Users shouldn't be forced to use nonfree software when interacting with their own government. Every user has the right to control their own computing, and the government shouldn't be forcing you to download and install proprietary software just to take advantage of its services. But when it comes to registering as an agent under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the United States, that's exactly what the government expects you to do.
Users are likely familiar with the DMCA's more draconian aspects, namely the creation of legal penalties for circumventing Digital Restrictions Management. The Free Software Foundation's Defective by Design campaign is fighting to end that nightmare and repeal that part of the law. But like many laws, it's crammed full of a wide variety of provisions, the anti-circumvention rules being only one of them.
Another piece of the law creates what are known as the safe harbor provisions. These rules set out some steps that maintainers of Web sites can take to avoid liability when a user of their site uploads potentially infringing copyrighted materials. The main provision here is that if a copyright holder finds their work on your site without their permission, they can submit a take down notice to an agent registered for your site. This agent can then remove the work, thus avoiding liability for the potentially infringing distribution. Without this safe harbor, the site maintainer could potentially be sued.
While this safe harbor rule can lead to abuse, with improper take downs, it also allows maintainers of Web sites to permit their users to share works. If the rule wasn't in place, it would be too dangerous to accept such uploads without reviewing each work -- something most Web sites can't afford to do. The Free Software Foundation takes advantage of the safe harbor provisions to ensure that we can continue to share software created and uploaded by free software developers, or to share information like that found in the Free Software Directory, or to help people organize locally via LibrePlanet.org.
There are still a few quirks that are being hammered out. Currently you have to add alternate names by uploading a document rather than filling in a text field. The only document type that they will accept is Excel, a proprietary format, but users can create documents in that format using LibreOffice. It's not a perfect solution, but it does enable users to actually complete the entire registration process using only free software. We will also be talking with the Copyright Office about supporting better formats. That is one of the beautiful things about free software: when people see a problem and have control over their own tools, they have the power to come together and make things right.
Users have a right to control their own computing. Governments everywhere should ensure that participating in any program they provide does not require the use of nonfree software. But where governments are slow to react, we all have to work together to route around the threat of proprietary software. Here's what you can do to help:
- Spread the word to any Web site maintainers you know that they can register using free software.
- Use the add-ons to register for your own sites, and let us know you did by emailing us at email@example.com.
- Help improve GNU LibreJS.
- Support the work of the Free Software Foundation by donating or becoming a member.