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…