As if the worthy Stallman needed an illustration to dramatize his point, the Adobe Corporation last week announced that hackers had stolen from its servers the password and credit-card information, of almost three million of its users as well as a huge amount of code from some of its programs -- probably ColdFusion and Adobe Acrobat. That theft is potentially the most serious breach of user information in recent history and, because of the popularity of Acrobat, could prove devastating to computer users world-wide. Such theft is, in the end, only possible with Proprietary Software.
Since the spectacular theft is being reported (or under-reported) in ways that miss some important issues, analysis is called for, starting with the pertinent definitions.
Richard Stallman and the Acrobat logo by Public Domain/Adobe
Proprietary Software is written and distributed by developers (usually companies) who frequently sell it and never release or reveal its code (the programming that makes it work). It's their private work product often protected by copyright laws, special "release keys" that prevent people who don't have the key from using it, and other highly restrictive measures. Most users rely on it for their daily computing.
FOSS, on the other hand, is free and completely open. It can't be sold. Its source code can be viewed and even changed by anyone who knows how and it can't be "hidden and bundled" into commercial or proprietary programs. It's the opposite of proprietary software. You may not use much FOSS on your computer except maybe your web browser and email program but FOSS programs run the Internet and so all of us are in contact with it and depend on it every day.
The Adobe revelations about user data stolen from its records of customers are dramatic. Having credit-card information for so many people (even if it's encrypted as Adobe's is) could result in a whole lot of grief for credit-card holders and multi-million-dollar losses for banks and companies. But the more potentially damaging part of the announcement is that code theft because, with that information in hand, good hackers can fashion ways to get into just about every computer using the Acrobat program and steal their data, set up programs that transmit personal information, and insert viruses that can wreck stored information.
It was a huge screw-up on the company's part as Adobe sheepishly admitted but the more important issue hasn't been discussed much. It's the one Stallman is raising. If this weren't proprietary software, nothing like this would ever happen. FOSS developers don't have a cache of credit cards because they don't charge for their software and nobody is going to steal that code because the code of any FOSS program is publicly available already. With hundreds, even thousands, of programmers reviewing the code, expanding it and applying it to other projects, any piece of code that can be exploited would be picked up by the community in a matter of hours.
If there's any illustration about the superiority of FOSS over Proprietary Software, this is it.
But the issue goes way beyond security and theft. As Stallman puts it, this is really about freedom, today and in the future. For Richard Stallman, this isn't a software preference; it's a matter of social survival. FOSS is a kind of light that flows through all the spaces of our society, democracy, and culture. Proprietary software isn't just an inferior and insecure choice: it's an assault on democracy and freedom.
In his recent article, one of the finest explanations I've ever seen about why FOSS is important, Stallman penned an elegantly powerful sentence. "If the users don't control the program, the program controls the users."
For far too many people, the programs are now in control. It's a control spread through the "installed" software that accompanies Windows computers and the intense, and often unchallenged, marketing strategies companies employ. It's been secured by the device you don't leave home without: the cellphone whose web-browsing, data sharing, photo and video publishing and texting is all done, with most phones, by commercial and proprietary software hidden behind nifty icons and alluring features.
Few people reading this column would dispute the political superiority of FOSS. Freedom and control, after all, are major points on the progressive agenda. But many question if it's worth the time and trouble to switch to FOSS or whether we prioritize the protection and use of Free and Open-Source Software when there are so many other areas of protection and use we need to defend. The answer is that the software you use not only defines how you relate to the Internet but how you relate to the rest of the world. Proprietary software mangles those relationships.
The basic purpose of computer software is to tell your computer what to do. But that hardly characterizes its life or its entire function. Software is a productive activity comprising a complex and lengthy process that starts with an assessment of what's needed, an analysis of how the software should meet that need, a planning process involving how that software is going to be structured and written, and the actual work of putting it together. Each of these stages involves intense and collaborative interaction among volunteer (and usually unpaid) software designers who may come from all over the world and never even meet personally as they are intensely working together. They do it because they believe in it.
If the software's done right, the development involves a good cross-section of potential users. From the start, software is a collaborative effort by not only those who produce it but those people who might potentially use it.
As the software develops, it involves constant conversations, evaluations and problem-solving through emails, on-line chats and message boards. It's as close as we come to a world-wide community in cooperation.
When the software is ready, it's tested by the user community and the feedback techies get molds what changes and fixes they have to do. That development continues as long as the software is being popularly used, sometimes for years or even decades.
Does it really work? Most of the Internet's primary server software is written and constantly updated through this remarkable process. It works and, in working, it proves that collaboration among people can produce high-quality, functional tools.