Banner Zenit, Scientific & ICT Services

<<Previous Blog Index Next>>

Free Code, Free Men

Friday, October 28, 2005

Free code, free men

Translation of Código libre, hombres libres by Carlos Sánchez Almeida published in Repúblic Internet on 20-Oct-2005.

Over time
from the start of your schooling they will try to educate you
- that is: to domesticate you -
fortunately there are ways of avoiding that fate.
They will say that the world
is divided into the wise and the foolish.
Nothing could be further from the truth, my child.
In man there are only two alternatives:
to be, or not to be... free.
By this I mean
that you decide.
He who allows the chains to be put on without complaint
is as bad as he who chains others.

Jaime Suárez Quemain (1950-1980), Salvadorian journalist assassinated by machete.

1. We are code

I have seen things that you will never see, except if you purchase the same program. I have lived seven different lives wandering through the burning ruins of Ascalon. I have scaled the Shiverpeaks alone. I have confronted Ascension on the Rock of the Omens to obtain the True Vision. And all this to become a Elect of the Mountain, one more of the million users who have paid 50 euros for a Guild Wars account.

The citizens of cyberspace live with the persistent illusion of freedom. Everything that they do is determined by Code, but they believe that their avatars are free, that they can confront any challenge, because they are 'Carriers of the Llama'. However, it is sufficient to review the rules of the universe of Guild Wars, to take an example, to realize how weak we are against the power of The Code.

We are code. Genetic code, of course: a code that is full of mistakes and orientated exclusively to survival, an aspiration in which there are no moral determinants. Above this code there are many others: moral codes, religious codes, legal codes and now in cyberspace, computer codes.

Once I saw the film, 'Niño nadie', directed by José Luis Borau in which Rafael Alvarez played the lead role of 'El brujo'. The scene from the film that captured my imagination was when the hero reached a planetarium. The astronomer confirmed his suspicion that the movements of all the celestial bodies were determined by fixed and immovable laws and he asked the awful question. As dreadful a question as all philosophical questions: “If no body in the universe is free, how can I be free?” Solving this question has been an obsession all my life.

2. The Code is full of errors

Lawyers and hackers are very similar. We lawyers are a source of continual irritation for the system of oppression by the State, euphemistically known as the justice administration system. The three branches of the state, executive, legislative and judicial are in agreement that everything would function better if it were not for the plague of lawyers. The powers in the virtual worlds of Systems are the Analyst and the System Architect. For them, the hackers are the lawyers: the hackers live to exploit errors in The Code.

Nevertheless, sometimes the problem is that the whole Code is based on a falsehood. When they proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the four winds, those States that maintain Walls of Shame simply became Mafia organizations whose main objective was to preserve their process of exploitation intact.

Equality, liberty, privacy, security, the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association... all are determined by the economic system. As long as these rights don't threaten the process of accumulation of wealth, they are useful. But when they endanger the machinery of production...

My work is based on finding errors in the code, to discover where the State and its servants have made mistakes. On many occasions, finding or not finding a 'bug' can mean the difference between innocence or four years in prison for a person. I have been doing this work since 1987, defending the people that the system has called pirates. For much of that time I did not indulge in many philosophical reflections, the only important thing was to achieve a verdict of innocent.

Over time I discovered that the plot was much more complicated, and how! I came to realize that what I have been doing since the 1980s had a name, and like so many other things, it had been invented by the Americans: Cyber-Rights.

3. Delving into machine code: the Cyber-Rights

In 1998, because of the Hispahack case, I had the pleasure of meeting the person who has been the most influential to me since: David Casacuberta. The organisation that he leads, Fronteras Electrónicas España (FrEE), became interested in the case early on and publicly demonstrated its support for the persecuted hackers.

In FrEE I learned that the fight for freedoms was much more than simple skirmishes in the courts. One could win a case, two cases, many cases, but the enemy always has more power, more money and more and better lawyers. In the long run it will always win.

In those years, cyberactivism was in its nappies and this made is more interesting. It was there that I made my first contact with free software. And it was there that the first campaign was organized for the spread of free software in the public administration. We decided to send a letter to all the mayors, asking that the municipal administrations install free software.

We were young, happy and unsophisticated, and we did not know the trouble into which we were putting ourselves. The letter was very naive, but what we said on behalf of the Internet, the FrEE and myself was:

Dear Mayor/Mayoress,

Congratulations on your recent election (or re-election). Taking advantage of the fact that the new local government will soon begin to develop those projects for which it was elected for the next four years, I would like the new council to be able to reduce taxes, as it promised in its election manifesto.

Following the good example of other public administrations and taking advantage of the changes that must be introduced in the year 2000, I request by means of this letter that the council that you lead installs free software on all its computers.

Free software is that which, in contrast to proprietary software, does not require the payment of any licence fee and can be copied without asking permission from the title holders. The principle advantages of such software are the following:

Adaptability: free software is more adaptable because there is no technical or legal obstacle to its modification. A council, autonomous community or state organization can take any free program (with an open architecture) and modify it for its own purposes (and in the end to the benefit of all) without having to give explanations to any company and without any other cost than the payment to the programmer who effects the changes. In the world of proprietary software, this would be much more complicated.

