devices that are not out-of-box hackable. Except that they are hackable by anyone with a USB cable.

Your statement seems disingenuous to me, because this is against the best efforts of the manufacturers.

The reason they are hackable isn't because someone at Apple, with a twinkle in his eye, is leaving security holes open in iOS for hackers to find. Every time iOS updates, the previous security holes get closed, and I have to make the decision of whether to update to the new version or keep using Cydia software that makes my iOS device much more useable, some of which I've paid for.

It is unreasonable to assume that there will always be security holes to be found, especially as chip makers move security measures onto the actual silicon. Not to mention that the DMCA exemption that makes jailbreaking even legal in the first place has to be reargued every three years.

The problem isn't that FLOSS is bad, or that closed devices are inherently good, it's that these ideologues mistake their own frustrations for the rest of the world's pain points.

The "ideologues'" concerns (imagine, people standing for something!) are of exactly the same nature as that of the rest of the world; the only difference is of degree. It isn't just open source advocates who are annoyed by the efforts of mobile manufacturers to lock down the machines they cell. saurik, the creator of Cydia, claims that between 6 and 12% of iOS devices are jailbroken, the number tending towards the higher end of that scale the more time that passes between exploit removals.
posted by JHarris at 4:14 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


imagine, people standing for something!

This.

Movement activists (such as the folks at the Software Freedom Law Center, of which Moglen is a part) are by definition people who spend a lot of time focusing on a relatively narrow set of projects and activities. That doesn't mean that they're also actively denigrating everything that those outside their given movement are doing.

Since when did it become a "gotcha" to point out that somebody believes in something?
posted by Yesterday's camel at 4:19 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


imagine, people standing for something!

There's a difference between "standing for something" and being a blind, impractical partisan -- the definition, if you'll look it up, of an 'ideologue.' The problem isn't that "FLOSS is Freedom" types believe in something -- it's that they do consistently denigrate non-FLOSS licenses and make the case over and over again that non-FLOSS approaches to software, hardware, IP, and pretty much anything that can be represented in a bytestream are per se a society-level problem that hinders freedom.

This is not a distortion, this is not a misinterpretation. The belief that non-FLOSS software is inherently broken, for example, is openly stated by movements' founders and figureheads.


Your statement [that Android and iOS devices are rootable] seems disingenuous to me, because this is against the best efforts of the manufacturers.

The hardware devices the speaker complains about being 'locked down" are unlockable, and under the current laws of our country the act of unlocking them is a constitutionally protected right. I don't think it's disingenuous to point that fact out.


Since when did it become a "gotcha" to point out that somebody believes in something?

It's not. If the thing you believe and preach is a myopic distortion of reality, however, prepare to be called on it. True believers don't get a free ride just because the object of their belief is a software license.

I mean, just to make sure we know where thing stand, I've worked for almost a decade as a contributor to a major open source project. I served as a member of its nonprofit advisory board for two years. I make my living writing, supporting, and contributing to open source. I've written a book about Open Source, spoken about Open Source, I release my personal photography under a Creative Commons license, and I donate to Archive.org and I pray to St. Ignucius like a good dev should.

But I also see a growing problem in the FLOSS world, where the occasional overlaps between public interest and FLOSS principles allow those who are embedded in the community and its mindset to convince themselves that the rest of the world is swayed by ideology rather than pragmatism. For example, "You should be able to move your cell phone to any carrier you'd like if you're willing to pay out your contract" is pragmatism. Lots of people see the value of that and care about it. However, once carriers acquiesce and allow people to switch networks, most people carry no particular loyalty to FLOSS principles.

Software licensing restrictions form one particular kind of barrier between people and what they want to do. Most people I've spoken with list software complexity, the difficulty of learning new tasks, the challenge of finding reliable information, and other concerns above licensing issues. It's great that the FLOSS movement is there advocating for those times that pragmatic interests interact with ideological principles, but the idea that software licenses and FLOSS principles are the vanguard of the new fight for human freedom is yet more wanking.

It's a distraction from the larger pressing problems that we are facing as a culture and as a technical discipline.
posted by verb at 4:46 PM on May 28, 2012


delmoi: "I mentioned two things I thought people should be able to do with their phones: Load any program onto them, and critically move your phone from provider to provider."

Your 'critically' important wish there is (and mostly has always been since the advent of modern mobile phones) in fact the norm in the rest of the world. Don't make the mistake of conflating the odd little regulatory and corporate bubble of the US for the environment everywhere else.

