In a recent article posted on GNU-Friends (1), Richard Stallman evaluates the state of the Free Software movement and considers what efforts need to continue. He explains that while there have been major successes, there are many companies that support free platforms but not their philosophy by providing them with non-free software. He calls for continued vigilance and efforts to convince more people of the importance of freedom. Stallman's points are well taken, but based on his title I'd hoped to read more about the ways in which free software developers and advocates could expand on recent wins and fend off pending assaults.
I've read numerous articles predicting that 2004 will be the year GNU/Linux systems solve the remaining desktop usability issues. I've been exclusively using variations of the platform for a few years now, and find the usability concerns fairly weak. I've no doubt these predictions will prove accurate.
In recent months, I've twice encountered non-technical people who, "wish they used Linux," not because they had encountered a GNU/Linux system but because they "like the idea of it." One of them actually talked about the freedoms the Free Software Foundation seeks to promote in layman's terms: "I like how it's done collaboratively, and anybody can just jump in and do stuff to it, and you can just give it away for free." Though one might wish for a deeper understanding, it seems to me the principle is catching on.
For the immediate future, as a platform and a concept, Free Software is coming into its own. What remains for general acceptance requires only a continuation of existing efforts. For this reason, it's time to assess the possibility of future assaults and prepare for them.
I recently stumbled across The Digital Imprimatur(2), by John Walker. His is a very involved article that attempts to extrapolate the future Internet based on current trends and development efforts. The system Walker anticipates is, from a consumer perspective, blissfully secure, convenient, and sanitary. From a free person's perspective, it is about as grim as one can imagine.
Walker's premise is that the egalitarian and anarchistic structure underlying the Internet is what made it the the powerful, paradigm-shifting tool that it is today. Unfortunately, that structure also allows spam, identity theft/fraud, worms, copyright infringement, child-pornography, and various other criminal and undesirable activities (all of which have parallels in the real world). In addition, the Internet is a tool that destabilizes existing power structures in the real world. Big media, big government, and (I'd add) big software stand to lose a lot if they can't control all the keys in the information age. It is likely that these problems will be used to convince and coerce people into giving up most of their freedoms. The Internet Walker fears is one in which all activities which are not specifically sanctioned will be technically unfeasible. Easy commerce will be in. Free speech and innovation, at least for the common user, will be out.
It is hard to believe that the future will come to pass in quite the way Walker worries, but the essential question is being asked in many areas of American life today. Americans are now told daily that for the sake of our security, we need to give up our freedoms. Consider briefly the two PATRIOT acts, the DMCA, CAPPS II, Homeland Security, orange alerts and the like, and it becomes quite clear that this is neither a unique nor passing trend. We should anticipate the same will apply online as it now does off. Trusted Computing is in the works, and it fundamentally targets our freedom.
Fortunately, the Free Software movement can see this round coming and need not wait to play catch-up. Priority number one should be to solve those issues which will be cited as cause to sacrifice freedom before the non-free solutions come forward.
For example, we know Microsoft is working on a way to foist the cost of email onto the sender, such that spam becomes a strictly not-for-profit proposition (3). From their history and what they describe, we can guess that the next "MS-Mail" system will be designed to keep Free Software out. Yet surely the same benefits could be had in a way that maintains freedom and keeps power decentralized. Suppose the GNU project were to develop and implement a protocol that similarly allowed system administrators to create a small time cost for incoming "GMTP" connections (4). We could have a situation where Microsoft is trying to sell a solution to an obsolete problem, revealing just how much freedom proprietary systems cost users in the process.
I think there are other areas where the GNU project could usefully seek to entrench their ideas through technical achievement (5). My guess is that spam is the most immediately relevant to the average user and requires the least and most distributable amount of effort. The important point is that the GNU project and others in the Free Software movement need to take advantage of growing acceptance, and the lull before Trusted Computing, to secure their position against future assaults and innovate free solutions that will give them the upper-hand when the next upgrade cycle is initiated.
(1) The Free Software Community After 20 Years: With great but incomplete success, what now?
(2) The Digital Imprimatur
(3) The Penny Black Project
(4) I don't want this essay to be about the viability of my daydream "GMTP" system. Thanks to footnotes, here are my $.02: Secure/stable, allows administrators set criteria for accepting connections, a mechanism for user feedback, easy to configure and run on a home user's computer (survives NAT, forward looking w/re: IPv6), compatible with POP/IMAP clients but not necessarily SMTP if that allows even one cost-free spam ever. I'm guessing backward compatibility with SMTP can be sacrificed if server configuration can be made easier and faster than continuing to fight spam the normal way. Encrypting message contents over the network and allowing the development of a distributed trust system akin to PGP social networks would be fine extras.
(5) I realize the principle of freedom is more the point than good programs, but the principle needs an effective strategy if it's going to hold up to coming challenges.