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You are here: Home Blogs Licensing From TPP to saving WiFi, the FSF fights for you

From TPP to saving WiFi, the FSF fights for you

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Jan 13, 2016 11:17 AM
Protecting and promoting free software often requires making your voice heard by those with the power to legislate freedom away. In 2015, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) organized with activists and organizations from around the world to petition governments on a wide variety of issues affecting computer users.

Free software is built by a community of hackers and activists who care about freedom. But forces outside that community affect the work done within it, for good or ill. While we at the FSF regularly deal with GNU General Public License (GPL) violators (who we always hope are just community members waiting for a proper introduction), there is another force that can have a substantial effect on user freedom: governmental policy.

Laws, regulations, and government actions can have a lasting impact on users. The GNU GPL is based in copyright but uses its power in a "copyleft" way to actually protect users from the negative impacts of copyright, patents, and proprietary license agreements. While we can sometimes turn a law on its head to make it work for users like this, other times we are forced to push back in order to guarantee their rights. In order to achieve our global mission of promoting computer user freedom and defending the rights of software users everywhere, we must often take action to petition and protest governing bodies and their regulations. For the Licensing and Compliance Lab this is particularly relevant to our work, as these rules can affect how the licenses published by the FSF protect users. 2015 was a year filled with such actions, and 2016 will see much of the same. While our work this past year often involved issues with the US government, the scope of our work is global. As our worldwide actions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other international agreements demonstrate, bad laws in the US have a tendency to spread around the globe. We work to educate the US public about problematic laws and regulations here, and we also work with supporters and partner organizations in countries around the world to achieve the same goals in their countries.

We want to take a moment to look back on the work we've done on the licensing team pushing for policies that protect users, and fighting to stop laws and regulations that would harm them.

TPP and the threat of international "trade" agreements

As we explain on our international trade issue page "The FSF has been warning users of the dangers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for many years now. The TPP is an agreement negotiated in secret nominally for the promotion of trade, yet entire chapters of it are dedicated to implementing restrictions and regulations on computing and the Internet."

But the TPP is not the only threat looming. In October, FSF's Donald Robertson gave a talk at SeaGL outlining the threats from the alphabet soup of international "trade" agreements. A widening web of negotiations is criss-crossing the globe seeking to implement many of the same terrible restrictions found in TPP.

During the past year we warned of the dangers of these international agreements and pushed activists to try and stop the fast-tracking of TPP in the US.

But we are of course not alone in our opposition to TPP. We worked together with dozens of other groups during the year. In November, we supported a rally and hackathon put on by our friends at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They currently have another action helping people to contact Congress in the US, telling them to stop TPP. This year, we will have much more to do in order to stop TPP and many TPP clones in the future.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act's (DMCA) anti-circumvention provisions

One of the biggest actions we took in 2015 involved fighting back against the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions. We explained the issue back in April of 2015:

Every three years, supporters of user rights are forced to go through a Kafkaesque process fighting for exemptions from the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA... In short, under the DMCA's rules, everything not permitted is forbidden. Unless we expend time and resources to protect and expand exemptions, users could be threatened with legal consequences for circumventing the digital restrictions management (DRM) on their own devices and software and could face criminal penalties for sharing tools that allow others to do the same. Exemptions don't fix the harm brought about by the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions, but they're the only crumbs Congress deigned to throw us when they tossed out our rights as users.

In the year's round of exemption proposals, we called for the repeal of these provisions and supported every proposed exemption. We called out the companies, organizations and government agencies that tried to lock users down by opposing these exemptions. When the Copyright Office failed to grant all proposed exemptions, we explained how the process was broken and called again for the repeal of the onerous law.

On this front, we had some success, as Congress and the Copyright Office are starting to listen. 2015 ended with the Copyright Office asking for public comments about the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions and the exemptions process, noting many of the criticisms we levied throughout the year. In 2016, the fight continues. We'll need your help to end the nightmare of these restrictions and their broken exemption process, rather than simply patch over the problems they create.

Saving WiFi

Unfortunately, the DMCA isn't the only government policy seeking to lock down devices and restrict the ability of users to control their own computing. In 2015, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced the proposal of new rules requiring manufacturers to implement locks on all wireless devices. The FCC is charged with divvying up wireless spectrum in the US, and works to enforce regulations ensuring that devices do not exceed their mandated spectrum. But in trying to achieve that goal, they proposed rules that would in practice encourage device manufacturers to cripple their wireless-enabled hardware so that users could no longer install free software on those devices.

So the FSF and our allies fought back, starting a campaign to Save WiFi. The coalition came together and filed over 3,000 public comments in opposition to the rules. FSF licensing and compliance manager Joshua Gay and executive director John Sullivan even met with the FCC to make free software concerns heard. The work to protect WiFi continues in 2016.

Education needs freedom

Not every issue we confront in this arena is a threat to user freedom. Government policy can also work to help support free software, as we are seeing with the US Department of Education's recent push to upgrade the rules around grant-funded educational works. In October of 2015, the Department of Education called for comments on its proposed regulations, which were intended to create greater access and sharing by requiring grant-funded works to be under a free license. There was just one hitch — the regulations as proposed didn't quite get the job done, because they didn't explicitly require the freedom for downstream users to redistribute modified copies of the works. So we rallied users and free software activists to provide feedback to the Department of Education on the new rules. While no decision has yet been announced, we're excited about this new policy and our ability to help shape it to ensure that user freedom is enjoyed by all.

Working together for free software

Fighting to protect free software and user freedom is not something that we can do alone. In our actions we always seek to collaborate with activists and organizations working towards a common cause. We also want to help other groups petitioning their governments to do so in ways that respect the rights of users. Even where we are not involved in a particular action, we help organizations offer petitions or tools to users that can be utilized on a fully free system. One particular issue in this space is offering petitions or methods of writing to government representatives that do not require the use of proprietary JavaScript. We explain the issue to other organizations and, whenever possible, offer assistance in crafting online petitions that are compatible with free software ideals. Along similar lines, when it comes to submitting public comments to the US government, many agencies also require the use of proprietary JavaScript in order to submit comments online. While we push for the government to change this situation, we also offer to submit comments on behalf of the community via the post. We did this with our action on the Department of Education proposal, and we will be doing the same for our upcoming push on the DMCA.

A look ahead

While 2015 was a big year in working to improve government policy, much still needs to be done in the year ahead. The fight to stop TPP still goes on, and other "trade" agreements loom on the horizon. For the DMCA, our voice was heard in 2015, but now we need to actually bring about the necessary changes. The FCC-instigated lockdown of wireless devices still hangs over our head. We will continue to fight for the rights of users on these issues, and any new ones that spring up.

But as our work in 2015 shows, we can't do it alone. We need the help of other organizations and activists to keep up the fight. And we need you as well. Our actions would mean nothing without your voice joining in to amplify and spread the message.

In addition to supporting our actions and making your voice heard, you can help fund the work we do to amplify your concerns. Can you support this important work by making a donation to the Free Software Foundation? You can make a long-term commitment to help the FSF sustain and grow the program for years to come by becoming an associate member for as little as $10/month (student memberships are further discounted). Membership offers many great benefits, too. Other ways you can help:

  • Support the EFF's action to stop TPP.
  • Make sure to join the Defective by Design mailing list to help end the DMCA anti-circumvention madness.
  • Share this article with your friends and colleagues to help them understand the threats to user freedom posed by government policy.
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