Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Why Liberals Should Use GNU/Linux

Posted in computing, politics by Andrew Hickey on August 6, 2009

This is another of the posts that several people said they’d be interested in. Those of you who aren’t, blame those people. This is pitched at the most non-technical of people, so my apologies if this feels patronising to some of you…

Before I start, I’d better explain what GNU/Linux is, since many people won’t know what it is. About 25 years ago, a computer programmer and political activist called Richard Stallman decided that he didn’t agree with copyright restrictions, End User License Agreements and other things that stopped him sharing computer programs that he liked with his friends – he’d been brought up to think of sharing as a good thing, and also came from a scientific background and valued the free sharing of information. He also liked to play around with computers and disliked being unable to improve programs due to lack of source code (the human-readable form of computer programs which is how they’re written and modified).

Rather than break the law by sharing these programs without the permission of the copyright holders, Stallman, who seems to be rigorously principled to a fault, decided to make it unnecessary for anyone else to ever have to face this choice, by creating an entire operating system (an operating system is the set of programs that allows you to run your computer, like Microsoft Windows) and all the programs you might want to run on it, and make it all free (as in freedom) – anyone who wanted could share it with anyone else, and could make any changes to the source code they wanted. Stallman used something he called ‘copyleft’ (a term that originally came from Discordianism) to ensure that the programs would always be available freely – he copyrighted the programs, then released them under a license which says that you can redistribute modified versions, but only if you distribute the source code for your changes and let anyone else do the same. Stallman founded a charity, the Free Software Foundation, which was used to promote the creation of an operating system called GNU (which stands for GNU’s Not UNIX – UNIX being a popular operating system for business and academic use – GNU was designed to be as much like UNIX as possible, so people who knew one system could use the other, and so bits of GNU could replace the equivalent bits of UNIX and be used before the complete system was created).

Over the years the GNU project has managed to create pretty much everything one could need to run on a computer, ranging from compilers (the programs that you use to turn source code into programs you run) right through to web browsers or programs for typesetting music scores. However, one part of the GNU operating system remained unfinished. This part was the kernel – the part that communicates between the software and hardware. Ten years after Stallman announced the GNU project, a Finnish student called Linus Torvalds produced one. His kernel was called ‘Linux’ , and soon many people started referring to the whole system as that, as I do in speech, but the GNU project, who after all wrote the majority of the system, prefer the term GNU/Linux.

Anyway, what we have is a whole system of free software (which some people also call Open Source Software) – everything from web browsers to office suites to graphics software to games. All these are free to download, and you’re free to share them and, if you’re a programmer, to modify them and share your changes.

But why should Liberals, specifically, use Free Software and the GNU/Linux system?

Most people who argue for GNU/Linux do so on the basis of technical superiority, and as far as that goes it is a far better system, technically, than Microsoft Windows (I don’t know enough about Mac OSX to judge it, but that *seems* to be about equal to GNU/Linux technically – I could be very wrong though) , in terms of security (you don’t get viruses on GNU/Linux), speed, reliability and so on. But most people don’t really care about that – they care about playing their music, browsing the web, IMing with friends, playing solitaire, and you can do all those things equally well using any modern operating system.

Other people argue that all proprietary software is evil. I’m hardly likely to do that – I work for a proprietary software company myself, and I use a *very* small number of proprietary programs (the proprietary version of unrar for reading cbr files, a proprietary piece of firmware needed for my laptop to function, and Spotify until Jotify gets better playlist support) at home. If someone wants to use proprietary software and is willing to accept restrictions in order to get something they want, that’s fine by me.

But what I *do* think matters is the issue of freedom – and the issue of trust, When you are running proprietary programs you are essentially trusting the vendor that the program does what they say it does and only what they say it does. You are also giving up a lot of control over your own machine.

Apple, for example, will only allow programs sold through its own store to be run on the iPhone, and have absurd restrictions on what they sell there – such as cutting all the swear words out of a dictionary, and still only allowing it to be sold to adults. Now, you *could* always jailbreak the iPhone and install what you want on it – except that Apple are currently fighting in court to have that ruled illegal. Apple are actually one of the worst companies for this kind of thing, trying to make it illegal to run software you want to run on your own machine. They’ve tried the same thing to try to stop people being able to use an iPod without their iTunes software.

