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Small victories matter: the year in free software

by Dana Morgenstein Contributions Published on Dec 24, 2018 03:41 PM

At a brief glance, 2018 might seem like a big old bummer when it comes to the fight for software freedom: the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to dismantle net neutrality regulations, Facebook continued to abuse public trust, and the European Union passed the disastrous Article 13, which threatens free speech and free software. Plus, smartphones and other computers are thoroughly infested with spyware, Digital Restrictions Management (DRM), and other creepy crawlies, and we don’t even have to tell you how sinister the Internet of Things is -- don’t invite Alexa, Echo, Google Home, Nest, or any of those other invaders into your house!

The wins for 2018 haven’t made headlines in the same way as all of these items, but they reflect some important trends: greater public awareness of the importance of controlling the technology we use, and greater awareness of how to fight back. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) works hard every day for wins like these, and in this article, we're sharing some of the progress the digital rights community has made.

Major donations

As you may have already heard, the FSF received two wonderful, enormous monetary gifts this year: 91.45 Bitcoin (valued at $1 million) from the Pineapple Fund, and another $1 million from Handshake. We weren’t alone in this windfall: other great organizations who got big donations included Software Freedom Conservancy, the Internet Archive, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

This influx of funds don’t just keep the lights on and improve our ability to communicate the importance of free software: they expand what we can actually do to bring more free software into existence, improve the free software that exists, and support the development of free software that replaces proprietary software that people depend on every day. The Handshake donation, in particular, includes funds earmarked for GNU Guix and GuixSD, GNU Octave, the GNU Toolchain, the fight against nonfree JavaScript, and Replicant, the fully free mobile operating system based on Android.

This doesn't mean that everyday members and donors are any less important: we can't count on huge windfalls every year, and the steady support provided by associate members is priceless for our stability. Thousands of people who care about software freedom donate less than $200 a year on average to support the work we do, so every individual at any amount makes an important contribution. If you're not a member already, we encourage you to join today, and if you're already a member, tell your friends why they should join too!

Microsoft joins the Open Invention Network

Just to be clear, Microsoft has a very long way to go to earn the free software movement's trust. However, we were pleased to hear that they’re starting to pay some attention to our calls to cease their use of computational idea patents to aggressively intimidate free software developers, distributors, and users. The announcement that they’ve joined both the LOT Network and the Open Invention Network (OIN) was an excellent first step -- but not one we’re going to settle for, either. You can read the rest of our statement here.

LibreJS: GNU and improved

As we pointed out in the Fall 2018 Free Software Bulletin, JavaScript is almost impossible to escape on the Internet, and when you open a page with JavaScript on it, it will run automatically. Nonfree JavaScript includes many of the standard abuses that come with proprietary software: for instance, it can be used to identify and profile you. A JavaScript blocker allows you to browse the Web without nonfree JavaScript running willy-nilly in the background and doing who knows what without your permission, so we’ve made GNU LibreJS a high priority. The new version of LibreJS, funded by the FSF, loads pages faster, does not require a browser restart to enable and disable the plugin, and is compatible with WebExtensions, and thus newer Mozilla-based browsers, including Abrowser and a future version of IceCat.

Of course, there’s way more to do before we can call the issue of proprietary JavaScript solved: for instance, you lose a lot of Web functionality if you block JavaScript, and some sites don't even work at all, so we need to get Web site owners to stop using nonfree JavaScript, period. Check out the Bulletin article for some more ways to take action on this issue!

ActivityPub becomes a W3C recommended standard

While we do not recommend the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as a place to do standards work since they sold out to proprietary corporate interests and betrayed your freedom by adopting the Encrypted Media Extensions standard for Digital Restriction Management (DRM), it’s nevertheless cause for celebration that the group of community experts working on the standard brought their work to the completion, leading to the W3C recommending ActivityPub this past January.

ActivityPub is a protocol for building decentralized social networking applications. Decentralized free software social networks are becoming increasingly popular, and we maintain accounts on GNU social and Diaspora, but most of these networks can’t talk to each other, keeping them from having the popular reach of, say, Twitter. ActivityPub “gives applications a shared vocabulary that they can use to communicate with each other,” enabling users of a social network that implements ActivityPub to communicate beyond the individual instance of, say, Mastodon. It connects multiple social networks to create one monster, federated network, sans the abuses of Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. This is a terrific first step to freeing users from the proprietary software requirements and SaaSS functions of commonly used social media, and we hope to see more exciting developments soon.

Slow but positive progress on DRM

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) creates legal penalties for trying to break the DRM on the products you own -- a major violation of your user freedom. The process of applying for exemptions is a Kafkaesque mess, but many of the exemptions we supported were granted in the latest round, which will at least stop some malicious prosecution while we work to abolish the restrictions entirely. For instance, the rules for permitting researchers to access the software on devices have been loosened, so that researchers who are just trying to determine how badly a product violates your privacy won’t be risking DMCA charges.

In the meantime, while DRM is imposed in items from baby monitors to medical devices, some clever and brave hackers and developers have discovered roundabout ways to seize control of these items. In the case of the Sleepyhead software program, which lets the users of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines access the data the machine generates in order to improve their results, these efforts may even be saving lives, and we’re always glad when a news story breaks that brings more attention to the injustice and insanity of outlawing this kind of extremely beneficial tinkering.

Tech workers get active

No matter how brilliant the people at the reins of a tech company are, it takes thousands of other people’s work and ingenuity to create the products, services, and software we use every day -- which means that if tech workers were to, say, refuse to build nonfree software, our battle would be won. They aren’t taking this particular stand in large numbers just yet, but tech workers are developing a habit lately of taking stands on other matters: for instance, Google employees demanded answers about the company’s plan to build "Dragonfly," a censored version of their search engine for China (followed by a demand to cancel the initiative, signed by 14 human rights organizations). Between public outrage and threats of a strike, Google backed down, and the Dragonfly project is now "effectively ended."

We find it heartening to see the people who build software exercising their conscience and refusing to be responsible for evil software, and we encourage you to stand up against all software that controls you, including what you’re allowed to see, say, and download. Along with activism for net neutrality, against DRM, against Article 13 in Europe, and for the right to repair, it can only be a positive thing when the community demands more control over technology, and we hope that this activist energy will translate into more wins for free software as well.

In the meantime, here at the FSF, we'll be making sure you hear about every opportunity to stand up against companies, governments, and programs that abuse your computing freedom, and letting you know what free software options exist to serve your computing needs. Although the outlook may look grim on the surface, lots of important and hopeful trends are bubbling beneath the surface, and we can't wait to see what happens next. Keep an eye on these blogs, our news page, and our GNU social, Diaspora, and Twitter accounts for the latest news!

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