Economy: the majority of open operating systems, like Linux, FreeBSD etc., the programs that operate in these environments, like all those generated under the GNU licence, are free of charge. Compare this with the astronomical prices, in many cases over-valued, of proprietary software.

Universal access: when a system is free of charge, this implies that it is within reach of many more people. If the administration opts for proprietary programs, only those people with the purchasing power to buy commercial software will be able to communicate with it. On the other hand, with free software, anyone can have an internet connection, text processor, database etc. without needing to exchange large amounts of money for operating systems and associated programs. Meanwhile, those who want to work with proprietary software can also communicate with the administration, because these systems can also generate documents in formats like ASCII, RTF, etc. which are shared on all platforms.

Trustworthiness: in free software, the administration knows exactly how the program works and the type of operations that the machine performs so that errors can be detected more easily. It is very simple to modify a program so that it behaves optimally on the networks and machines that constitute the computing infrastructure of a public administration. A proprietary system, being closed, makes it difficult or impossible to effect these changes.

Security: in free software, and especially open source software, the administration can know exactly what the program is doing, as mentioned above, and can know what security holes are present. Furthermore, in an open system it is not possible to create programs with traps or back doors that collect personal information about the user without his knowledge, to send confidential information to untrusted third parties etc. The computer network of a public administration is and always will be a primary objective for unwanted intrusions. For this reason, it is fundamental to have a secure system. The bad faith exposed in certain companies like Microsoft, who introduce back doors to collect information about the user in an unauthorised way and without disclosure, demonstrates the importance of open systems where such tricks are not possible.

I hope that the above will give our public representatives cause for reflection, and that they will take the decision to install free software on all the council's systems.

Repeating my congratulations for your recent election, yours faithfully,

Much water has passed under the bridge since this letter. Many of the politicians who received it have come on board. Some have become big shots in an autonomous government. And with time they learned how to extract political profit from internet cyberactivism.

4. Binary code and legal code

Things that are explained simply are understood more easily. The main feature of the letter to the mayors was that it could be understood even by politicians. It contains a summary of the advantages of free software. But there were two things missing, which I discovered, thanks to two people who were critical in my development as a cyberactivist: José Manuel Gómez y Lawrence Lessig.

In March 2001, I became involved again in a virtual campaign. José Manuel Gómez, editor of Kriptópolis, associated himself with the Campaign for open source code in the administration. Out of all the reasons in favour of free software that are mentioned in the letter to the mayors, he decided to join the campaign for the reason that should have had the greatest weight with the public administration: the need to guarantee that the personal data of citizens be adequately protected in the hands of the administration, as if they were official secrets.

These were the main points of the campaign manifesto:

  • Not installing on official computer systems any programs and operating systems for which the source code is not available.

  • Enhancement of the power of the Data Protection Agency so that it can oversee how public bodies protect personal data, and demand the installation of programs and operating systems with open source code.

  • Drafting of regulations that persuade and promote the development of open source code operating systems and programs by public subsidies, establishing grants to Spanish companies investing in the investigation and development of such software.

  • Call for the appearance of the director of CESID (Ministry of Defence) before Congress with the aim of his reporting on the types of programs that protect and store state secrets, as far as this does not compromise national security.

Computer security was the key. This is something that proprietary software cannot guarantee because it is hidden from the user. The campaign text said that in a proprietary program it is impossible for the user to know exactly how the program works and what kind of operations it executes in the machine, and that not even the security services can detect the installation of back doors or the existence of program faults that allow intruders access to official secrets. These problems don't exist in open source programs that allow examination of the code for any tricks or faults in the software.

Politicians in the autonomous communities took good note. Among other things they found that when they were spending public money, it was better to offer it to local people than to send it to American companies. Because Microsoft doesn't have any electoral concerns, it is wiser from the point of view of political survival, to make use of small or medium sized companies within the electoral boundaries. I say this without any cynicism.

Up to here I have been putting forward the strictly technical arguments. The most important argument, the one that carries the greatest weight, was missing: legal security. This reason was defined by Lawrence Lessig.

Too often the only thing known about the figure of Lawrence Lessig is his involvement in the movement for free culture. Creative Commons and all its paraphernalia have eclipsed, in my view, the most important ideas of this American legal thinker. Free Culture is an easier book to read than Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, but it is here where one can find Lessig's best ideas centred on the four pillars of Cyber-Rights: freedom of expression, right to privacy, intellectual property and sovereignty.

It is in Free Culture where Lessig formulated the fundamental thesis for demanding the abolition of the secrets of proprietary code: if computer code conditions our behaviour in cyberspace as much or more than the legal code, then the code must be public. The code on which the liberty of citizens depends must not be kept secret.

