Location: FRAW Main index » The 'Browser Alert!' campaign
This page provides some information about the issues of proprietary software, digital rights management and software patents, and some ways in which you can address the problems raised.
The Free Range electrohippie collective's campaign on free software and open information access. This is more than an issue about simple "ownership" proprietary rights are being increasingly used to restrict the our freedom of expression and communication.
Information technology, from computers to mini-disc recorders, is a tool that extends your creativity. It doesn't matter if you browse the Internet for learned articles, word process your poetry, or file share samples to create your mash-up music your creativity relies on the fact that the tool does what you want it to rather than what someone else believes that you should be able to. Today we have a problem. It's not just that proprietary software is becoming an increasingly "black box" environment, but those writing the software now wish to decide what you should and should not do with their programs.
For hundred of years, from the early master builders and painters onwards, people have copied and borrowed from each others' work and as a result the knowledge and creativity of humankind has been enriched. Today, in the name of protecting intellectual property rights, we are looking up knowledge using technological and legal locks to prevent not only illegitimate access, but also access which (for a paper copy) would normally be permitted under the law. Intellectual property rights represent the last, modern-day land grab of the "commons" and we will all be intellectually impoverished as a result of it. As Pierre-Joseph Proudhon once said, "property is theft" extending this principle to the modern day can't we fairly say that "all intellectual property is stealing our creativity" since we must not think or dream of using anyone else's ideas in case it offends their right to exclusively think it and charge others for the privilege of doing so too.
Not content with warnings and threats of legal actions, the intellectual property (IP) establishment are now ensuring that creative tools are knobbled to preserve their dominance over information/content. The Digital Rights Management (DRM) systems now being incorporated into the latest proprietary systems, such as Microsoft's Vista operating system or the BBC's iPlayer program, are there to make sure that you do what is in the interests of others, not what is in your best interests.
The most recent onslaught in the struggle for free computing is the development of software patents. These give exclusive rights to the producers of computer programs as if they were 'hard' technology like a car or a pen. What this means is the it is illegal to write a program that can read or utilise information that is generated by or utilises patented software. Even if you were to write a program just for yourself, the act of writing a program to read something produced or processed by a patented program is itself unlawful.
This might seem all quite abstract except for one important process the digital switch-over. We're currently junking all our old TVs, video recorders and radios in favour of now digital technologies. However, not only are these technologies patented, but much of the software involved in decoding the digital data is too. For this reason your options to read the digital transmissions are limited to what the patent owners choose. At this point you should know about something called the broadcast flag. This is information embedded in the transmission that tells your equipment whether or not it is allowed to record the information. The station/service provider can arbitrarily set the broadcasting flag when they want to stop you recording transmissions even though this interferes with your legal fair dealing rights for "private study and criticism and review and news reporting" (as defined in sections 28 to 31 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988).
In the modern world, or as politicians call it the Information Economy, proprietary software is bad news for everyone. It's not in our interests to support or use proprietary software and we should not do so where alternatives exist.... this is the reason you have been redirected to this page; alternatives DO exist!
They (the IP protection "acronym Mafia", centred around groups such as WIPO, FACT, or FAST) would like you to believe that there is no alternative to this state of affairs, but there is free and open source software.
Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, you'd immediately switch-over to using a wholly free, open source operating system such as Gnu/Linux (we'd recommend Fedora or Ubuntu in particular). For many people that's difficult because of the compatibility problems some people will experience, especially those who must use documents generated by Microsoft's Vista system. In general most of the things you do on a Windows system are do-able, but sometimes you need to download extra programs (but that can be an issue for those not used to playing around with their computer).
In the short term you can begin by looking at just a few simple steps and as the first three point below will also run on Windows systems the transition is less problematic (for more details see the Free Software Foundation's Software Directory site):
- Web Browsers
There are various free web browsers but the most popular is Firefox this has an easily downloadable Windows version. As well as getting a good browser, Firefox can be radically customised by loading a large variety of plug-ins that can perform different functions within the browser, some of which are made to work with specific web sites to make accessing data easier. If you like Firefox you can also get involved in promoting it through the Spread Firefox initiative.
- Office Suites/Word Processing
Again there are various office suites word processors, spreadsheets, etc. available for free software systems, but on Windows systems the simplest option is OpenOffice. This is fully compatible with most of the files generated by Windows systems, and provides the same functions and usability for most users. Also, unlike many Windows-related sources of help, there are many free, on-line sources of help, information and tutorials to get you started using OpenOffice.
What email programme are you using? Again, there are many different options for free software users, but for Windows users the simplest option is Thunderbird. The email counterpart to Firefox, Thunderbird offers much of the same functions as Outlook and is runs a whole lot better. Again, like Firefox, if you like Thunderbird you can get involved in spreading the message about free software through the Spread Thunderbird initiative.
- Finally of course, ditch Windows!
Your long-term goal should be to make the transition to a wholly open operating system. There are many examples of this happening and the benefits it can bring. For example the recent transition of the the entire French Gendarmerie Nationale to Ubuntu Linux; the police force is to switch 70,000 desktops over to Linux, two years after switching its browsers to Firefox, and three years after dumping Microsoft Office for OpenOffice (the is projected to save €7 million per year!). The Free Range Community-Linux Training Centre Project will be producing new resources to help people to install and use free software operating systems (see the J-series of publications).
Also, don't forget that this is "free software" that we're talking about you can quite legally copy the CD or DVD that you receive your software on, give copies to your friends as presents, and then encourage them to make the transition too!
The change of course will take a little time and effort, but the benefits in the longer-term (both practical and financial) will pay-off quite quickly. The difficulty in changing systems is of course the whole point about proprietary approach by locking users into the restrictions of specific programs or systems, by preventing them easily configuring their system to do what they want to, or removing any expectation that the user should be able to change how they run their computer, the proprietary business model de-skills the computer user and thus creates a situation where alternative options are practically impossible for the average computer user to consider. Looking at this relationship in its most simplest terms, proprietary software is a form of exploitation it demands that the user part with their money if they wish to continue using a program/their computer, either to get support or more/new software, rather than finding ways to solve the problem themselves or with the help of friends and associates.
Of course, this page/this campaign could be seen as an anti-Microsoft action. The fact is that all intellectual property rights are a problem. However, Microsoft, because of their market dominance and their use of a business model which stresses the need to lock-up intellectual property in preference to developing good software, are emblematic of this wider problem. In that sense, due to their demonstrable hostility to free software and open systems/documentation this is in essence, albeit not solely, an anti-Microsoft campaign.
The 'Browser Alert' tool (it's actually version 3 an upgrade of the older versions developed over the last few years years ago) will be formally released in the Autumn once we've evaluated it's performance on these new pages. At that point we'll release the code (under and open license!) so that anyone else who wishes to can include it in their web pages.
If you have any feedback on the 'Browser Alert' tool you can email the electrohippie collective firstname.lastname@example.org.