Standing up for free software, a free Internet and a free society

Six years ago, in the fall of 2008, Alon and I started TurnKey GNU/Linux inspired by a belief in the democratizing power of free software (free as in speech, not beer), like science, to promote the progress of a free & humane society.

Last year's "summer of Snowden" got me thinking about what sort of role free software software (and by modest extension TurnKey) should play in taking back the Internet from those who would turn it from a tool of freedom into a weapon.

I realized many of us in the free software community had been lulled to sleep due to the tremendous success that free software has had in the past two decades. We won didn't we? After all the Internet, together with the free software that powers it, is one of the greatest victories for human freedom in history. Great! So nothing to see here, move along...

Except we only won a few battles. We didn't win the war. Our hard earned freedoms are now more than ever under intense attack. Powerful forces are continually plotting new ways of luring us into closed, centralized systems under their arbitrary control, tempting us (to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin) to give up essential liberty in order to purchase a little temporary convenience and safety.

This makes free software and the values it embodies more important now than ever lest the very technologies we developed with the dream of creating a better, more open, humane and egalitarian society be turned against us. We the people, need to take a stand.

With that in mind we recently began referring to TurnKey Linux as TurnKey GNU/Linux - to symbolically show TurnKey's solidarity with the core ideals spearheaded by the Free Software Foundation, founded by Richard Stallman.

Many have criticized Stallman for being too extreme and polarizing. For not bending his values to conform with reality. For being a hopeless idealist. In 1998, several such pragmatists founded the Open Source Initiative in order to rebrand "free software" as "open source software" with the idea:

To dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with 'free software' in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape.

To be honest, for many years I viewed this as a non-issue. A pointless semantic storm in a teacup. I considered "open source" and "free software" interchangeable and usually just defaulted to speaking of "open source software" with people who I believed might get confused by the "free" part.

No no, free software is free as in free speech, not free beer. It's about freedom, not price!

Using the term "open source software" sidelined the issue neatly.

Except it didn't. Open source was all about utility, a means to an ends.  Logos - as the greek philosophers would say. What end was being pursued didn't matter.

The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.

Free software on the other hand was all about values. Ethos - ethics, character. If you begin from the end, values are what you start out with. Then you set goals. After that you know where you want to go and you need to figure out the best way to get there - that's utility. Values are the roots, utility the leaves.

Richard Stallman does a good job of explaining the difference in his essay "Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software".

Values, above mere utility are at the heart of any worthwhile mission. It explains why we care about free software, our vision for the future, and why we're only just getting started:

Quoting from http://www.turnkeylinux.org/help/dev:

We want to work and play in a free Internet, under our terms, our rights and liberties intact. They want us depending on a nebulous "cloud" forever beyond our control, under their thumb, playing by their rules, trapped in a virtual panopticon that allows shadowy government agencies to spy and archive our digital thoughts in mass warrantless surveillance programs, turning the Internet from a tool of freedom into a weapon.

As renowned security expert Bruce Schneier puts it: "We need to take back the internet, and by we, I mean the engineering community."

A rare minority of would-be heros have the right combination of skills, means and motivation to fight back. Imagine if we could bottle up their IT superpowers and mass produce it into secure, convenient solutions mere mortals could use. Even experts would benefit. Discovering, configuring and testing combinations of free software components can be notoriously challenging, time consuming and inefficient, especially if everyone keeps reinventing the wheel by rolling their own solutions.

Update 2014/08/02: I expanded on the subject in a later somewhat controversial blog post that calls Ubuntu to take a more inspiring, values oriented approach to free software.

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Comments

Hi Liraz,

As always it is a pleasure to hear from you and Alon concerning your vision for TKLX. Positive passion always helps a community to grow and remain relevant.

While I applaud the sentiment of your post I am a bit puzzled as to the problems you are concerned about and how TKLX might address these issues. Your post had a slight post-beer rant character to it..."Powerful forces are continually plotting..." :-)

If I were to make an educated guess it would appear to me that you are concerned about the risk that Mobile Apps and Cloud Services will undo all the benefits that open source server-based appliances have created in the marketplace. Mobile Apps are proprietary privacy killers (e.g. http://threatpost.com/flashlight-app-maker-settles-over-ftc-privacy-alle...) and Cloud Services are proprietary non-portable customer locks.

If that is your concern...I share it. How can TKLX address these issues...TKLX Mobile and TKLX PaaS.

TKLX selected Ubuntu / Debian with TKLDEV / TKLBAM as an appliance platform for open source server deployment. I would suggest that is it time for TKLX to branch out and select a mobile platform and PaaS platform to standardise on. Perhaps PhoneGap (http://phonegap.com/ ) or Famous (https://famo.us/) and Cloud Foundry (http://cloudfoundry.org)?

