ACTA and SOPA are great!

<originally a Dutch column>

Socially aware people are, often justifiably, very good at moral indignation, but they just as often display a touching naivety. I recently watched with some surprise the American Occupy activists who were shocked (shocked I tell you!) as policemen (or university rent-a-cops) launched unprovoked attacks using batons and pepper spray.

It is indeed despicable that these officials use so much violence. But if people are still shocked by this in 2011, one has to wonder where they’ve been hiding for the last 10 years – have they not watched the news? Did they think that they could let stolen elections, illegal wars of aggression, shooting children with anti-tank weapons and the torture of innocent civilians happen without the ultimate consequence of their govenment using the same force against them?

But even the naive indignation of some Occupy activists about their government and its boot boys, is nothing compared to the childish surprise of the IT press about ACTA and SOPA. The copyright industry has for decades lobbied for the length of copyright to stretch to the end-of-time-plus-a-day extra.

Sony has no problems with infecting computers of their customers with what amounts to a virus.  A torrent of writs has poured forth from the offices of copyright enforcement. Babies and the elderly without a PC, deceased persons, and even a HP laser printer have been falsely accused of copyright infringement (labeled as “theft” by the lawyers of the industry). Surely we all know the kinds of organisations we are facing now?

That’s why I’m happy that the Kafkaesque combo of ACTA / SOPA has become clear. Now ACTA and SOPA have almost been rammed through, at least we all know where we stand. The wolves have thrown off their sheep’s clothing and shown themselves for what they are: predators with no interest in our welfare. We therefore need not be quasi-shocked about the fact that some large companies behave like predators.

Now we have determined that we are dealing with predators, we can take action. Acting all shocked and angry once a wolf reveals himself in a kindergarten playroom is not an effective measure – he is a predator. If you want to prevent a bloodbath, you need to build a fence around the playroom – or perhaps even around the wolf.

If we want IT to work for us, we must ensure that the technology is designed around our interests rather than the interests of software vendors or copyright serfs. We need computers and network devices that do what we want them to do, even if that is not in the commercial interests of a handful of large companies or the political will of illegal government lobbyists.

For over 25 years the Free Software Foundation has been the only organization calling for this. During the last 15 years the debate about the principles of free software has been almost completely overshadowed by the much more business-orientated and pragmatic approach of the Opensource Initiative. The reason to found the Opensource Initiative was literally the ‘too principled’ attitude of the Free Software Foundation.

Meanwhile, all the things that the FSF has  warned us about for so long have become the new and ugly reality. The complete lack of principle in discussing the applications of our technology is now starting to bite in very nasty ways. Almost all PCs (and I include Macs here), phones and game consoles have onboard functions that are not there for our benefit but for companies that want to earn our money. When you’re not in contol of your computer, is it still your computer / phone / console / router / etc … ?

This is an old political lesson: if you wait too long to protest, maybe you will no longer able or allowed to protest. This applies not only to addressing governments that start wars or the state stupidly bailing out the banks. This applies equally to the question of who is in charge of the computers and networks that we now all depend on. If we collectively do not demand principles as part of our tech, then we will get technology without them.

The ideas of the Free Software Foundation have never been more important. Not because proprietary software is worse (sometimes) nor because Free Software has become so much better (much!), but because our own systems, our digital home, is where we should all have have a say.

Only principled thinking (in addition to technical function) about our IT will keep the wolves from the door.