Law in the Internet Society

Think of "Free Speech," not "Free Beer"

-- By JianingLiu - 01 Nov 2015

Problems Arising with Proprietary Software

The primary problem accompanying the rise and increasing dominance of internet technology is that masses of people constantly using their software do not know a bit of how they actually work. And more unfortunately for human race, internet technology and specifically software provides great convenience. It is for the benefit of convenience that we have been deploying technology and software at the risk of ignorance and as a matter of fact, at the price of our privacy, dignity and freedom.

Since most people are literally ignorant of the technology and language in software, the monopoly in knowledge can easily translate into monopoly in business and industry. A computer installed with free software costs only $100 or so, in vast comparison with common market price of PCs using proprietary software. In addition, giant software companies would invest huge sums of their earnings in lobbying representatives in the Parliament and sustain their monopoly positions in return.

With the focus of business models dramatically switching from production to consumption and the dawning of Internet Era, online businesses, mobile-phone applications, networking software, and even search engines are sparing no effort to analyze and record every piece of information their users give out. They know what websites you have browsed, what books you have ordered, and whose Facebook pages you have been excessively checking. In this “producer-consumer” architecture, users are simply marginalized as passive recipients far from the center of power, and merely reduced to “eyeballs” which are the objects of commercial competition and the lamb of predating businesses.

Apart from exploiting and marginalizing their users, the worst thing is that the IT companies can work hand in hand with tyrannous government in strengthening control over its people. Government control over the Internet are commonly camouflaged as “analyzing big data” or “grasping the social graph”, but a quick example would be sufficient to reveal its reality. The Ninth Amendment to Chinese Criminal Law has come into effect since Nov.1st,2015 and rules that it is a criminal offense to “make up or spread with scienter fake notices or alerts about disasters, diseases or crimes through social media or other approaches”. Putting aside the question of defining “fakeness”, think about the question why prosecutors could easily find out the source and spreaders of a piece of information they don’t like.

Free Software, Intellectual Property and Copyright Law

Based on the social problems arising from and facilitated by the wide use of proprietary software, a group of pioneers have initiated the free software movement. Free software is software which grants permissive licenses to users that permit them to run, study, modify, improve and redistribute the software freely and unlimitedly. The basic principle of free software is to give users all the freedom they shall be enjoying and serve them in their own best interest instead of some others’ interests.

However, opponents are attacking free software as infringing on intellectual property and violating Copyright Law. These attacks are simply base-less. On the legal level, free software does not mean, and never means to abandon or disregard the copyright of any original programmer. Nevertheless, there is a different legal instrument for protecting copyright without restricting user’s freedom, which is “Copyleft”. Free software is not piracy. Free software also respects and protects the rights of original author (the copyright holder) and requires any modifier to be responsible for his own modification to the software so that the original author would not be liable for any potential damages resulting from modification. It is also permissible to charge reasonable distribution fees because essentially, free software is a matter of freedom rather than a matter of price, though it certainly will have an impact on the price since it breaks down monopolies of big software companies charging at above competitive level. The GNU program has described Copyleft in the following words: Proprietary software developers use copyright to take away the users' freedom; we use copyright to guarantee their freedom. It doesn't mean abandoning the copyright; in fact, doing so would make copyleft impossible.

On the ethical and philosophical level, “intellectual property” is just another meaningless phrase, and by labeling something as “property”, language plays a misleading trick to people’s conceptualization. Products of one’s intelligence can only be viewed as “property” in the sense that it should be prohibited to “steal” it,i.e. to plagiarize or to claim deceptively to be the original author or to use it for commercial purpose without permission. But notice that the above meaning can also be well conveyed if we use the phrase “intellectual autonomy”, which indicates the rights to be honored and the freedom to decide how to use her work as the original thinker. However, the misused word “property” has impliedly added an element of “profit” or “interest” to the intellectual work of someone, which is misleading and even harmful to the free spread of knowledge. The intrinsic quality of knowledge is sharing, not privatizing or profiting. Privatizing is not the healthy way of producing human knowledge. If we keep using the term “intellectual property” and preclude people from freely distributing, sharing and improving intellectual work by their peers, we are quickly cutting the throat of the production, refinement and innovation of knowledge.

In the End: Awakening the People

The technological and legal issues of replacing proprietary software with free software are relatively easy to be addressed, so the ultimate question lies in how to lead masses of people who are accustomed to the exploitative system of proprietary software out of the Plato’s Cave and see how the world could be better. As the documentary steal this film points out, this is a war of old privileges over inevitable, new trends. Yet it will take more time and efforts for civil movement to involve more people who do not care much about “free beer” but cannot live a second without “free speech”, and of course, the freedom to access and share knowledge.

In this version, we can concern ourselves with some formatting, and some substance. Why should the references be put in a list, when we are writing on the Web? Shouldn't they be links? You can see how to make a link when you are editing a page, by clicking on the link icons. Or you can read the documentation, which is always one click away in the sidebar of this wiki, in the TWiki web.

I think what you have said is factually correct, but I would rather have your own ideas than an accurate summary of what other people have said. Why don't we start with something in the first paragraph of the essay that is an idea of your own, and work from there? You state your view, assuming that we have all understood the ideas presented in this draft, whether we agree with them or not. Having stated your idea in the first paragraph, you can develop it, by showing where it comes from or how you came by it, and where it leads you. Your conclusion can then present a new idea or implication of your original point, that the reader will then work out for herself, to continue her thinking.

Yes. I have learned how to add links on wiki and revised the references into links so that it is easier to read.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

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r4 - 13 Jan 2016 - 06:12:30 - JianingLiu
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