Freedom

For two terms now I have lugged the PC from my house and set it up with speakers and a largeish monitor to give a movie show to the students. What they were watching was Revolution OS: a history of the development of the Linux operating system and also, I think more importantly, of the Open Source software movement. I show the students in Stages IV and V who are studying Unix I and Unix II classes. We use Linux to teach these classes and the teachers mention the history of Linux and how it is developed. When I show the movie I ask the students to answer two questions which I write on the board before we play the movie.

The first question is:

Who is Linus Torvalds; what did he create; why is it important?

The second question is:

Who is Richard Stallman; what did he create; why is it important?

They get to answer the first one before the movie starts (usually while we fix last minute technical problems with the computer we’re showing it on). The second one they answer after the movie has played. They normally say that Stallman created “The GNU Operating System” but that’s just software. The Important thing he created was the GPL, the licence under which all that “free software” is created and distributed. It is also the inspiration behind the licences that enable the existence of the Creative Commons. Stallman makes the point very clearly in the movie that his work is not about “free software” but about **freedom**. For a country enslaved by poverty; one in which people are struggling to keep up by looking for handholds on the back of the IT bandwagon as it speeds past, freedom is very important.

We have to use my computer because it is the only one here that has a DVD drive (thanks Chris!). A couple of laptops here have DVD drives too but they run MS Windows and don’t hafe DVD playing software. So on my Linux box we use MPLAYER software — an open source media player — to show the DVD. I had a look at their site today hoping to download a recent version for a colleague who has recently switched to Linux at home. This is what I found!

Because of the close relationship that now exists between computers and our civilization, and because of the way in which that relationship is likeley to become closer and more of a dependency, the freedom that Stallman talks of is vitally important. Disallowing a bunch of hackers to make free video software might not seem like a big deal, but it is. When modern campaigns of war are waged, TV stations are among the first targets. Control of the media is control of political power. We are getting more and more of our media from the Internet. Imagine having no choice about what you watch. That media player software is part of the medium, the software patents they complain of on that site (you haven’t read it yet? go read it now!) exert control over the medium of communication itself.

What if, for example, all legal media players had built-in censorship features. Its not hard to imagine: something to help you keep your family away from Internet porn, for example. But once in place it wouldn’t be hard to extend it to only show media of approved content where the approval in question could come from governments or large businesses (the distinction between which is becoming less and less clear especially since GWB got reelected). This is not just about saving a few bucks on the price of a product licence, its about choice: choice of what operating system to use, choice of what media playing software to use, choice of what TV programmes to watch.

11 Comments

  1. Chris Says:

    Apparently the EU just rejected the software patents bill (This doesn’t make s/w patents go away though, it just means there’s no EU harmonisation on them. Still, it’s probably a step in the right direction and sends out a message.)

    Since I’m in Edinburgh I should probably plug Indymedia’s coverage of the G8 and Make Poverty History Protests

    Control/independence of the media is indeed an absolutely crucial aspect of today’s political life. I mentioned to Mark that a Kenyan journalist was covering the G8 in the British) Guardian newspaper – he’s also writing a blog for the BBC

    BTW, DVD players (and most player software) already *do* include censorship in a way… the Region codes developed by Hollywood to allow them to control the markets for their movies are one example which I find infuriating to say the least. On a Mac you’re allowed to change the region of the DVDplayer application a maximum of 5 times. Ever. This means that if you own DVDs from outside “your” region (in my case, region 2 = Europe) then to be able to play them more than a couple of times you’re forced to resort to subverting the region codes, which means you’re breaking the law in some countries.

    The fact that Hollywood can dictate to us what we are ALLOWED to do with their products after we’ve bought them is bad enough. But worse than that they’re dictating what’s acceptable use of the ENTIRE technology (DVDs). Worse still, by extension this also regulates how we’re allowed to use OTHER PEOPLE’S CONTENT. It’s almost too ridiculous to believe. (Thank goodness some independent-minded media producers release their DVDs without the region codes.)

    This is why the struggle for open source, free culture etc. is so important. The “War on Piracy” is mostly a cover for the multinational media mega-corporations to protect their vested interests and allow them to control the means of production, distribution and consumption. Which means they also smother anything that might threaten their status quo.

    uhhh, didn’t mean to rant!

  2. natty Says:

    We only just got our power back on after the hurricane a few days ago. Are all you Londoners ok? Everyone accounted for?

  3. Mark Says:

    Hey Natty, Any losses from that hurricane? I have taken your advice and when I couldn’t get a good story (about the bombing of several tube stations and a bus in London, for anyone who hasn’t heard) from bbcnews, I ended up at plastic.com.

    Its frustrating to be this far away but clearly it wouldnt be any better to be there. I know I wont get a good story until the evening news on the world service, but I want to read something.

  4. natty Says:

    We’re fine, no losses from hurricane. Very small, barely a hurricane when it hit us, so small in fact that the national weather service didn’t officially declare it a hurricane because of the cost and emergency response difference. Lots of down power lines (high tension line on our block got felled by a sweet gum tree at 1 in the morning and exploded, then grounded on the water main, which also exploded, so we had little geysers coming up through the cracks in our street. Mostly just raking up all the debris and cleaning out all the food in the fridge because it went bad. Couple of parishes south of us flooded, nobody can get in or out of Port Foucher because a few shrimp boats got loose and rammed into the big bridge. May have to evacuate this weekend for Hurricane Dennis, though, we’ll see. Going to hit somewhere between here and Pensacola. Again. May be a CAT 3.

