Wednesday Dec 10, 2008

Celebrating Anniversaries

This has been a time for anniversaries. It's been 25 years since Richard Stallman started the GNU Project, 40 years since Doug Engelbart demonstrated the future of computing at "the Mother of All Demos." Both of these are profoundly important moments in the future of technology, but the anniversary I think is most important to celebrate - and which has appeared least in my news feeds this week - is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 10, 1948.

This document is one of the most important documents created in the 20th century, delimiting the unarguable rights of every person, and doing it in cool, clear prose. Flowing out of revulsion at the excesses of the Second World War, it sets a benchmark that is still vibrantly relevant to world society. For example, it makes clear that the Guantanamo concentration camp that the US is still running is abhorrent (see articles 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 - even arguing articles 3 and 28 implicitly allow it is dealt with in article 30). It casts light on the US wiretaps and the UK's surveillance society (article 12 supported by articles 7 and 11), on the TSA (article 13), on internet filtering (articles 18 & 19) and on so many more issues.

The more I look at it, the more convinced I am that this visionary document, born from the lessons humanity wanted to learn after the horrors of 1939-45, is a source text that can guide so much we're all trying to achieve. As we're working on the future, be it Web 2.0, rebuilding our political life in the west  or freedom for Tibet, I'm struck that the Declaration is a primary source document against which to measure our intent and action.

Friday Sep 19, 2008

Students and Software Freedom

It's Software Freedom Day, and among the many other volunteers around the world, Sun-sponsored students have been working hard on their campuses to prepare for the opportunity to cry Freedom! One of the questions that came up was why students should care about software freedom; here's the answer Lowell Sachs and I came up with.

The growing popularity of free and open source software offers advantages and opportunities to students (as well as developers, users, and budding entrepreneurs) all along the adoption curve. Many will already recognize that the future for society is one of digital liberty, where every user of digital technology is a possible creator, and where all creators in the digital medium are, by definition, users. The open source model fits in perfectly with this emerging reality. In fact, the remarkable success of open source is the result of a feature that is at once a key characteristic of the program and a fundamental pursuit of people everywhere... freedom.

Software Freedom

Many people, if asked to name the main appeal of open source software would reflexively point to the fact that it is free of charge, and thus a good way to save money. However, it is a different kind of ‘free’ that lies at the heart of the open source movement -- the freedom to acquire, adapt, tinker, develop and deploy code (applications) without the restrictions traditionally associated with proprietary offerings. All the best virtues of open source software are really derivatives of this kind of ‘free’ (as in liberty) rather than simply ‘free’ as in price … although the savings are certainly a nice draw as well.

On the academic front, open source software can serve as a real boon to the student looking to sharpen his or her skills or excel in a class. Those looking to build a career in IT will find open source software the perfect virtual laboratory to build skills or explore new ideas without the constraints and prohibitions that come with proprietary programs. Break it down, build it up, throw in something new. Hit a brick wall?... No problem. Try a different approach. It's yours to play with.

This freedom can come in as handy for those working on a supervised project as it will for those trying to seize a share of a new market. Looking for a little enlightenment outside of lectures? Open source software is there as well. It empowers independent learning by letting you tinker with the code on your own schedule and your own system -- no professor necessary.


Looking for an application that does what you actually need it to do? Gone are the days of having to hope that a large corporate player will develop and offer for sale a program that you want, only to discover that it is at a price you can't afford. And when you find it doesn't quite live up to the hype? No longer will people have to wait for expensive and imprecise updates or patches to fix their applications. When source code is shared and distributed freely under an open source license, anyone is allowed to use, modify and reproduce that code on a non-discriminatory basis.

With open source software you get to decide what to create and when to release it. Then your friends and peers can fine tune and improve upon it with the fruits of all this labor being offered back out to the general community... at no cost. Where will the next YouTube come from, or FaceBook or Wikipedia? It may just come from you. And now you don't need tons of capital and corporate infrastructure to launch that next great innovation. All you need is inspiration.

Transparency With Privacy

The emergence of open source promises a world marked by several digital freedoms -- the freedom to participate, collaborate, create, use and deploy. Open source communities can enable students to connect with each other and collaborate across the boundaries of geography and culture in a way that benefits all of society. Part of this emerging reality is a shift from the old model of security with secrecy, where lack of access to a program's source code often (ironically) spawned vulnerabilities and restricted choice, toward a new paradigm of transparency coupled with privacy, where communities can flourish while assuring quality and protection to their members.

It is a world of expanded opportunity, increased flexibility, and continual innovation. Keep your money - Release your ideas - Build a business - Launch a community - Start a movement! The barriers to entry (and exit) are down, new horizons are emerging, and the climate for innovation is more welcoming than it has ever been. Jump in!

Thursday Sep 18, 2008

Software Freedom Day Podcast

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of discussing Free software and Software Freedom Day with co-ordinator Pia Waugh, John Sullivan of the FSF and Jono Bacon of Canonical. The podcast has some rather nasty background noises caused by the telephone system, but some interesting conversation. Software Freedom Day is this Saturday, do join in - there are local events all over the world, including many sponsored by Sun!

[ MP3 | Ogg ]

Tuesday Feb 19, 2008

Document Freedom Day

Comma - Open

The news just went out that March 26 2008 will be the world's first Document Freedom Day, celebrating and championing the cause of true freedom for our data. You may recall that I wrote about this back in 2006 and also gave a speech at the European Commission. I coined the term "Freedom To Leave", referring to the liberty to take your data and go elsewhere uninhibited by DRM, closed interfaces or file formats that require a particular program for faithful reproduction and use.

I believe this to be the new front line in defending the freedoms of computer users. Richard Stallman's four freedoms are now driving the mainstream of software (especially here at Sun), and while software freedom is not yet a given, the next challenge for us is our freedom to own and move our own data anywhere, any time.

Defining Data Freedom

I believe there are multiple dimensions to data freedom.

  • There is the personal dimension - being able to take the data I "own" and use it with any software or service that's appropriate.
  • There is the historical dimension, ensuring future researchers have access to the electronic information that is driving directions in society today.
  • There is the commercial dimension, ensuring that data interfaces remain open, equitable and interoperable so that we have a fair yet competitive marketplace.
All of these converge on Document Freedom Day. I'll be taking time on March 26 this year to celebrate and campaign for each of us to have the Freedom to Leave, with our data - I hope you will too.


Thoughts and pointers on digital freedoms and technology markets. With a few photos too.


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