Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Saturday is Software Freedom Day

Updated 13 September: Locations of some of the activities.

SFD is being held this Saturday around the world – which of course means in New Zealand first – and all most of us will see of it is bunch of friendly people pressing CDs full of free software into our hands if we go to city centres and some shopping malls. But it’s about more than that.

The real purpose of SFD is to bring to people’s attention the the extent to which our lives are controlled by software over which we have no control and no visibility. How do you know that your computer doesn’t invisibly send an extra copy of all your email somewhere else? How do you know that the computers in your car, your library and your bank aren’t leaking information, or even exerting some control over you? This may sound like a paranoid fantasy, but it’s perfectly possible, and if you or your library or your bank are using closed source software, there’s no way of telling whether it’s actually happening.

In the US, many counties now vote in the presidential elections using voting machines, which are essentially PCs in special boxes running special software. The manufacturer refuses to release the software saying it’s a trade secret. So how do we know the vote count is fair?

In another example, someone being prosecuted in the States for failing a breath test recently demanded a copy of the source code for the breathalyzer used. The judge concerned forced the release of the code over the manufacturer’s squeals about its trade secrets, and the code was examined by an independent expert who concluded that it was pretty standard stuff but raised some concerns with how it was implemented. That example is important not because it might get one person off a drink-driving charge but because examining the code will make future prosecutions more accurate.

Anyway, if you come across some friendly people handing out CDs this Saturday, wish them well, and think about how open source software benefits us individually – being mostly free to use – and together, because of its transparency.

Update: Christchurch – the Library in Colombo Street, Beckenham on Saturday and Sunday afternoon – CDs, demonstrations and an install fest. Orewa – the library on Saturday. New Plymouth – Puke Ariki on Saturday. Check the website for more information.

posted by colin at 7:22 am  

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