Thoughts on Wikileaks, diplomatic cables, and the future of journalism

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or otherwise intentionally avoiding news reports for whatever reason, you have probably heard something about Wikileaks (if down, try this IP address-based link) and its release of cablegrams between embassies which has sparked a huge controversy. In case you haven’t, or you need to be brought up to speed quickly (all from CBS News):

And this is of course just the tip of the iceberg. I could link you to all the press coverage, but I’d be here all night doing that alone before offering up my viewpoint on some of the things that have happened.

The publication of documents intended to be kept secret is a balancing act that at times makes a circus tightrope walker’s routine seem easy by comparison. I was somewhat familiar with Julian Assange and the Wikileaks site prior to the cablegram releases. However, I had not spent a great deal of time visiting the site on a daily basis. That’s about to change; suffice it to say that I will probably be writing about the material on Wikileaks on a semi-regular basis, especially since the latest release has threatened the site’s continued existence.

And I feel that is a shame. I trust Julian’s judgment, and I do not believe he or the others responsible for maintaining Wikileaks would release the 652 cablegrams marked “Secret” without good reason. From the FAQ:

US authorities have said the release may put people at risk. Is this true?

Wikileaks has a four-year publishing history. During that time we have released documents pertaining to over 100 countries. There is no report, including from the US Government, of any of our releases ever having caused harm to any individual. For this release we are releasing the documents in a gradual manner, reviewing them with the assistance of our media partners.

And later on:

What will the effect be on the Middle East?

One newspaper has alleged the cables might destabalize the Middle East. These cables, by giving the players an unvarnished description of how they are seen, there will be a common ground on which to effectively negotiate peace and stability. We do not see this as a risk of destabilisation, but an opportunity for stabilisation and reform in the Middle East.

While it may be embarrassing to certain individuals for some of the contents of the cablegrams to be made public, this is not the same as being “put… at risk.” Sometimes, journalism requires embarrassing a few people for the greater good.

Until and unless there is hard evidence that someone has been injured or killed as the result of a release of information in the style of Wikileaks (not just from Wikileaks itself, but from any other organization which releases information in the same style), I personally regard Julian Assange as more of a modern-day hero, unlike some who appear to call him a modern-day zero (or other choice words, including “terrorist” and a few things I prefer not to put here).

I believe Wikileaks and websites like it are the future of journalism. Granted, most websites placed online will not have content quite as controversial as the leaked cablegrams currently at the center of attention. However, there is no shortage of information which large corporations, governments, or wealthy and influential individuals want to keep secret, which should be made public. As said by Thomas Jefferson, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”

I believe the latest release from Wikileaks has demonstrated the saying “information wants to be free” has never been more true, and has shattered any remaining doubts that the Internet is just a passing fad. It matters little what Amazon, Paypal, the US government, and others that wish to try to censor Wikileaks do. In the long term, they are all fighting a losing battle.

I wish Julian and his partners the best of luck in continuing the success of Wikileaks. May freedom of the press win and censorship lose.

The MacOS App Store: starting down the slippery slope

As recently reported by Crunchgear, Apple likes the entire App Store concept so much it’s now rolling it out in the next version of MacOS X. It’s hardly an unsurprising move, however, that doesn’t make it any less dangerous from a software freedom standpoint.

While it appears for now that Apple will continue to allow software to be installed on MacOS X as before, I suspect it will only be a matter of time before this quietly disappears and MacOS becomes just like iOS (the iPhone/iPod/iPad operating system), where everything must be approved by Apple, and truly free software (as in freedom) is impossible. This is one more step down the slippery slope which started with the App Store in the iPhone.

