Update 11/07/2013: The Serval Project have developed free code software and open hardware to turn ordinary handheld computers (”smartphones”) into a mesh network, potentially independent of celll phone companies. Maybe they could partner with the Free Network Foundation?

——

Before I ever heard of Skype, I experimented with a free code (”public domain”), peer-to-peer voice chat software called Speak Freely, which was available for both Windows and “Unix” (rather “Unix-like” OS like GNU/Linux). Speak Freely was well ahead of its time, considering that at the time I was trialling it, development had only just begun on Jabber, which later formed the basis for XMPP, the IETF open standard for text chat.

On Jan 15, 2004, John Walker, the lead programmer of the project made an ‘End of Life Announcement‘, and although he deposited source code of the last versions he released on SourceForge, along with documentation, no new versions have been released. The announcement made reference to the problem that people sharing a broadband connection through a router using NAT (Network Address Translation) could not make use Speak Freely without various tricky hacks, none of which could be sure to continue working as router software developed. Walker’s increasing concern with the consumerization of the internet, particularly bemoaning the way internet users were being reduced from peers to clients by the proliferation of NAT, was explained in more detail in a paper called The Digital Imprimatur, published in 2003 by the journal Knowledge, Technology, and Policy.

Walker’s concerns about the demonization of peer-to-peer systems seems to have been borne out by the constant legal and media attacks on software and websites supporting the BitTorrent protocol, as documented by news sites like TorrentFreak. Even more concerning, despite Speak Freely providing proof-of-concept for peer-to-peer voice calls over the internet, with free code to demonstrate, no open source project has yet emerged to challenge the hegemony of proprietary giant Skype, which was recently bought by Microsoft.

With various projects underway to provide free telephony using open standards like WebRTC (as explained on FreeYourSpeech.org), and free code projects like GNU Telephony and YATE (Yet Another Telephony Engine), it remains to be seen whether any of these will produce a worthy peer-to-peer successor to SpeakFreely. Disintermedia is tracking progress on online conferencing tools using free code and open standards, in a project called Core Us.

Filed June 29th, 2013 under Uncategorized

One of the first things I learned as a apprentice operation system (OS) technician was that it pays to have two separate partitions on a computer; one for the software, the OS, applications etc; and one for the user, documents, music etc. That way, if the OS dies, or you want to upgrade to a newer version (or just as often with Windows, roll back to an older version), you can make such changes on the software partition with almost no risk of losing or damaging the user files. If you want to switch to a whole new OS (eg Windows to GNU/Linux), you just install to the software partition, and all the user files are waiting in the user partition, ready to be accessed.

What I can’t figure out is why desktop GNU/Linux installs don’t do this by default? Many first time users choose a dual-boot option which slices off a partition to install GNU/Linux in, while leaving Windows and user data intact. Why does this option not automatically point to a home drive in the (usually much larger) Windows partition, and mount it by default? The same applies when dual-booting with an existing GNU/Linux or any other OS, again, the largest partition is the logical place to put user data. Even when a user is deleting all partitions from the hard drive and doing a fresh install from scratch, it still makes sense to me for the auto-partitioner to create an adequate partition for the OS, and place the /home folder on another partition that takes up the remaining space.

 One reason might be a concern with future-proofing, and it’s true that the extremely generous 5GB OS partition of 10 years ago is nowhere near enough for any modern OS, but this problem is only going to come up every decade or so. By then, assuming the computer is still in use, the desktop user probably needs a bigger hard drive anyway, and can install a fresh OS onto a new drive and copy over their data (again, into a separate partition).

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to check and back up the contents of user folders on other people’s Windows, or on my GNU/Linux installs, before doing any maintenance; running an upgrade, doing a fresh install, changing distros, changing OS etc. None of this obsessive checking would need to be done if separate software and user partitions were standard practice. Of course it would help if there were a vendor-neutral, patent-free file system format which could be used for user data on any system, including USB drives, and SD cards, but that’s another whinge for another time.

Filed June 24th, 2013 under Uncategorized

In the wake of the Defective By Design campaign against the proposal to insert DRM crippleware into HTML5 (see my last blog post), Dr. Jeff Jaffe of the W3C claimed there would be “open source implementations of the EME specification“. This is misleading propaganda.

True, it is possible to run the proprietary code required to effect Digital Restrictions Management, inside open source programs, as we do when we install the Adobe Flash plug-in in Firefox. It’s also possible to make an open source software system which respects DRM, and simply hope nobody will use the source code to create a forked version which doesn’t. However, by their very nature, DRM systems rely on the user not being able to see or change part of what their computer is doing when it plays DRM-encumbered media. It does not and cannot work if users exercise all their software freedoms, as defined by the Free Software Foundation:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom * 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.


The copyright owner is using the DRM to prevent a user making unauthorized copies. Freedom 0 says users should be free to use their media player to make such copies (eg for format shifting or Fair Dealing/ Fair Use purposes). Freedom 1 says users should be free to change the source code of the media player to break the DRM, if that’s necessary to make those copies. Freedoms 2 and 3 says users who have done this should be able to share their DRM-breaking code with the rest of the user community.

Jaffe’s token nod to “open source implementations” ignores the fact that DRM is fundamentally incompatible with the basic principles of software freedom. It ignores the fact that DRM’s far-reaching restrictions on people’s ability to use their own computer violate far more important rights and freedoms than people making unauthorized copies of copyright materials do. Most importantly, it ignores the fact that technical restrictions on what people can do with their computers is not the appropriate way to enforce copyright law, a fact acknowledged by the many publishers releasing DRM-free media (from e-books and music to games and movies).

Filed June 9th, 2013 under Uncategorized
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