This same principle can be found in the prologue that Lawrence Lessig wrote for a new compilation of Richard Stallman's essays: “A 'free society' is regulated by law. But there are limits that any free society places on this regulation through law: No society that kept its laws secret could ever be called free. No government that hid its regulations from the regulated could ever stand in our tradition. Law controls. But it does so justly only when visibly. And law is visible only when its terms are knowable and controllable by those it regulates, or by the agents of those it regulates (lawyers, legislatures).”

A free people cannot be subject to secret laws. Human beings who live under the power of a secret code are not citizens but simply like the puppets in Guild Wars. They may think that they are living a unique adventure in the first person, but they are simple avatars in the hands of an omnipresent and arbitrary power. And they can never do anything that isn't in the script.

I explained this in February, in the Senate, in a petition to our current government in the person of the minister of Industry, José Montilla, who daily walks the political tight-rope euphemistically called 'technological neutrality'. There cannot be neutrality in anything to do with citizens' rights; the state cannot be neutral on the subject of fundamental rights. The role of the state is to remove all the obstacles that hinder the effective exercise of such rights. And such rights are impeded by proprietary software because it contains hidden laws that have not been debated in parliament.

5. Chains of code

“My mother always told me that you get what you pay for. People who are helping now with free software are people who are being paid during the day by companies like Autodesk. If no one paid them a salary, I don't think that they would be so keen about free software. You could try free journalism, but how would you eat? The way in which free journalism is done today is that you earn a salary during the day and at night you write your web logs.”

These are the cynical words of Carol Bartz, general director of Autodesk, in an interview for Ciberpaís. It is always useful to listen to the voice of the enemy because it reflects those aspects of reality that we fear most. There are people who can live from free software, but not the majority. But the main blame for this must be laid at the current law of Intellectual Property.

Most programmers who work for companies have less recognition as authors than the most insignificant make-up artist in a television series. In contrast to these and in contrast to the author of any other intellectual work, salaried programmers don't have the right, a priori, to appear in the credits of the program.

The article 97 of the current law of Intellectual Property states that when a salaried worker creates a computer program in the performance of his normal work or following the instructions of his employer, title to the rights to profit from this computer program, both source code and executable, reside exclusively with the employer, unless there is an agreement to the contrary.

This is a legal presumption: every program that is written in a company belongs to the company. The programmer is denied even the moral right of recognition that every other artist enjoys. This is discrimination against programmers. The rights of salaried authors of every other type of work are covered by article 51 of the law of Intellectual Property, which states that unless there is an agreement to the contrary, exclusive rights are handed over to the employer at the moment of handing over the work done as a part of the normal relationship between an employer and employee. 'Handing over' assumes authorship, and article 51 defines its limits. By contrast, programmers are nothing: they aren't authors, the only author is the company.

The word is alienation. With the agreement of all those who make a show of protecting intellectual property, a specific set of authors are stripped of the fruits of their intellects without enjoying any kind of rights, either economic, or moral: piracy never went so far.

Laws like these, together with abusive contractual clauses, have allowed a programmer to be condemned at this moment to three years in prison for keeping in his house some of the code that he himself wrote. Let's think about this: to go to prison for taking home one's own creation. This case is even more absurd as the code in question was not a company secret but written under the GPL licence. An absurdity of three years in prison!

Alienation: this is the real situation, the actual position of salaried creators of computer code. I know that Richard Stallman would not like the word 'creator', but I use it anyway. I want those who believe themselves to be free to remember what they really are: creators stripped of their creations.

6. Free code, free men

I said at the beginning of this article that the System is based on a huge farce. A farce that no one has defined better than Kafka in The Trial and in a summarized form in his story, Before the Law. We solemnly proclaim the law of Human Rights in our countries, we struggle to apply them to a virtual world, and we festoon our Walls of Shame with barbed wire.

Similarly, the formal freedoms we demand in the real world and on the Internet, in real streets and in virtual streets, become as nothing after crossing the walls of our companies. The situation that I explained with respect to the exploitation of the intellectual heritage of our computer programmers is repeated in all the other rights that are granted under our constitution.

The freedom of expression and the right to privacy are always put into question. Try criticizing your company using your own name in a blog. Try saying what you really think about your boss in an e-mail message. Try using an encryption program on your company computer.

Like on many other occasions, forgetting the lesson of history condemns up to repeat it. To foresee what the battles of the future will be, you only have to look to the past: social rights are not won by shaking one's head or taking refuge in an artificial paradise. They are only won by becoming conscious of the situation of alienation.

In the social battles of the last centuries, the diffusion of ideas throughout the population was not the work of intellectuals, lawyers, writers or journalists. It was achieved by working men, typesetters and printers; those who smudged their fingers with revolutionary ink. Those were the shock troops, it is they who executed the ideas that changed the world.

It is the same today. Programmers are the typesetters of the 21st century. The key lies with them: they can decide to remain as slaves, or become conscious of their creative roles. Our freedom may one day depend on the code that they write.

Freedom belongs to those who own their own code.

Mataró, 19th October 2005.


<<Previous Blog  Index Next>>

Return to Translations Index

E-mail comments to:


© 2005-6