Until and unless Apple proves by words and actions it is committed to the freedom of its users to use its products in ways not arbitrarily limited by Apple itself, I still maintain that Apple is the biggest threat to the future of computing freedom. The specific actions I am referring to would include the following, at minimum:

  1. Apple offers alternatives to the App Store on its “non-computer” products (iPod, iPhone, iPad) where such alternatives do not currently exist, without the requirement of “jailbreaking” those devices.
  2. Evidence of “jailbreaking” is no longer considered by Apple for the purpose of warranty validity while it is still necessary to run non-Apple-approved applications.
  3. The license for future versions of the iOS SDK is made friendlier to the free software development model. (I will clarify this in a later post when I get a full copy of the license agreement.) Ideally, Apple would release enough documentation to let anyone write an iOS replacement and load it onto any device which ships with iOS, and make the license changes retroactive.

Were Apple to do these things, I believe the world would be a better place for freedom. The fact that Apple will probably refuse to do any of this, speaks volumes about the true motives of Apple as a company and the character of such people as Steve Jobs. With this latest attack on software freedom by Apple, there has never been a worse time to buy Apple products.

Engadget editor shows us the “restrictions” in Digital Restrictions Management

I know, two stories from the same source. But this one hit one of my hot buttons a bit too hard to just skip.

Paul Miller, senior associate editor for Engadget recently posted about a nasty surprise that his Apple iPad had waiting for him. Instead of quoting the entire story I’ll do my best to summarize in bullet-point format:

  • Paul gets stuck in an airport with his iPad and buys a movie for $15 to pass the time (since his laptop battery is dead, the iPad was his only choice).
  • The download only gets 2/3 of the way completed before Paul has to board his flight.
  • Luckily his flight has in-flight WiFi. Unluckily for him, the port iTunes needs to access to download the movie is blocked (I have no idea how iTunes works so I’m just using the same terminology Paul did).
  • Paul finishes downloading the movie at home, and decides the iPad’s small screen is too small to truly enjoy the film. So Paul connects his iPad to his TV.

And… bam! The “Restrictions” part of Digital Restrictions Management kick in, and the iPad throws up “Cannot Play Movie / The connected display is not authorized to play protected movies.” Not surprisingly, Paul’s next move is to fire up a BitTorrent client and download an unrestricted copy of the same movie, which I would assume works fine.

The unfortunate part of Paul’s post is that he has bought into the misleading and loaded usage of terms such as “steal” and “theft” for copyright infringement. Unfortunately, that’s a much bigger problem and it’s not going to be solved overnight, or probably even this year. But that’s another rant for another day. That, and the fact he gets bitten by DRM on a device built entirely around DRM, that is a brick until it’s connected once to a copy of iTunes on Windows or MacOS, is an unfortunate non-surprise to the readers of this blog. (Oh, yes, you read that right! The iPad will not work without being hooked to a computer with iTunes at least once! More on that in a future entry, maybe.)

The reality is that the MPAA is overdue to “get it” like the RIAA did. The RIAA finally figured out that it made more sense to sell unprotected music files via Amazon and even iTunes than it did to keep using digital locks to try to keep the honest people honest. It’s a step in the right direction, of course those are still MP3 and most record companies still aren’t embracing WAV/FLAC downloads (which I could understand being a little more expensive per track, but which I would actually buy).

But the MPAA has held onto “lock it down with more DRM” like a stubborn mule. Why, I don’t know. Movie producers and studios are finally grasping the concept of digital cinema, but a good many productions still originate on 35mm film. The new age is the digital age, an age of non-scarcity, where we can have as many copies as we want. DRM is a failure. Shame on you, MPAA; it’s time to let your obsession with DRM go.

Looking beyond the numbers: the worm in the Apple

This is a long overdue post about Apple and what exactly they mean for the future of computing freedom. I’ve touched on several of Apple’s dubious stances on computing freedom in the past, but this recent Fast Company article has provided new inspiration (and to be fair, it is not the only such article of its type).

Most telling is this particular quote from the article (around the third page):

For Apple, the ideas of closed and free aren’t in conflict. “We’re just doing what we can to try and make [and preserve] the user experience we envision,” [Apple CEO Steve] Jobs emailed Gawker blogger Ryan Tate, who had baited the CEO in the wake of Apple’s decision to ban Flash from the iPhone and iPad. “You can disagree with us, but our motives are pure.” The App Store, Jobs wrote Tate, offers “freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.”