"Anyway, basically every single person I talked to about it agreed with me. And how could they not? They were only hearing my side of the argument.

For the most part, non-technical users don't have opinions on the issue at all.
"

Again, don't make the mistake of thinking your personal experience = everyone else's. Non-technical users the world over have an opinion on carrier-locking, and it's basically this: they accept it in order to minimise the up-front cost, but expect it to disappear once the phone's paid off. The thought of being tied to the original carrier due to technical limitations (band / mode restrictions of the hardware) or carrier behaviour (deliberately making it difficult / impossible to port or transfer hardware, in order to drive new hardware sales) is an anathema.
posted by Pinback at 5:05 PM on May 28, 2012


The "ideologues'" concerns (imagine, people standing for something!) are of exactly the same nature as that of the rest of the world...

No they aren't. The rest of the world is concerned that capitalism is able to impose huge technological changes on society and no-one can do anything about it. The hacker community translates that into a demand for "open" products, which are products that, realistically, only hackers are able to modify to their own needs, and also innovate on so that they too can get the chance to be wealthy.

An equivalent is a corporation poisoning the air, and the DIY community demanding that the corporation release the specifications for the proprietary air filters they use inside the factory so that they can build them for their own houses and start businesses to sell them to their neighbors. The only way that solution makes sense is if you start by taking democratic control of the economy off the table.
posted by AlsoMike at 5:06 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]


The only way that solution makes sense is if you start by taking democratic control of the economy off the table.

I'm all for legislatively-mandated open software licensing (assuming that's the direction the analogy is going -- for the record I'm also enthusiastically in favor of democratic control of the economy). And there certainly is a disturbingly high proportion of FLOSS advocates who are, sadly, hyper-libertarian and as distrustful of the institutions of representative government as they are of Redmond and Cupertino. But that shouldn't count as a reason to abandon FLOSS more generally. I think it's also important on this point that Moglen is one of those FLOSS advocates who seeks to engage political and legal institutions rather than run away from them, and that is an important part of FLOSS activism that is too often ignored.

but the idea that software licenses and FLOSS principles are the vanguard of the new fight for human freedom is yet more wanking.

Where, exactly, do you see the EFF, FSF, et al making this kind of claim? Software freedom is a relatively dim star in the constellation of social justice causes -- but so what? The reductio of your argument is that anything that is less important than anything else is not important at all. Why can't there be a division of labor in activism? Some activists work on software freedom; others work on voter registration and access to electoral institutions, others work on visibility for marginalized groups, etc. If your point is more than a rhetorical quibble, then what do you think FLOSS advocates should be doing instead?
posted by Yesterday's camel at 5:26 PM on May 28, 2012


The hacker community translates that into a demand for "open" products, which are products that, realistically, only hackers are able to modify to their own needs, and also innovate on so that they too can get the chance to be wealthy.

That does not seem to be a fair or accurate description of the non-profits that pursue a FLOSS agenda -- here I'm thinking of the EFF, FSF, Software Freedom Law Center, Open Rights Group, etc. FLOSS advocates of that stripe are certainly not pushing FLOSS in the hopes that they can cash in.
posted by Yesterday's camel at 5:28 PM on May 28, 2012


Moglen is a wealthy lawyer, and university professor not a coder, programmer or software engineer. I wish he'd focus on open source and freedom I. His chosen profession before lecturing me about mine. -- humanfont
Ad-Hominem and possibly false. According to his wikipedia bio, Moglen was a programmer in his early career. The reference is to a podcast interview of Moglen with Chris DiBona. I also don't know what his being wealthy or not has to do with the whole business. He's a Columbia professor taking cases for Free Software, however much money he has, I bet you he could have ten times more just changing clients.

And none of that matters. He could be a rich lawyer who can't program, and still be right. Or wrong. Independently of his lawyerly and wealth status.
The problem is not that FLOSS is bad, or that commercial licenses and/or closed platforms are good. The problem is that FLOSS-is-Freedom advocates behave as if root access to hardware devices is the only barrier between People and What They Want Or Need To Do. In the real world, lots of things -- economics, fundamental lack of device or software features, lack of technical expertise, lack of legal access to make customizations, lack of sufficient time, and more -- keep individuals from realizing their goals with technology. The locked-down world of walled gardens and restrictive licenses is just one of many barriers, and they all need to be addressed. -- verb
Close to strawman. Who exactly says that root access to hardware devices is "the only barrier between People and What They Want Or Need To Do"? FLOSS advocates are, by the very definition, advocating for software freedom (or openness, in some cases). About the other barriers, each individual FLOSS advocate has their own ideas and solutions. That's why you don't see the FLOSS community's common agenda on the other problems. There isn't one. But there is a million individual agendas, including the point of view you just expressed, which is shared by many, including me.

