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.

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