Let’s look at this closely, particularly the Steve Jobs quote, “We’re just doing what we can to try and make [and preserve] the user experience we envision.” Taken on its face it doesn’t seem evil. However, rephrasing and reading between the lines gives us something more like “We’re just trying to keep total control over what we (Apple) give the user, because we know what’s best for the user.” In other words, buy Apple’s gear, forget your freedom, because Apple hates it.

The next quote, “You can disagree with us, but our motives are pure” is pure ego food. And the evidence is within the next quote, “[The App Store offers] freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.” This abuse of the word “freedom” is something I object to vehemently, as it is a use of the word to mean what is in fact the exact opposite. “Freedom from programs that trash your battery” means “Apple will not let you run this program on your iPhone or iPad if Apple in its sole judgement feels the battery use is excessive.” “Freedom from porn” means “Apple does not care whether or not you want to view porn on your iPhone, Apple is going to step in like a big nanny and say you can’t have it there.” “Freedom from programs that steal your private data” means “Apple will never let you look at the source code for an iPhone or iPad app and will make it well-nigh impossible to release an app under the GPL or a free software license. Trust us, we’re Apple, we’re bigger than Microsoft now, and that means we’re smarter than you, even if you have an IQ high enough to get into Mensa.”

Mr. Jobs has no idea what true freedom is. Freedom means the user, not Apple, is in charge. Specifically, quoting from the FSF’s free software definition:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Apple’s DRM on the iPhone and iPad squashes freedoms 2 and 3. Lack of access to source code means Apple’s customers don’t have freedom 1 either. Apple can step in and erase programs off your iPhone or iPad, so technically its customers don’t necessarily always have freedom 0, either. Indeed, Cory Doctorow sums it up nicely in this quote:

“If you want to live in the creative universe where anyone with a cool idea can make it and give it to you to run on your hardware, the iPad isn’t for you.”

But this is not the only evil of Apple. From further in the Fast Company article:

It’s not just Jobs’s consistent aversion to complexity that prompts him to say no. Apple thrives on high profit margins, and having the willpower to say no keeps production costs down. Eliminating features also helps build buzz. “The great thing about omitting a feature that people want is that then they start clamoring for it,” says [Glenn] Reid, the former Apple engineer. “When you give it to them in the next version, they’re even happier somehow.” Apple has pulled off this trick time and again, most recently with the iPhone OS 4. It includes multitasking, a feature that customers began asking for in 2007, intensifying their pleas after Palm debuted multitasking in its WebOS last year.

To be fair about it, this is similar to what other companies have done for years. It’s bad business to knowingly withhold functionality today, then release it years later under the guise of making it look “updated.” Indeed, this is why I’m glad we have companies like Palm around. Competition is a good thing, and despite the near ubiquity of the iPhone, it’s good to know choices still exist, otherwise Apple may well try to get away with evolution of phone features on its terms, not those of its customers.

Another tactic that definitely tests the boundaries, even if it isn’t outright over-the-top:

One example: Apple buys up all the bus-stop ad space near the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the San Francisco venue where it has held its recent events. It then switches its posters while Jobs is speaking. So this past January 27, when I walked into Apple’s iPad debut, the street ads depicted something old; when I left, there’s the iPad everywhere you look.

Do I have a thing against aggressive marketing? No, not at all. But there comes a point where aggressive crosses the line. This smacks of something Apple can do because of their sheer size, especially in their hometown. It also makes me wonder, with this kind of brute-force aggressiveness in marketing, how much of the retail price of an iPhone, iPad, or iMac goes to marketing and advertising expenses. Or in other words, if Apple cut back marketing and advertising to a more reasonable level, how much would the price of their products drop?

Moving on:

Apple disregards the entire concept of backward compatibility, which is both a blessing and a curse for rivals such as Microsoft. Over its history, Apple has adopted new operating systems and underlying chip architectures several times — decisions that rendered its installed base instantly obsolete. Jobs killed the floppy disk in the iMac, and he claimed that optical drives were on their way out with the MacBook Air. Now, with the company’s embrace of touch screens, Apple seems to be gunning for the mouse, a technology that it helped bring into wide use in the 1980s. Does this relentless eye toward the future always work? No. Jobs killed the arrow keys on the first Mac; Apple was forced to add them back in a later version, and it has kept them in all its Macs ever since.