And, on preview, everything Yesterday's Camel said.
posted by kandinski at 5:55 PM on May 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


Where, exactly, do you see the EFF, FSF, et al making this kind of claim?

The gentleman speaking in the linked article both implicitly and explicitly makes those kinds of claims. For example: "Free software is the world's most advanced technical education system." in addition, he makes numerous flat-out indefensible claims about the origins of current buzzwordy tech trends in order to bolster his claim that free/libre software licenses are the key to economic revitalization. Cloud computing was the result of "letting kids play and getting out of the way?" WTF.

I'm not sure where the EFF got pulled into this discussion, but I have no beef with them; they're not out there pretending that Affero will save the world.

The reductio of your argument is that anything that is less important than anything else is not important at all

If you think that, I'm not convinced you actually read my argument. FLOSS absolutists need to either accept that they are tackling a very narrow cause in hopes of nudging the needle on a particular aspect of modern technology, or they need to actually work on the kinds of big problems they claim that FLOSS is solving.
posted by verb at 5:56 PM on May 28, 2012


FLOSS absolutists need to either accept that they are tackling a very narrow cause in hopes of nudging the needle on a particular aspect of modern technology, or they need to actually work on the kinds of big problems they claim that FLOSS is solving.

I've read all of your posts on this thread, verb (as I have read, and profited from, your posts in other threads), and I'm not trying to be difficult -- but I think you're leaning on a strawman here. Activists must, qua activist, be assertive on behalf of their causes. This often means making large, broad claims -- but I still don't see how their doing so constitutes a harm or a slight, such that they're actively denigrating other causes.

Also, it's worth pointing out that Moglen thinks of FLOSS in legal / policy terms, not in terms of its utility for the tech industry. Some open source devs think that FLOSS only matters insofar as you can make a buck on it -- but Moglen would disagree.

FLOSS advocates are going to act like advocates. They're not going to act like devs who earn a living on software, some of which happens to be open source. I don't see why that means they can't all get along, though.
posted by Yesterday's camel at 6:18 PM on May 28, 2012


FLOSS absolutists need to either accept that they are tackling a very narrow cause in hopes of nudging the needle on a particular aspect of modern technology, or they need to actually work on the kinds of big problems they claim that FLOSS is solving.

There's a third choice here, which is to see FLOSS advocates' work -- as they themselves see it -- as contributing to an overall effort to improve others' circumstances in terms of access to information, freedom to use information technology, and so long. You keep insisting on drawing this sharp dichotomy but you haven't really argued for the proposition that FLOSS advocates must perforce make such a choice.
posted by Yesterday's camel at 6:20 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Disintermediation is beginning to come to higher education. [Coursera vs. MITx] Every society currently trying to restart innovation needs more education, delivered more widely at lower cost. Free software is the world's most advanced technical education system.
Universal access to information on the internet becomes an argument for removing tuition subsidies and public support for educational institutions. Students will gain skills by working for free on corporate-sponsored open source projects, putting the higher education of citizens under total corporate control.


If Logic Leaping was an Olympic event, this would be a Gold medal contender.
posted by kmz at 8:00 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


FLOSS advocates and contributors are some of the most beautiful people in the world. Mostly on the inside but it turns out that is what matters.
posted by srboisvert at 1:06 AM on May 29, 2012


The ability to own our own computing devices is being threatened using Copyright as an excuse, and this has worked rather well for the powers that be.

The next excuse will be security. User-centric security doesn't work. Capability based security is the only fix, but (almost) nobody thinks we need it. Should we win the argument about copyright, they will switch to the security argument.
posted by MikeWarot at 4:00 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


As I noted previously, there was no sensible legal precedent for software to be copyrightable at all, given the clear precedent that utilitarian items like clothing shouldn't be covered by copyright.

You could argue that open source software derives a copyright from the human artistic construction of the source code, a stretch, but a reasonable one. Yet, copyrights covering closed source software should simply not be permitted under any circumstances.

