2x58: Fat For Purpose

Stuart Langridge and Jeremy Garcia present Bad Voltage, in which the summer break is over except that Jono is temporarily away, free software has some problems, and:

  • [00:01:45] Is the definition of free software still fit for purpose? We've got companies trying to solve the problem of "we pay to build a thing then AWS get paid for it" and people trying to solve the problem of "we sweat to build a thing then ICE get to use it", and both groups are doing so by looking at what the goals of free software are today, and whether current free software licences are still a good way of achieving those current goals. Matthew Garrett wrote some thoughts about this, and we have Opinions too, as we suspect will you. Give us your ideas on this topic at community.badvoltage.org.
  • [00:23:02] There is speculation that the UK government are offering up quotes to the media which use the key words from negative stories in a new context, in an attempt to push those negative stories down the search rankings for those words. Real life SEO to get bad stories out of the news. Andy Maturin flags this for a search for "boris johnson model" (attempting to push this story down the rankings in favour of this story)
  • [00:30:50] Gnome are being sued over a software patent ("a method that involves capturing a bunch of images, filtering them based on a topic, theme or individual, and wirelessly transmitting the filtered images to another device") which Shotwell allegedly violates
  • [00:40:08] The dating app maker, Match, are being sued by the US FTC for fraud for allegedly knowingly profiting from and sometimes augmenting the flood of fake profiles on their dating sites
  • [00:45:45] More on Google's determination to have a robot voice ring up restaurants and make bookings by talking to a real person: "Reserve With Google" seems to be the latest iteration of this plan, and it doesn't seem to work all that well

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One of the big flaws in using a public license to control usage is that the operative word is public, as in the license needs to be drafted in a way that applies to everyone. But that’s also obviously the draw of the licenses, in that you only need to think about it once and “the problem” goes away. The other problem is the “open source” schism that refocused the utopian views of making sure everybody always had software to the corporate-friendly “you should all make stuff for free that big companies can sell” ethos.
What might help, in theory, would be a license that compels contributing back upstream. That wouldn’t stop any code from being used to murder people, and Jeremy’s not wrong about mass murderers probably not drawing the line at not wanting to violate contract law, but insisting on transparency in its uses could at least be a better step than taking everything proprietary again. I know there’s at least one group out there trying to replace public licenses with “webs of trust,” too, but I can’t imagine that working on any level.
Regarding patents, I remember reading an interview (or similar) with Dan “VisiCalc” Bricklin, back in the day, where he complained about his inability to get a patent in 1983. He summarized his desire for software patents by pointing out that he would have been able to block Microsoft (for example), if his patent application had described a spreadsheet as an electromechanical device with pulley systems moving chalk around a blackboard. And I found that profound for two reasons.
First, if you already know that, why the Hell would you not write the patent application that way, since those are (for lack of a better term) isomorphic inventions. Second, if software (and other data-adjacent) patents needed to be explained using physical metaphors, that would more easily expose them as over-broad or not being novel. So, I wonder if Brecklin missed setting a useful precedent for us.

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The problem with “ethical” licensing is that the question fast becomes whose ethics? I believe that there was a small discussion around this back in the days of LugRadio because the original license of the Typo3 CMS stated that it should not be used for pornographic websites.

There are so many grey areas that you quickly end up in a situation where your license either offends a whole bunch of people who think that what they’re doing is ethical, or it just prohibits you from doing things with it that are already illegal…

It’s hard to imagine that any usable license would actually just say “be ethical,” for exactly the reason of a difference of opinion, but I would imagine the alienation of people who disagree about ethics is the whole point. The “free software isn’t sufficiently corporate-friendly” open source movement has pushed this idea that a primary goal should always be wide adoption, but that’s not for everyone.
It brings to mind an interesting point, though, as to what developers would do as they change. Using myself as an example, I unfortunately had some fairly right-wing views ten or fifteen years ago, so any ethical guidelines I might have created then, I would disagree with now, but any hypothetical licensing would still be there. (And there is code out there, which I made a big stink about releasing into the public domain, which I would never do today.)
But another interesting point occurs to me, here, that’s less this conversation: All of our computers (with some very limited exceptions) are built with child- and slave-labor by companies that pollute heavily and are (largely) designed to be discarded/replaced instead of repaired/upgraded. They’re mostly distributed by companies that mistreat workers. They’re networked through abusive monopolies. So, with an ethical license, where is the boundary? If a license says (something almost anybody would agree with) that the user can’t be involved with slavery, unfair market practices, or environmental devastation, who among us could use such software, given our limited market options?