While the 1.44 megabyte 3.5″ floppy disk has been doomed for years, with 2.88 megabyte floppies never really catching on, and even technologies like the 20 megabyte “floptical” or LS-120 failing to gain traction, it smacks of Apple playing nanny to decide to arbitrarily kill technologies. I don’t know what Apple was thinking when it got rid of arrow keys. (My original Atari did not have separate arrow keys, the cursor movements were on punctuation keys where one had to hold down Control to access cursor movement. Today, the arrow keys are a feature I could not live without on my PC.)

With regard to touch screens: while Apple may be in love with them, they are not for everyone. I can’t imagine playing a first-person shooter game with a touch screen, for example; the mouse has been firmly entrenched as a part of gaming ever since the original Quake in 1996, and almost a decade and a half later, it’s hard to imagine an FPS without it.

There are many parts of the original article I did not comment on in an attempt to keep this somewhat short. And this is far from the only article of its type. I am not distracted from the truth by Apple’s scant few contributions to free software projects; I am disturbed, not reassured, by the fact CUPS was taken over by Apple almost three years ago. I am grateful for the decision by Michael Sweet to license CUPS under the GNU GPL, a decision which protects user freedoms and, quite likely, annoys Apple to no end.

Apple is a liability, not an asset, to the future of computing and technology, even more so than Microsoft now. I’m not sure how to right the ship; all I know is it’s sinking further with every new Apple device (particularly iPhone and iPad) sold.

The proprietary software cartel and the IIPA

Russell McOrmond’s blog entry on Digital Copyright Canada chronicles a recent statement by the IIPA (International Intellectual Property Alliance, a name which should have been avoided due to obvious bias). The IIPA attacks legally free software in their submissions to six different countries.

Now, having a legally free alternative to something like Microsoft Windows or Adobe Photoshop would in and of itself discourage infringement of those companies’ copyrights, particularly in countries where the economy simply cannot sustain the same (ridiculous, in my opinion) licensing fees as those charged in the US. As Russell states in his post:

The fact the IIPA is encouraging countries to have policies which increase infringement rather than have people switch to competing software is telling about their actual goals.

The idea of computer users having freedom is anathema to Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, and other members of the proprietary software cartel. The prevalence of terminology like “open source” only serves to underscore the real problem: lack of comfort putting words like “free software” and “freedom” out in the open where they belong.

The proprietary software cartel thrives on this kind of thing; even Microsoft has thrown a few bones to the “open source” crowd, including their own hosting site Codeplex (a rather poor replacement for Sourceforge, with click-wrap licensing on the download pages that is gratuitously incompatible with non-Javascript browsers). Microsoft has also taken advantage of the confusion to release certain programs under licenses which look very similar to free software licenses, but which in fact require the derivative works to still run under Microsoft Windows. This is the danger of “open source” as these licenses no doubt would qualify under a layman’s definition of the term “open source” yet violate the core principle of the free software movement.

I had high hopes for Adobe truly freeing Flash after it acquired Macromedia (the originators of Flash). Instead, Flash is just as locked up as it always was. Thankfully PDF has not suffered the same fate–yet.

Indeed, the cartel which prospers by taking the freedom away from computer users would rather see those users give up their freedom and not pay the license fee, than choose freedom and use software not controlled by the cartel. It’s not unlike the drug pusher that offers the free hit.

And I know this is a bit of a tangent, but this is what burns me up about companies like Microsoft being allowed to pay off judgments in product; this plays right into their hands and is practically a reward for breaking the law. The next time Microsoft loses such a case, how about a judgment requiring a donation to the FSF and computer hardware shipped either with a GNU variant or without an operating system? For Adobe, how about a required donation to the GIMP and Inkscape development teams? You get the idea. That will be a deterrent.