Law in the Internet Society

From Understanding to Freedom

-- By SebastianBresser - 05 April 2018

Introduction

Beginning with computers on some people’s desks a few decades ago, today, connected devices are in almost everyone’s hand. Soon, as has already begun, connected devices will leave their owner’s hands and spread into, or rather: become their homes, cars, glasses and almost any other object imaginable. The drastic changes in private, professional and political life and the great economic success of so-called "technology" companies have made almost everyone aware that the combination of personal computers and internet is affecting and changing life incredibly fast, thoroughly and irreversibly.

Nonetheless, while some people try to understand the technical specifications of their devices by comparing processing power, memory or screen resolution, the clear majority of users remains illiterate to how the hardware is used by built-in or installed software. The average user’s assessment usually ends at superficially comparing operating systems and then drifts into a mixture of wonder and awe vis--vis the seemingly magical capabilities of the device. This ignorance prevents understanding the link between hard- and software. It does not, however, prevent knowing that there is such link and that, rather than magic, software is the result of a developer’s thinking expressed in some programming language.

Understanding the Problem

Against this background, the idea that software can be harmful or malicious should be little surprising to most people. Obvious malware like computer viruses and targeted attacks to computer systems are probably most commonly associated with such misuse. Months ago, I thought that less obvious malware, like tracking-tools or curated content were also widely understood and criticized and referred to the case of Cambridge Analytica as an example that springs to everyone’s mind. The fact that the enormous media outcry and the respective drop in Facebook’s market capitalization only followed the Guardian’s interview with Christopher Wylie a few weeks ago shows that the opposite seemed to be the case. Why did this interview surprise anyone? Where and how else would Cambridge Analytica get the data?

Today, my earlier conclusion that the vast majority of Facebook users understand that they are, in fact, products sold to advertisers, people running for president or governments seems equally wrong. One would think that the current public debate will inform more people. This, however, is likely wishful thinking. Most media outlets try to outdo each other by reporting the exact number of user data leaked to Cambridge Analytica instead of highlighting the fact that this constitutes not even one percent of the user data currently exploited by Facebook, a company with a business model that almost certainly at least includes that of Cambridge Analytica. Some do. Hence, the fact that with software the nervous-system of connected devices can be become a great tool to subtly affect, influence and steer human behavior is understood and criticized harshly by too few.

Understanding the Solution

It is vital that a critical mass understands firstly, how and by whom proprietary software is used today and secondly, how different approaches to software development and licensing can restrain the detrimental effects to society. Functionally, software should be designed and/or licensed to prevent any person or entity from making a profit by making users a product or by affecting their behavior. Free and open source software (FOSS) and the derivative copyleft licensing achieve that goal. Since the beneficiaries of FOSS or copyleft licensed software are also its users there is no reason to believe that this software will ever be developed to the detriment of its users. The question of whether software will become a means to an end (e.g., human despotism) or a freedom-enabling means in itself, is closely linked to the question of whether FOSS and copyleft will prevail. Independent of whether freedom is truly achievable or solely worth pursuing, proprietary software either privately developed or developed on top of permissive open source software is self-evidently not the tool of choice to get there.

As outlined above, the problem is visible, it is understood at least by few and feasible solutions exist today. Furthermore, it is almost undisputed that FOSS is superior to proprietary software and that copyleft licensing allows for quick and powerful improvements (the Linux kernel, for example, is base to the a popular mobile operating system that is unfortunately used to run a suite of proprietary software developed by Google). What is more, yet contrary to what data-collecting companies suggest, data collection and exploitation (yielding valuable information from monitoring traffic to predicting the spread of infectious diseases) need not be done by a single entity but can be done transparently and collectively. Block chain is one of the technologies that have rendered centralized databases redundant. Despite all this, the clear majority of people uses proprietary software in their personal and professional lives (Sometimes because they are locked-in. In these cases, mandatory APIs could help).

Striving for Freedom

The wide-spread reliance on proprietary software can be attributed to both, a lack of understanding the dangers of such software and/or indifference vis--vis the frightening consequences of an increased proliferation of such software. Albeit still wishful thinking, the ignorance will likely be overcome sooner than later. In my view, to strive for freedom, however, users of proprietary software need to be convinced of both, that they are unfree and that it is worth being free. To convince users that this is not the case, however, large proprietary software companies invest incredible financial resources in marketing and lobbying. FOSS proponents, on the other hand, seem to hope that the quality of FOSS advertises itself and copylefters regard proprietary software suites built on top as non-derivative (or, arguably, don’t actually). Independent of whether this is the result of lacking understanding or lacking financial resources: the quality did and will not advertise itself. It seems that if FOSS and copyleft licensing are to become the new standard, their proponents will need a serious marketing and lobbying budget to promote broad understanding and incite a striving for freedom in the realm of software.


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r5 - 06 Apr 2018 - 18:28:43 - SebastianBresser
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