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Some losses from 2018

by Molly de Blanc Contributions Published on Dec 24, 2018 04:28 PM
Contributors: Jake Glass

When I look back on 2018, of course I see successes for user freedom across the world: the appeal in Christoph Hellwig's GPL compliance case against VMWare is moving forward; Google employees are rallying against Dragonfly, the authoritarian search engine being built for the Chinese government; the Free Software Foundation's (FSF) home state of Massachusetts is taking steps for the Right to Repair; and people all over the world shared their tips and tricks to leading safer digital lives -- just to name a few! It's hard not to be impressed and inspired by everything the free software -- and greater digital rights -- community has done so much over the past year.

But the work we need to do for freedom is far from over. I want to highlight just a few of the (many) losses from 2018. I think these make it clear why the work of organizations like the FSF is so important. The FSF sets a hard line for freedom -- uncompromising in our ideology and bringing it to everything we do. I look at this list and am reminded why the FSF exists, why we need to keep fighting, and why we can only succeed by rallying as a community.

Project Dragonfly

Dragonfly, mentioned above, is a censored search engine Google is likely building for use in China. It is a travesty for the future of software freedom in China. It is explicitly designed to allow censorship of the Web and Web access.

Project Dragonfly was "effectively ended" in mid-December, after five months of hard efforts by Google staff, journalists, and activists around the world. This is a great success, and should be celebrated, but Dragonfly never should have existed in the first place. We have no doubt that someone will try this again, with or without Google.

What does this mean for free software? Projects like Dragonfly allow greater targeting of tools used to create, maintain, share, and use free software. We know from experience that the Chinese government will use this power to block access to important free software, especially in the categories of cryptography and security. It is possible that users would not even be able to learn about free software.

On the note of censorship...

The European Copyright Directive and Censorship Machines

Activists and activist organizations in the European Union use the term "Censorship Machines" for the upload filters the European Copyright Directive will require sites to install. These attempts to "prevent copyright infringement" only serve to stifle creativity and software freedom. You can read more at

While a first round of voting saw the proposed Copyright Directive rejected, it later passed onto next steps, bringing us closer to a more controlled, more dystopian Internet and Web.

What does this mean for free software? One of the themes from 2018 is greater government and corporate control over what we can access on the Web and how we interact with the Internet. According to the Free Software Foundation Europe, Article 13 "imposes preventive blocking of online code repositories."

Net neutrality, the FCC, and the ongoing battle for freedom on the Net

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to gut net neutrality protections in the United States. In the US, Title II is a provision that treated Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as "common carriers," or organizations that are required to provide "general service to the public without discrimination." This is the closest thing the US had to providing net neutrality.

In 2018, the US Congress created a discharge petition to overturn the FCC's ruling. As of writing this, the House of Representatives is waiting to vote on the petition.

What does this mean for free software? This is a twist on how Article 13 affects us, with the government allowing corporate control over what we see and do on the Internet. With net neutrality protections gone, ISPs can (and will) throttle access to Web sites and users that aren't able to pay extra fees. This will impact smaller Web sites, including code sharing sites and other tools we use to build and share free software. It will give major DRM-ed Web sites a privileged status, as they will be the ones able to pay extra fees, and they already have good relationships with the ISPs.

Oracle, Inc. v. Google, Inc.

In the words of Parker Higgins, "you wouldn't reimplement an API." The US Federal Circuit agrees.

The Oracle v. Google case concerning the copyright of Java APIs, originally from 2010, continues to this day. After years of back and forth, 2016 brought good news: a jury found Google’s reimplementation of Oracle’s Java APIs to be fair use and therefore acceptable. However, Oracle appealed, and this year the Federal Circuit ruled in favor of Oracle, finding Google’s use of the Java APIs to be copyright infringement.

Read the FSF's 2012 and 2014 statements on the matter.

What does this mean for free software? This ruling is a big loss for interoperability in software. With the recent results of this case, and the potential for large penalties due to copyright infringement, developing free software through API compatibility could become a legally risky activity. This ruling could fundamentally alter the standard software practice of interoperability through APIs.

Licensing and the Commons Clause

I'd be remiss to not mention one of the most contentious licensing debates in recent history: the Commons Clause.

The Commons Clause isn't a license per se, but something to add to a pre-existing license. Released towards the end of 2018 by Redis, the misleadingly named Commons Clause is a non-commercial use clause, and using it renders a previously free license nonfree.

What does this mean for free software? This is a risk to user freedom, as it makes a free license into a nonfree one. It does not guarantee the four freedoms of free software, and it does not respect user (or developer) rights. Not only does the Commons Clause set a precedent that a free license can be contorted into a nonfree one, it could potentially confuse people looking to use free software.

In summary...

These are just a few of the setbacks software freedom took in 2018. Each one reminds me why I do what I do at the FSF every day -- stand up for user rights by standing up for software freedom. I hope you'll look at this list and not feel despondent. Instead, I ask you to look at it as a to-do list for 2019 -- seeing where and how we can do better, what controversies are on the horizon, and how we can keep working together for a freer world. If you want to support the work of the FSF in 2019, please consider becoming a member.

I started this by mentioning a few of the successes we saw in 2018. These aren't the only ones! Read more about the small victories of 2018 here.

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