I suppose games would be protected by the copyrights on their artistic qualities like artwork and level designs, but not their engines.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:31 AM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've read all of your posts on this thread, verb (as I have read, and profited from, your posts in other threads), and I'm not trying to be difficult -- but I think you're leaning on a strawman here. Activists must, qua activist, be assertive on behalf of their causes. This often means making large, broad claims....

I want to reiterate -- again -- that the problem I have is not activists pushing their position and fighting for change. Also, I want to reiterate that I do not expect an issue-oriented activist to simultaneously fight for every good idea or against every bad one. That certainly would be ridiculous. I would hope, though, that activists would demonstrate some basic perspective and avoid fantasies and lies when making their case.

"Free software is the world's most advanced technical education system," for example, is ridiculous — like saying that a tree and a pocketknife are the best carpentry training available. I'm picking on it specifically because it is so unambiguous, but this kind of FLOSS-Is-Magic-That-Makes-Things-Better thinking is extremely common, at least in the circles I'm a part of. Buying into that mentality results in promises that can't be kept; angry, defensive communities; and ultimately backlash when individuals and organizations realize that FLOSS is just another distribution and development model.

Maybe I hang out in different circles than you do. Maybe I'm just surrounded by partisans who (literally) condemn projects for sticking with GPL2 instead of GPL3. Maybe I'm coincidentally surrounded by people who literally believe that all software everywhere would be better, faster, and easier to use if it were designed and implemented by crowds of volunteers. And it's quite possible that I'm alone in knowing prominent OSS developers and leaders who have publicly stated that anyone who doesn't want root access is "like an obese person eating nothing but big macs." I could totally be an outlier, and if that's the case I'm happy to say that my statements are directed not at the "community" or at "activists" but at people who simply claim to be activists and are giving the real activists a bad rap. I'm willing to accept that my Scotsmen are not true Scotsmen.

I had an offsite conversation with another mefite about this subject last night, and I think she hit the nail on the head: FLOSS licensing issues and general platform open-ness are "essential but insufficient" principles. Like access to early childhood education, FLOSS is important but too many of its proponents (in the circles I am a part of) act as if all other problems ripple out from it. It's a kind of myopia that I think is common in activism, but I suppose that's why I've always been a terrible activist.


....but I still don't see how their doing so constitutes a harm or a slight, such that they're actively denigrating other causes.

I've watched the FLOSS-Solves-All-Problems mindset play out in a lot of scenarios in a couple of different large and small projects. I've watched teams of designers who were willing to donate their time be told that they had to learn to code before their design work would be accepted -- because "That's what FLOSS is about." I've watched Usability experts who volunteered their time and resources to help improve projects be told that "Anyone who can't understand that screen shouldn't be using the project." I've watched non-developers who invested their time in learning a new tool after FLOSS advocates told them it would solve their problems be told, "You should learn to code and write a patch" when they encounter problems. And I've watched prominent FLOSS community members literally insult and degrade people for using closed platforms, treating it as evidence of stupidity and/or laziness.

Those are not widespread actions, but they're intimately related to the idea that FLOSS principles are a universal hammer for cultural and technological nails. I hope that as time goes on, more and more people inside of the FLOSS community (both "line devs" in OSS projects, and activists) embrace the idea that Licensing restrictions are one specific kind of barrier that is important to eliminate. Either it will motivate some of them to work on eliminating some of those other barriers as well, or it will reduce the amount of dismissive derision directed at platforms, software, individuals, or companies that do work to solve real problems outside of the FLOSS world.
posted by verb at 11:11 AM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


You could argue that open source software derives a copyright from the human artistic construction of the source code, a stretch, but a reasonable one. Yet, copyrights covering closed source software should simply not be permitted under any circumstances.

Copyright protection for source code and derivative works is the only thing that allows strong open source licenses to exist. If all copyright protection for code were eliminated, the vitality of the GPL (for example) would be eliminated and many derivatives would turn into closed-source projects. It's not a stretch to say that FLOSS derives its strength from copyright law; it is literally the only thing that gives FLOSS teeth when commercial companies appropriate FLOSS software and use it to make closed-source products.

Unless you're saying that the GPL should be given the force of law and extend to all software, which is the sort of "what will this solve?" over-reach that I find so frustrating.
posted by verb at 11:15 AM on May 29, 2012


Related: the EFF proposes a very, very solid list of four basic rights that all hardware owners should have. The challenge is going to be figuring out how far it should extend; for example should all devices require flashable firmware, should an alarm clock with a microprocessor be required by law to provide a USB port, etc.