Someone needs to start promoting a model for open source Mobile Apps and Cloud Services because there are few that I have been able to find. Certainly none that rival the maturity of the appliance-based solutions currently offered through TKLX. Try to find an open source PaaS equivalent to SugarCRM or XERO! Try to find ANY decent open source mobile App with a solid community behind it!

So for my vote...TKLX Mobile and TKLX PaaS.

As they say in Australia...don't swim against a rip (riptide), if you want to survive...swim with it. Just one man's two cents worth :-)

Cheers,

Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the feedback! Always insightful. There's the technical stuff (e.g., "TKLX", support for mobile apps, PaaS vs IaaS) and then there's the reason we do the technical stuff. Our mission. The values driving our passion. The blog post / beer rant was about the latter, not the former.

Which isn't to say that strategy and technical direction aren't important. They certainly are. So is being able to sustain and reinvest in the mission. As the suits say - no margin no mission. Thanks again for being a positive influence by helping us understand what our options and opportunities are in that respect.

But it's just that at the end of the day all of that is a means to an end, not an end in itself. There are almost an infinite number of things we could be working on, and we have to whittle that down to things we really care about so we've been doing some soul searching and we've discovered what we're really passionate about is the democratizing influence that we believe secure, easy to use free software solutions can have in decentralizing the distribution of power.

In a way, you could say we're free software Hacktivists at heart. We believe free / open source technology can be a force for good in society.

For what it's worth I believe the Snowden revelations pretty much proved the conspiracy theorists right. Powerful forces are indeed at work. You can't laugh that away anymore. That turns out to be the world we live in. They have been corrupting political committees, technical committees and even official standards. Conducting mass warrantless surveillance with no real oversight. Spying on everyone, including friends and allies. And this is just the US we're talking about. The leader of "the free world". I shudder to think what sort of abuses are being engineered in other, less free parts of the world.

In short we are in the midst of a massive drive by to "weaponize" cyberspace and it is just beginning. Many of us, including myself use the Internet not just to make a living but as an extension of our brains. It was never technically possible for the establishment to spy on everyone's thoughts before but thanks to technology we're getting very close to that now.

"They" can know everything you do on your computer, what you're searching, websites you visit, etc. "They" can turn your smartphone against you. Track your physical location. Listen to conversations in the privacy of your own home.

Any student of history should find this very frightening. The potential for abuse is mind boggling. Unfortunately I don't believe there's a way out of this by working within the political system. The way out is to fight fire with fire and fight back with technology that can't be turned against us.

That's why I'm passionate about free software, strong crypto, and decentralizing architectures.

Viva la libre revolucion! :)

Cheers

Hi Liraz,

I too am a man who believes in free software, strong crypto, and decentralisation. I also believe that the Internet is a global resource that will be fought over, like water, minerals, and forests.

The question is what we, the TKLX community, can do about it.

While I appreciate and support TKLX need for focus, I am also a lifelong follower and predictor of technology trends. And trends need to be considered if any organisation is to remain relevant for any length of time. Even, with respect, TKLX :-)

I believe the trend for open source enterprise applications is flattening, contribution is thinnng and, in some cases, the core contributors are ageing. Ohloh.net shows contributions for many of the established open source projects peaking in 2012 / 2013 with 2014 contributions significantly down (e.g. Sugar CRM, Orange HRM, etc). Maybe it will pick up again. One can hope!

Where might the developers be going...Cloud & Mobile!? Why...developers do like to go where the action is.

Why is this where the action is? Because SOHO ( Small Home Offices ) and small and medium businesses (SMBs) are increasing their technology adoption to remain relevant and small businesses need their technology to be invisible. SMBs are not interested in technology itself but rather the effect technology has on their business. Business owners don't yearn for software appliances...they yearn for a low cost, supported service that allows them to make money more efficiently, maybe go on that extra vacation they've been dreaming of, go home a little bit earlier, or maybe just remain competitive and in business in a hyper competitive global economy. That is the Cloud / Mobile promise they are being sold. And they will, as busy people are prone to do, give away privacy and flexibility for low cost, consumer-friendly technology.

In this environment Cloud and mobile Apps could easily become the norm at the expense of Application Appliances....for better or worse. Cheaper, more scalable, more consumer focused.

Don't get me wrong...I believe in open source application appliances as an option for those who value privacy and control of their destiny and I have centered my business around managed application appliances. But my services, and my SMB clients, are dependent on the open source communities continuing to remain interested in supporting those open source appliance-based applications...and supporting software is much, much less sexy than creating new cool software. I have had a lot of developers work for me over the years. Very few like to document, and very few like to support...they like to create. What if the declining open source contribution trend continues! What if Cloud / Mobile IS the future. I think this is worth some TKLX community investment on behalf of our client base. Don't you?