More disturbing, and more widely reported, is Amazon’s deletion of copies of 1984 and Animal Farm from their Kindle ebook reader – along with any notes the users had made.

Now, in all these cases you can argue that the people who bought those items entered into an agreement, and they know the risks – and that’s true to an extent. Certainly I wouldn’t suggest that what Amazon, for example, did was illegal. But almost *every* proprietary software license contains clauses that allow this sort of thing, and many programs have the technical ability to do these things too. Whenever you run a proprietary program, you’re ceding control of your machine and your data to another individual or corporation.

Which, I repeat, is fine if you trust them. But it does raise the all-too-real possibility of digital book-burning. Imagine that you buy a book to read on the Kindle, and the government, as is its occasional wont, decides that that book is naughty and should be banned. They can take out a court order to force Amazon to delete every single copy of that book in existence, knowing they have the technical means to do it. If a book is published only as an ebook – as increasing numbers are – then removing every single copy of that work in existence becomes a real possibility, realer than it ever has been before.

Or the government could get, say, Microsoft, to agree that any time anyone uses encryption software on its operating system, a decrypted copy of the encrypted data is stored on a government database – just to fight terrorism, you understand…

These things are real threats when you cede control of your machine to anyone else. By running free software, you have absolute control of your machine and your data – even if you don’t choose to take that control (as most of us won’t) in most ways, you know you have it and therefore others don’t.

In other words, GNU/Linux is based on the principles of free speech, is developed as a mutual, co-operative international project, adding value to the commons (and it is valuable – companies like IBM, Novell and Red Hat make billions from GNU/Linux while still giving back code which others can use freely) and protects the individual (to an extent) both against an overbearing state *and* against monopolistic corporations – could you really get anything more Liberal than that?

Now, even five years ago I wouldn’t have recommended any casual users use GNU/Linux. Back then it was very difficult to install software and get it working – it could take several hours’ struggle to be able to, for example, listen to a RealAudio stream. These days it couldn’t be simpler to install software – it’s certainly *much* simpler on GNU/Linux than on Windows. Say you want to install a program to calculate your menstrual cycle. You open ‘Synaptic Package Manager’ from the menu, click ‘search’, type ‘menstruation’ and you’ll be given a list of programs to choose from. Click one of them, click ‘mark for installation’, click ‘apply’ and voila, your menstruation calendar is now on your computer. Same goes for adventure games, databases, MP3 playing software, word processors, screensavers, video software, ham radio programs, Atari emulators, statistics packages, or anything else you could want for a home computer.

It’s so easy that my (completely non-technical) mum has been using GNU/Linux exclusively for a year now with no problems, as have my six-year old nephew and eleven-year-old niece when they visit my parents (my nephew loves playing Pingus). None of them have had the slightest difficulty doing anything they want on it (well, that’s a lie – I had to give my mum a little telephone tech support to get Yahoo! Chess working for my dad a week or two after she started using it).

There isn’t one standard version of GNU/Linux – rather it comes in ‘distributions’, which are collections of software put together either by companies or by groups of volunteers. Each distribution exists for a different purpose, because anyone can change the software to fit what they want. My personal favourite distribution is Debian , but some people seem for some reason to find that a little difficult. On the other hand a Debian-based distribution called Ubuntu is generally regarded as the best for beginners (this is the one my parents use) but is still perfectly good for more experienced users (my wife uses it, and she used to use Slackware, which is generally regarded as only for the most seriously technical people out there).

There’s also an Ubuntu-based distribution called gNewSense which contains only absolutely free software (Debian and Ubuntu both let you install non-free bits if there’s no free option and they’re needed to run your hardware). That might not work on some hardware , especially laptops, but if it’ll work on your system then you can be sure you’re running an *absolutely* free system (rather than just a 99.7% free version like mine).

Download an Ubuntu CD and give it a go – you can install it on your computer and leave Windows on there as well. It’s the Liberal thing to do…

12 Responses

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  1. Gavin Burrows said, on August 6, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    ”This is pitched at the most non-technical of people, so my apologies if this feels patronising to some of you…”

    Sounds good for me!

    ”Other people argue that all proprietary software is evil.”