    The truth is really slow to come out in situations like these. I remember all the rumors running around the internet and news stations during September 11th. Plastic and Fark.com are interesting ways to talk to people there quickly and hear how things are going. I can’t stand to watch the American broadcasts at the moment because they’ve gone so far off the deep end. The attack is in London, but they’re doing anything they can to spin it to how it affects America. Are American transport systems safe? Are they next? Is something going to happen here soon? Is the president ok? What does the president say about the attacks? Were any American tourists killed? You almost can’t get anything about London itself. Self-absorbed ratings grabbing fuckers. Thank God I’m a print journalist.

  5. Chris Says:

    Bombs and hurricanes, crikey what a day…

    Given that I was travelling on the tube there only 2 days ago I spent most of the morning in shock, moving through fear and anger and all the rest. Since I’m moving to London at the end of September I’ve doing my best to be stoical. Hope Drew and Mithi and any other Londonites who inhabit this blog are all OK, as well as their families and loved ones.

    Not sure what your problems with BBC were Mark, but that was how I spotted the story this morning, about 45 minutes after it happened. I’d just finished sending you an email and then went back to the BBC site, which I read several times a day, and the story had appeared at the top.

    They’ve been updating the stories throughout the day and reporting information as it became available. The
    news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4659511.stm”>”reporters’ log”
    was a kind of mini-blog being updated by a bunch of BBC reporters… there are still updates coming in now (21:25 BST Thursday). Current toll is 37 dead and 700 (seven HUNDRED) injured. We’re amazingly lucky the death toll isn’t much higher. From what I saw on the news and what everyone was saying, the emergency services have been amazing — the contingency plans they’ve all been rehearsing were put into place immediately.

    Apparently Princes St (main street in Edinburgh) was cordoned off today due to a suspect device on a bus. There were certainly loads of extra police in town today – 3 or 4 on every street corner.

    What a shocking and terrible day….

  6. Mark Says:

    I didn’t really have a *problem* with the BBC as such. The story was there but it didn’t say anything. There was news but no news. A photo of a bus that someone had tried to turn inside out without first removing the passengers and some interviews with people who thought they knew something. It was just frustrating not to know. Interestingly the first thing I read on Plastic.com was:

    "Not much is known, and news outlets are careful not to be using the T word."

  7. Chris Says:

    AFAICS you were getting all the information that was known, then. I watched TV for a few hours and all that changed was that it became clear how many explosions there were, and the number of known casualties rose.

    Blair said it was terrorists as soon as he made a statement (12 noon), and is quoted as saying so in the link you quote on plastic.com, so "careful not to be using the T word" is wrong. It was pretty obvious to everybody anyway.

  8. natty Says:

    Well, the difference between the BBC and American news networks are the American networks are on 24 hours every day. They’ve gotten in the really bad habit of leaping on every rumor and speculating to themselves on the air to fill airtime to keep people tuned to the channel, which in a lot of cases can be irresponsible. It’s just one big game of telephone with the media involved. The BBC was apparently waiting until they had everything absolutely confirmed before reporting it, which was frustrating in the other way because they were still calling it a power surge while it was pretty obvious to everybody that bus had blown up.

    PS: got an email from Tim this morning, all is well with him.
    *

    *

    Dennis is a huge Category 4 with sustained winds of 150 mph, that’s about 5 mph more than the one I managed to survive when I was a kid (Hugo in Charleston). Dennis slowing down and jogging west underneath Cuba, so all of the models just swung back in our direction. I think we’ll be evacuating by tomorrow, Mayor Nagin doesn’t mess around with these things. God, I’m getting tired of having to do this at least once a year…. At least the city has tried to fix the evacuation flow this year, maybe this one won’t be as much of a disaster as the one for Ivan was last year.

  9. Chris Says:

    Natty, we have BBC News 24 as well. Maybe there might also be one or two other small differences… 🙂

  10. natty Says:

    Well, in short, CNN used to be Ted Turner’s baby when he created it 25 years ago. He let it lose money as long as it was respectable. Then they became a part of time warner. Then Time Warner merged with AOL. Ted Turner out, AOL bean counters in. Enter Ruper Murdoch’s FOX News Netork, complete right wing trash news as you would expect. FOX gets higher ratings, so they make more money with commercial slot sales. AOL forces CNN to mimic FOX, NOT a good thing. Plus, 9/11 happens and all news networks realize fear is a powerful way to keep people watching, that and sensationalized stories. This is why we get crap like the Natalee chick missing in Aruba for three months, or little girl kidnappings, or shark attacks. Or the Michael Jackson trial. Or the Lacy Peterson missing/death/long drawn out trial coverage. When you focus on these stories and refuse to report on anything else, there’s nothing else FOR you to do except repeat every unsubstantiated rumor and make up shit as you go along to fill airtime.

    BBC=subsidized at least partially, yes?

  11. Mark Says:

    How **is** the BBC funded these days? :O

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