Tag Archives: GPL

Three meanings of “free”: after “free beer” and “free speech”, “free the Internet”

I have come across free software advocates who want to expand the range of their social causes and get involved in reforming society itself.

I hope they are already aware of at least three meanings of “free”. This is a friendly reminder if they’re not. Free software advocates are generally familiar with the first two: “free” as in “free beer”, and “free” as in “free speech”. Enough has been said about these two meanings.

There’s a third meaning, and a free software activist who wants to become a social activist should be aware of this one: “free” as in “free all political prisoners”.

In contrast to “free speech”, the third meaning also highlights the current lack of freedom and asserts that this situation must be corrected immediately. The third meaning is fraught with connotations of action and activism. When social activists use the word “free”, it is probably the third meaning they have in mind, with possibly the second meaning. “Free speech” is a somewhat general and almost a motherhood statement. “Free all political prisoners” carries a certain urgency. It is, for instance, pointless to demand “free Mandela” today. He has been out of prison for years. This meaning of “free” suggests a time frame, a demand with a deadline. (By the way, I was a political prisoner in the 1970s.)

A second reminder to free software advocates. Do not presume that once all software is “free”, your work is done. Some free software are more free than others. The BSD license is more free than the GPL. A number of free software licenses, and Creative Commons likewise, rely on the existing copyright system for enforcement. This means that many free software (and Creative Commons) advocates become defenders of copyrights. Once you become a copyright defender, you gain some friends (like the software, music, video, book and publishing industries) and lose other friends (like many social activists, though by no means all). Please think carefully through the implications of copyrights. Check, for instance, the Copyright Dossier by the CopySouth Research Group (CSRG).

A third and final reminder. Most free software advocates are Internet and information and communications technology missionaries. They love the technology and want everyone to embrace it. Please be aware, however, that the Internet today carries some very deeply-embedded biases (ideologies, if you will), which force themselves on all users. And some of these biases are in conflict with fundamental principles strongly held by many social activists. Though I know of more, I will cite only three: the bias for English, the bias for automation, and the bias for globalization. The first two are quite obvious (and will also be subjects for future posts).

The third may need a bit more explanation.

The Internet forces local players to subsidize global players, a bias that is deeply embedded in the technology. This subsidy comes from the simple fact that files sent to a “neighbor” (another user on the same ISP, i.e., local) are charged the same rate as files sent to distant users (say, subscribers on ISPs on the other side of the globe). This is precisely the “advantage” of the Internet, its selling point: the abolition of distance. Everything has become “local”. Yet, local file transfers use very few network resources, while international file transfers use quite a lot — several routers, perhaps undersea cables connecting continents, plus more routers near the destination. In short, local files are charged higher per network resource, compared to global files. The local subsidizes the global — a subsidy for globalization. This is a fundamental injustice — institutionalized theft, even — that lies at the heart of the Internet. Many of the so-called “advantages” and “benefits” of the medium are based on this built-in double-standard.

There is another way by which the Internet forces the poorer local users to subsidize the richer global users. This comes from the growth pattern of the Internet infrastructure of hosts and communication lines.

The Internet grows from the center to the periphery. But very often, the costs of the new communication links, the ports, the leased lines, and all the associated hardware and software infrastructure, are fully paid for by the periphery, in addition to the various one-time and monthly fees charged by the center. Yet, while the periphery requesting the connection shoulders its full cost, both sides benefit from the connection, the center possibly getting even more benefits because it has more users. In short, there is again a hidden subsidy for the center by the periphery. This occurred when the Philippines made its first Internet connection to the U.S. in 1994. It also occurred with other Philippine cities made their Internet connection to Manila. And again, when various towns connected to these cities. And this lopsided charging scheme continues today.

These bizarre subsidies for the rich by the poor will presumably be in place for all time, unless the free software movement and other social movements work successfully to “free the Internet” from these gross injustices.

This is what the third meaning of “free” is all about.

Greening the information sector

Social movements are beginning to respond to the specific issues involving the information economy. An illustrative set of responses can be seen in the programme of the Philippine Greens for a non-monopolistic information sector (Society, Ecology and Transformation by the Philippine Greens, 1997).

The Greens see the information sector as very important because of its special nature: information is a social good and it can be shared freely once it is created; and since information is a non-material good, the limits to material growth do not apply to information growth. The Greens consider their in harmony with this nature of information.

