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You are here: Home Bulletins 2015 spring Free software, privacy, and activism

Free software, privacy, and activism

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Jul 08, 2015 04:39 PM

Two years ago, when Edward Snowden revealed a massive US National Security Agency (NSA) bulk surveillance program covering the communications of US citizens unsuspected of any crime, a popular expectation in our community was that Richard Stallman and the FSF would scream, "We told you so! We've been telling you about these dangers for 30 years!" Snowden even used GNU software -- specifically GnuPG encryption -- to safely communicate his whistleblower information to the media. As additional revelations about bulk surveillance around the world piled up, it was indeed a concrete opportunity to explain the importance of free software for our freedom, and of freedom in relation to privacy.

Since then, we've launched some important initiatives promoting the use of related pieces of free software. Our Email Self-Defense Guide, launched one year ago, has been used by tens of thousands of people to set up email encryption using free software.1 The past two LibrePlanet conferences featured talks focused on encryption and resisting bulk surveillance, most notably a keynote (itself delivered over a free software, encrypted, anonymized video link) by Tor developer and journalist Jacob Appelbaum.2

But this issue has also exposed disagreements within the free software movement. Not all FSF members agree about what level, if any, of government surveillance is appropriate, or about which methods, if any, are okay. Some are concerned about terrorism more than others (and disagree about what, if anything, should be called terrorism), some think that surveillance is ineffective against such threats, some prioritize citizens' privacy within their own nations, and others view it as an international human rights issue.

There is also the uncomfortable likelihood that the NSA is using free software to conduct its surveillance operations. Free software is defined by the Four Freedoms, the first of which is the freedom to run the software for any purpose. This is not to say that the FSF agrees with all purposes for which free software is used. FSF staff hold a variety of political opinions, and historically, our staff has included Marxists and libertarians, liberal democrats and fiscal conservatives, and everything in between. In this way, the FSF staff is a microcosm of the free software movement; our supporters don't all agree on these issues either, and they let us know when they feel that the FSF has taken a public position that goes outside the scope of supporting free software and computer user freedom.

What we do agree on is the importance of free software. The ends to which any software can be used may be restricted by a society's laws -- we don't defend the right of anyone to use software to kill another person in order to rob them. That is illegal and wrong, but restrictions on the software itself, which cannot be implemented without restricting expressive speech, math, and creative thought, are not an ethical way to achieve other social purposes. This is a major reason why we do not have a term in the GNU General Public License (GPL) saying "This software cannot be used for bulk surveillance."

But is bulk surveillance an independent core issue for the free software movement? While we are continually listening to feedback and evaluating this question, the FSF has set a position in this debate that we think is the right one. As an organization with a human rights agenda that discomforts many established powers, both government and corporate, we cannot accept bulk surveillance at a level that impedes or deters necessary anonymous communications with our allies.

People take real risks when they communicate to us that their company is knowingly violating the GPL. A hypothetical Microsoft employee takes a real risk when disclosing to us that the company is secretly making patent threats against free software competitors, or when leaking elements of a concerted campaign against GNU/Linux. People writing and distributing free software to work around Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) even for legal purposes can become targets of interest to the government.

For the free software movement to succeed, we need whistleblowing and communication around free software development to be safe. The levels of surveillance that Snowden revealed, and the many stories since from around the world, show that bulk surveillance has gone too far by this yardstick. The FSF has therefore committed to work against it, at least until it is reduced to a level that does not chill communications vital to the free software movement.

We also have decided to develop materials that help people use free software to protect whatever level of privacy they want to have. In this respect, the issue is not so different from the other wants and needs that people express for their computing lives. People want to do something with software on a computer, we want to make sure they can do that with free software. If free software for a certain purpose does not exist, we may want to get it developed.

We have also brought critical scrutiny on efforts to improve privacy through tweaking proprietary platforms or altering the details of regulatory regimes. Free software does not guarantee privacy or security -- we have bugs too -- but it is a prerequisite to true protection of your privacy and security. You must be able to choose who to trust and who should provide the software you use. Any fighting chance in this area begins with free software. Anything less is blind faith in a black box.

The FSF is one of only a few organizations promoting the view that all software should be free software. We are working on your behalf to disarm proprietary software companies so that they can no longer restrict you, to limit the impact of bulk surveillance so that we can all safely advance our free software and other beliefs, and to continually improve the free software available to you. But we can't do this work without you.

We have been in existence for thirty years come October. We have achieved many things in that time -- you can now quite easily have a fully functional laptop with a free operating system, and free software powers the Internet -- but we have many more challenges to face in the next thirty years.

The body of FSF membership is a community of people with incompatible beliefs in many areas, but who are united by the principle that the technology used to express these political beliefs should not be under the exclusive control or surveillance of anyone. If you're not already a member, please join this cause and this community today!

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