In general, though, I think the list is sound and their case for it is refreshingly devoid of over-hyped promises and dire doomsday warnings. That's one of the reasons that I donate to the EFF consistently; they're calm, sober, and consistently correct.
posted by verb at 11:24 AM on May 29, 2012


I've watched the FLOSS-Solves-All-Problems mindset play out in a lot of scenarios in a couple of different large and small projects.

I have long assumed that the "FLOSS leads to moar innovations!!1" trope was simply a rhetorical ploy intended to alleviate the fears that CIOs with MBAs have of anything that is remotely crunchy or countercultural, and nothing more. Kind of like how "free software" became "open source" because it was thought the latter would sound better in the ears of corporate vice presidents.* But perhaps I'm mistaken.

I'm not a dev; I don't work in IT at all, in fact. So to me, FLOSS is mainly visible as a movement and an idea, and not a faction in the workplace. I can see how FLOSS cheerleading could quickly get in the way of getting a project off the ground, etc. But many FLOSS advocates, who spend most of their time engaging with lawyers, policy makers, donors, etc. are not That Guy. The EFF, as you point out, is not That Guy. And so on. And hopefully that kind of distinction is more principled than an attempted distinction over whose Scotsmen are truer Scotsmen.

Although not all open source is free software, or vice versa, etc. etc.
posted by Yesterday's camel at 3:48 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've never heard that specific phrase, either. Instead, I hear things like "This is too complicated," or "This gets in my way constantly," or "This is incredibly confusing," or "I'd learned how to do my job before they installed this," or "I wish I could just do what I need to do," or "I can't remember how I turned that on, but I wish I could turn it off," and so on and so forth.
Well, that's the result of having a shitty UI. There's no reason why you can't have a crap UI on a locked down device. Giving a user root access on, for example, an iPad wouldn't change any UI elements.
As I said earlier, the issue isn't that people "want less control" -- it's that "more control over the hardware or the software" is a separate, orthogonal desire voiced by tinkerers who think they could fix the problem themselves if they had enough time to monkey around.
Right. It is orthogonal why did you bring it up? Orthogonal means that a change in one does not imply a change in the other. And that's true. A jailbroken iPhone, or a rooted android phone works exactly the same way, as far as the user is concerned as one that hasn't been.
You're engaging in a subtle semantic shift here: the kinds of users you're talking about rarely have things "they would like to change." They have things they would like to be different
No, you're actually the one engaging in "semantic shift". I said "things they'd like to change". Now, obviously they can't change those things, even if the platform were open. And even if they could they might not want to take the time to do it. In fact, if they had the skill they'd probably realize how much time it would actually take, and not bother. I also gave an example of writing an app or website, definitely things that the user would like to do rather then simply "have happen"

Beyond that, though the basic point is that you said:
The problem with that framing is that most people don't give a shit about mucking with their web server -- they want what lies on the other side of it, and they are not stupid or lazy or ignorant for feeling that way. The majority of people would in fact be better off with a turnkey black box

And the point is, they never say that's what they want, and they never nominated you to speak for them.
The hardware devices the speaker complains about being 'locked down" are unlockable, and under the current laws of our country the act of unlocking them is a constitutionally protected right. I don't think it's disingenuous to point that fact out.
That's not even close to true. It would be illegal if not for the DMCA exemption for cellphones. It's not legal at all for game consoles. That's why Sony was able to sue Geohot for breaking the X-box, but Apple couldn't have sued him for breaking the iPhone. So it's not disingenuous, it's just completely incorrect. (although technically you would be allowed to hack the device yourself, just not distribute the hack)
I've watched the FLOSS-Solves-All-Problems mindset play out in a lot of scenarios in a couple of different large and small projects. I've watched teams of designers who were willing to donate their time be told that they had to learn to code before their design work would be accepted -- because "That's what FLOSS is about." I've watched Usability experts who volunteered their time and resources to help improve projects be told that "Anyone who can't understand that screen shouldn't be using the project." I've watched non-developers who invested their time in learning a new tool after FLOSS advocates told them it would solve their problems be told, "You should learn to code and write a patch" when they encounter problems. And I've watched prominent FLOSS community members literally insult and degrade people for using closed platforms, treating it as evidence of stupidity and/or laziness.
Yeah, none of that has anything to do with whether or not underlying platforms are open or closed. It's totally orthogonal.

You seem to be complaining about random stuff just for the sake of complaining, without having any real point at all, as far as I can tell.
posted by delmoi at 3:14 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


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