The following are the major elements of Philippine Greens’ programme for the information sector:

1. The right to know. It is the government’s duty to inform its citizens about matters that directly affect them, their families or their communities. Citizens have the right to access these information. The State may not use ‘national security’, ‘confidentiality of commercial transactions’, or ‘trade secret’ reasons to curtail this right.

2. The right to privacy. The government will refrain from probing the private life of its citizens. Citizens have the right to access information about themselves which have been collected by government agencies. The government may not centralize these separate databases by building a central database or by adopting a unified access key to the separate databases. Nobody will be forced against their will to reveal any information they do not want to make public.

3. No patenting of life forms. The following, whether or not modified by human intervention, may not be patented: life forms, biological and microbiological materials, biological and microbiological processes.

Life form patenting has become a major global issue, as biotechnology corporations move towards the direct manipulation and commercialization of human genetic material. Biotech firms are engaged in a frantic race to patent DNA sequences, microorganisms, plants, animal, human genetic matter and all other kinds of biological material, as well as in all kinds of genetic modification experiments to explore commercial possibilities. We much launch strong national and international movements to block these monopolistic moves and experiments, and to exclude life forms and other biological material from our patent systems.

4. The moral rights of intellectuals. Those who actually created an intellectual work or originated an idea have the right to be recognized that they did so. Nobody may claim authorship of works or ideas they did not originate. No one can be forced to release or modify a work or idea if he/she is not willing to do so. These and other moral rights of intellectuals will be respected and protected.

5. The freedom to share. The freedom to share and exchange information and knowledge will be recognized and protected. This freedom will take precedence over the information monopolies such as intellectual property rights (IPR) that the State grants to intellectuals.

A specific expression of the freedom to share is the “fair-use” policy. This policy reflects a historical struggle waged by librarians who see themselves as guardians of the world’s storehouse of knowledge, which they want to be freely accessible to the public. Librarians and educators have fought long battles and firmly held their ground on the issue of fair-use, which allows students and researchers access to copyrighted or patented materials without paying IPR rents. They have recently been losing ground due to the increasing political power of cyberlords.

6. Universal access. The government will facilitate universal access by its citizens to the world’s storehouse of knowledge. Every community will be enabled to have access to books, cassettes, videos, tapes, software, radio and TV programs, etc. The government will set up a wide range of training and educational facilities to enable community members to continually expand their know-how and knowledge.

7. Compulsory licensing. Universal access to information content is best implemented through compulsory licensing. Under this internationally-practiced mechanism, the government itself licenses others to copy patented or copyrighted material for sale to the public, but compels the licensees to pay the patent or copyright holder a government-set royalty fee. This mechanism is a transition step towards non-monopolistic payments for intellectual activity.

Many countries in the world have used and continue to use this mechanism for important products like pharmaceuticals and books. Compulsory licensing is an internationally-recognized mechanism specifically meant to benefit poorer countries who want to access technologies but cannot afford the price set by IPR holders, but even the U.S. and many European countries use it.

8. Public stations. Universal access to information infrastructure is best implemented through public access stations, charging at subsidized rates. These can include well-stocked public libraries; public telephone booths; community facilities for listening to or viewing training videos, documentaries, and the classics; public facilities for telegraph and electronic mail; educational radio and TV programs; and public access stations to computer networks.

Another approach in building public domain information tools is to support non-monopolistic mechanisms for rewarding intellectual creativity. Various concepts in software development and/or distribution have recently emerged, less monopolistic than IPRs. These include shareware, freeware, “copyleft” and the GNU General Public License (GPL). The latter is the most developed concept so far, and has managed to bridge the transition from monopoly to freedom in the information sector. In the personal computer arena, for example, the most significant challenger to the absolute monopoly of Microsoft Windows is the freely-available Linux/GNU operating system, which is covered by the GPL.

The first step in breaking up monopolies may be competition. But competition eventually leads to domination by the strong and those who can compete best, leading us back to monopolies. Isn’t it better to transcend competition and move further towards cooperation? This means a stronger public sector and sharing meager resources to be able to afford expensive but necessary facilities. In the information sector, this means building information infrastructures, tools and contents which are in the public domain.

9. The best lessons of our era. While all knowledge and culture should be preserved and stored for posterity, we need to distill the best lessons of our era, to be taught – not sold – to the next generations. This should be a conscious, socially-guided selection process, undertaken with the greatest sensitivity and wisdom. It is not something that can be left to a profit-oriented educational system, circulation-driven mass media, or consumption-pushing advertising.

[From Society, Ecology and Transformation by the Philippine Greens, 1997]