    I never said a word!

    ”Most people who argue for GNU/Linux do so on the basis of technical superiority, and as far as that goes it is a far better system, technically, than Microsoft Windows (I don’t know enough about Mac OSX to judge it, but that *seems* to be about equal to GNU/Linux technically – I could be very wrong though)… These days it couldn’t be simpler to install software – it’s certainly *much* simpler on GNU/Linux than on Windows.”,/i>

    Damning with faint praise there! I thought it was generally agreed that open source software was more robust than proprietary, in the sense that it would crash in you less often, as bugs could be more easily fixed. But proprietary was more user-friendly, as that took a different set of skills. Plus the cohesion that came more naturally from a small, dedicated group than a wide but disparate community of dabblers.

    That’s an idea that at least makes theoretical sense to me. However as I use OSX and have never tried to use Linux in my life I’m unable to actually argue the point, or anything useful like that. (Plus in a way I’d like you to be right and me wrong, as that would rather enhance the first point I made.)

    ” (you don’t get viruses on GNU/Linux)”

    To be fair, hackers target viruses at the most ubiquitous systems. Which currently means Microsoft.

    Or the government could get, say, Microsoft, to agree that any time anyone uses encryption software on its operating system, a decrypted copy of the encrypted data is stored on a government database

    I’m probably being slow, but I thought this was already pretty much the case, as a key had to be offered up. Do you mean a personally devised encryption system, rather than a shop-bought one?

    ”He also liked to play around with computers and disliked being unable to improve programs due to lack of source code… By running free software, you have absolute control of your machine and your data – even if you don’t choose to take that control (as most of us won’t) in most ways, you know you have it and therefore others don’t.”

    I don’t think this is a facetious point to argue, how theoretical is this control? I don’t have a clue about coding, neither do most people, and that seems unlikely to change. There’s a genuine general question here, over how effective decentralism can be in a technologically sophisticated age, in a sense most of us almost have to take a whole lot on trust.

    • Andrew Hickey said, on August 6, 2009 at 10:19 pm

      When it comes to UI stuff, GNU/Linux is generally considered to lag behind Mac OSX, but companies like Canonical (the sponsors of Ubuntu) have been throwing huge amounts of money at the problems. It’s only my own opinion, but I would say GNU/Linux is at least as usable for the casual user as Windows (I’m not especially familiar with Macs so I can’t comment there). In comparison with Windows I would say it is almost exactly the same for the user who only wants to do normal home user stuff, there’s possibly a *slightly* steeper learning curve for those who want to , for example, run a server on their machine, and it’s then much easier for the people who want to do really complex or unusual stuff.

      The law in the UK currently says (as I understand it) that the *user* must hand over an decryption key, or any third party who possesses it. The user, however, can of course ‘accidentally’ forget or wipe such a key – assuming there’s no automatic system built into the software to supply it to the authorities. There is no such system in place, as far as I am aware (and I suspect I would be aware) on any free software encryption system. I have no idea if there is in any proprietary system, but it would be trivially easy to put such a ‘feature’ in at government request.

      And yes, the control is theoretical to a large extent, as even those individuals who *can* code (and I’m nowhere near good enough to make head nor tail of the vast majority of the code on my system) won’t have the time or inclination to look through all the code on their system. What you *can* know, however, is that several thousand people *will* have looked at the code for everything you’re using, and that those people will also be users of that code.You can’t guarantee that the code will be bug-free, but you *can* guarantee that malicious code or code that doesn’t do what it says will be picked up by someone, be it someone wanting to fix a bug, or a package maintainer for a distribution, or a large corporation doing a code audit before deploying the program on their systems.

      Possibly a good analogy is a comparison with the right to a lawyer. You hope never to have to call on a lawyer at all, and when you do you only have her word that the legal arguments she’s making are any good, unless you go off and study law for years yourself, but you’d rather trust a lawyer you know to be on your side than have the arresting officer conduct the defence…

      • Gavin Burrows said, on August 7, 2009 at 9:22 pm

        there’s possibly a *slightly* steeper learning curve for those who want to , for example, run a server on their machine, and it’s then much easier for the people who want to do really complex or unusual stuff.

        We have, I think, quite different definitions of ‘simple’ and ‘complex’!