My concern you see is that the TKLX vision will get lost if the move to Cloud / Mobile surplants the Application Appliance world. My concern is that there do not seem to be emerging open source communities in the Cloud and mobile space to replace the aging open source application communities. Can we not do something to help turn the tide?

Just a thought :-)

Cheers,

Tim (Managing Director - OnePressTech)

Paul Wilson's picture

[Just registered to get around spam checker, and reported, so hope it doesn't repost]

Stand up for free software, yes, but please be both explicit and specific about exactly which licenses support -- and are thus supported by -- Turnkey GNU/Linux.  Especially since you recognize the distinction between free software and open source, as does Debian, of course.   Otherwise, frankly, it's all just hand waving -- a "beer rant" as you put it -- and a bit of a wobbly stance for anyone who has searched this site for 'license' on either the site search engine or Google.  Try it now.

TO DO:  

  1.  http://www.turnkeylinux.org/license (or licenses) looks like it's available and would be the most search-engine friendly location for a summary paragraph of TKL's GPL3 licensing of TKL additions to Debian.  [Debian sensibly uses 'licenses'; Ubuntu uses 'licensing'].
  2.  You have a free slot in your page footer under Features to link to that new Licenses page everywhere.  Licensing is most certainly a very important feature of Turnkey Linux, crucial to me.

How long could that take?  You can easily find and follow a good example &/or get expert advice (resources below).

When done, I'll happily update the Wikipedia page for added visibility of your important and finally realized stance.

Thanks for all your hard work and the very best of good intentions.  Now make it mean! GPL3: say it loud, say it proud!  And by all means propagate your preferrred name, TurnKey GNU/Linux, across the site.  It does make a difference.

Resources

Minimally, GPL3, for all TKL additions, modifications (state & link):

http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html

Model verbiage on free software, from Debian

https://www.debian.org/intro/free

Debian Legal on plethora of free licenses used in Debian (good link target):

https://www.debian.org/legal/licenses/

How do other Debian-based distros concisely acknowledge Debian-based licensing in plain English? Distrowatch has the links:

http://distrowatch.com/search.php?ostype=All&category=All&origin=All&bas...

Still stumped for verbiage and linkage? Try asking a question, or at least searching the mail archives, of Debian-legal:

https://lists.debian.org/debian-legal/

For instance, I'll bet there is a Debian package to automate extraction of all licenses used in each TurnKey GNU/Linux appliance.  But that would really be going above and beyond what is truly needed here - a simple declaration of TKL licensing, linked to GPL3, with summary of and hyperlinked reference to Debian licenses page.

Looking forward to a site-wide declaration of freedom!

Regards, Paul

"We should err on the side of openness."

Liraz Siri's picture

Thanks Paul. This is exactly the kind of detailed feedback I needed and was hoping to get in response to my post. If I'm not mistaken your's is the perspective of someone inside the free software movement looking out. Someone not indifferent to the not so subtle nuance between open source and free software which I was ranting about.

So thanks for helping to guide our efforts to show our solidarity & support for free software beyond beer rants. Like I've said before I've come to realize that the values of the free software are just an essential a contribution to society as its technical achievements and I'm looking for ways to back that up with action. Your comments regarding clearing up our stance on licensing (GPL3 FTW!) are a good place to start.

I've started pulling together various sources to put together a licensing page. As soon as I'm done I'll make the page public and add it to the site navigation.

Here's the issue on the tracker:

https://github.com/turnkeylinux/tracker/issues/246

Liraz Siri's picture

Hi Paul. It took a bit longer to get to this but I finally freed up an afternoon to follow your recommendations. I've created a license page that properly explains TurnKey's free software licensing. I've linked to it from various locations on the website, including the front page. Thanks for prompting me to do that. Additional feedback would be most welcome.

Paul Wilson's picture

Hi Liraz,

Definitely worth the wait. I very much enjoyed reading it and think you struck a nice balance between headlines and text, text and links, Debian and TurnKey, length and content.

I sent a few suggested copy edits, but wouldn't change anything substantial.

Great work!

Regards, Paul

"We should err on the side of openness."

Golimar's picture

TurnKey Linux doesn't have to be called TurnKey GNU/Linux the same way that Linux doesn't have to be called GNU/Linux. That's just what Stallman wants, but not agreeing with him is an option.

Any Linux installation has a great deal of code not created either by the kernel team or the GNU project, and they're not asking to include the name of their project inside the Linux denomination...

Liraz Siri's picture

You're right, if we piled up all the different subcomponents that make up a modern Linux system we'd end up with a very long name.

We didn't prepend GNU into the name for correctness. It's true that GNU makes up only a small portion of the source code. It's an act of solidarity with the free software movement. It's something that is supposed to get you to look twice and then maybe look up what GNU means and why we bothered to put that in there. From there you might reach the original manifesto Stallman wrote and learn a bit more about the free software movement including the ideology and values behind it.

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