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That, to me, seems like the same issue that hardcore free software types have, when it hardly matters whether your image editor is open source because what about the logo which was designed in Photoshop? What about the firmware of your CPU? The microcode in that CPU? The non-free chip design software that was used to design that CPU? Everyone has to draw the line somewhere; where that line is drawn may be different for different people. A software licence which was widely-enough drawn that its “not to be used by bad people” clause is invoked when used on a computer that a bad person has at some point handled is likely to be useless, so people are unlikely to write such clauses, I suspect.

Well, yes and no. My point in bringing those issues up isn’t that bad people get their stink on “legitimate projects,” but rather that it’s next to impossible to have a project that isn’t standing on the shoulders of gigantic unethical actions. And obviously, I’m picking the most extreme examples, but while there’s a line we all draw around where our responsibility (by necessity) ends, that makes licensing very difficult.
I mean, the license would need to encode that boundary of responsibility, to explain whether having child slavery in a project’s supply chain makes it unethical and whether complicity counts. A less hypothetical example would be Wayfair: Assuming (for the sake of the argument) that it’s unethical for Amazon to sell AI products to border patrol, is it ethical for Wayfair to sell bedding to refugee detention camps? If we take it for granted that, under some hypothetical ethics-based public license, Wayfair is acting unethically (as the employees who walked out over this think), is their CRM software ethical? Manufacturing software? The web server? What about a hotel that has a large contract with Wayfair?
That’s not to poo-poo the idea of public licenses with ethics clauses; I’d love for it to be proven that the idea is viable, as long as there’s some compatibility path (unlike the Creative Commons problems with commercial/non-commercial licenses), but it seems like a difficult problem and the gray areas are the interesting parts of it.
The free software arguments you bring up are similarly interesting, because they were largely dismissed due to economics (it’s expensive to manufacture microprocessors) and interest (a lot of Stallman’s early writing shows an active disinterest in anything that isn’t purely high-level software). And it’s worth pointing out that we’ve already seen the problem with not caring about the stack after the TiVo problem, and responses have ranged from stronger licenses (GPLv3 and AGPL) to increased effort to completing that completely open stack potentially down to something like RISC-V.

There is basically no point in talking about “better” (whatever that means) FOSS licensing when enforcement of the existing licenses has stopped years ago. The last case gpl-violations.org brought to the courts was ruled in 2013. Christoph Hellwig lost against VMWare in 2016, and back then many high-profile kernel developers spoke out against him suing VMware in the first place. The times of the FOSS world forcing companies into compliance and maybe even freeing some code in the process are over. FOSS is basically a Failed State - we might still have a legislative branch, but there’s no executive branch anymore. And many developers seem to be fine with that or haven given up, since permissive licenses are as popular as never before.

The “FOSS Legal Case Of The Year 2019” is not some FOSS project suing and winning against a large cloud provider, but GNOME getting sued by a patent troll. I think that sums up the current state of affairs better than I ever could.

The ethical software discussion is a very interesting one. While listening to the show, I was thinking of more obvious examples. Discourse (which powers this very forum), Mastodon or PeerTube, for instance, are all developed so that it can empower people to create online places for broadcasting your message. Discourse is under GNU GPL v2, Mastodon under GNU AGPL v3 and so is PeerTube.

I quickly checked the web pages of all these examples, and none of them mention anything about ethics. Does that mean their developers are naive? or simply for free speech at all cost? Maybe they just think that what is not ethical is not legal, in which case the laws that apply for wherever your instance of Discourse/Mastodon/PeerTube is hosted is enough… (it could be interesting to reach out to the creators of these software to have their point of view on the matter)

Then you have libraries or smaller pieces of software that do not do anything on their own (and therefore nothing bad either), but could be used by unethical groups. This is, I believe, extremely hard to predict when you are the developer of such a piece of software. What if @sil 's sorttable code is used by a group of people who love to torture kittens?

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