        When it comes to UI stuff…

        User interaction?

        Possibly a good analogy is a comparison with the right to a lawyer. You hope never to have to call on a lawyer at all, and when you do you only have her word that the legal arguments she’s making are any good, unless you go off and study law for years yourself, but you’d rather trust a lawyer you know to be on your side than have the arresting officer conduct the defence…

        Pedantic reply, I think it is required to have at least a layman’s understanding of what our rights are. (Which is either getting easier as our rights get fewer, or harder as New Labour pass more ‘criminal justice’ laws, but that’s a rant for another time.)

        But I take your point. Perhaps a better analogy would be the way we expect scientific papers to be peer-reviewed. I’m not going to pore over them to study their methodology, and it probably wouldn’t mean much if I did. But having people who know their subject matter do that seems to me a good idea.

        • Andrew Hickey said, on August 7, 2009 at 9:25 pm

          UI = User Interface

          And you’re exactly right about the scientific review thing – like I said, most of the early Free Software people came from scientific academic backgrounds, and adopted much of that culture…

          • Gavin Burrows said, on August 8, 2009 at 10:42 am

            Thanks for the acronym clarifier, Andrew. (Please remember your blog has cheap seats!)

            I’m often amused by people saying that we need the market mechanism because it creates innovation. When you ask them for an example of innovation, they normally say “the internet”. When you point out the internet came out of scientific academia, and not business at all, they just look at you blankly.

            • Andrew Hickey said, on August 8, 2009 at 10:54 am

              Actually the net was originally a US military thing (you may be thinking of the web, which comes from CERN).

              But yes, pretty much all the *new* technological ideas of the last, say, 70 years, from atomic power to computers, have come from government-funded institutions, usually academic. And the few exceptions (the work of the Xerox PARC lab in coming up with the first computer desktop, the UNIX operating system coming from AT&T) have come from huge mega-corps that are actually not allowed, by monopoly rules, to exploit those inventions…

  2. Gavin Burrows said, on August 6, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    As proof of my poor coding, seems I can’t even italicise text correctly!

  3. Kancer said, on August 6, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    What about graphic design software? Photoshop, corel, etc..
    Does GNU/Linux have their conterparts or anything similar???

    • Andrew Hickey said, on August 6, 2009 at 10:25 pm

      The GIMP, linked above, which is also available for Windows, is supposed to be a replacement for Photoshop. Some professional graphic design people say it’s missing some important features, but I’ve never noticed anything I couldn’t do with it as a home user.

      I’d recommend anyone who’s thinking of switching OSes (switching between *any* two OSes in whatever direction) for work purposes investigate the available software *very* carefully, as it may be there’s some ‘industry standard’ feature that’s only available on one piece of software for one OS, but for the home user who just wants to crop a photo or create a banner for their website or put together a leaflet, the GIMP has everything you’d need. It *may* in fact have as many functions as Photoshop – I’m not a graphic designer, so I don’t know – but it’s definitely good enough for most people, most of the time.

    • Dave Page said, on August 7, 2009 at 9:52 am

      On the whole GIMP thing, I spent some time a while ago with a friend of mine who’s a professional graphic artist and compositor. We needed to do a fairly complex photomanipulation and only had GNU/Linux and GIMP to hand.

      I was far more familiar with the software than he was, but he knew what he was doing – so with him sitting there saying stuff like “We need to up the blue levels in the mid-tones” and me knowing roughly where to find the right option to do that, we got it done. He was impressed with the capabilities of the software, because he wasn’t put off by the learning curve of a new UI.

      I believe that the main features preventing GIMP from professional use were CMYK support and handling RAW images, and I think both of these have been addressed.

      Other free software (most of which is available for proprietary operating systems as well) include the Scribus desktop publishing package which I use to produce Lib Dem material, and Inkscape for vector art.

  4. Kancer said, on August 7, 2009 at 10:15 am

    Thanks for the answers. Will look into it

  5. dave@convertechs.com said, on June 16, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Thanks for the article! I am actually going to be handing out Linux (ubuntu) install discs at NetRoots Nation this year in San Jose and will be handing out a short piece covering some of the basic technical aspects along with a lot of the concepts you bring up here about how the Linux community represents progressive values.


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