Linux, Open Source, and Civil Disobedience

Linux, Open Source, and Civil Disobedience
Image by Mehmet Egrik from Pixabay 

When I was still arguably a kid, there was an old TV show that my friends and I all watched called, “Baretta.” In the show’s theme song, “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” voiced by the great Sammy Davis Jr., we hear the words, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” The show starred one Robert Blake, an actor who, as it turns out, would later be charged with murder. He was acquitted but later charged with “wrongful death” in a civil suit which he lost, despite the criminal murder acquittal. But I digress . . .

Despite that trip down memory lane, it’s the words from the song that are stuck in my head right now, and it does have a FOSS connection.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the Open-Source community and its willingness to flout local and international laws, sometimes for very good reasons. For example, think back, if you can, to “libdvdcss,” a library that allowed Linux users to play encrypted DVDs on their computers, even though that could bring a felony charge in the United States. Consider that users had movies on DVD that they bought and paid for, and they wanted to play them on a DVD player they had bought and paid for, using a computer they had bought a paid for. Despite following all the rules and legally paying for every hardware piece along the chain, Linux users were barred because the code necessary to allow that to play their legal content was barred to them.

So, they broke the encryption, thereby breaking the law, the infamous Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. The whole thing was obviously unfair, at least to those of us in the Linux community, so it seemed like a good reason to ignore the law. This law, remember, carried a felony charge.

As the technology was being widely shared by the community at large, tech site Digg received a DMCA notice ordering it to take down and remove all posts that mentioned or shared the code. Kevin Rose himself, bowing to the wishes of the community, said, “But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.”

That wasn’t the first time free software people ignored the law. Consider something as simple as hardware drivers. By reverse engineering proprietary drivers for proprietary hardware, Linux and the Open-Source community have been thumbing their noses at “the rules” for almost as long as Linux has existed. Sure, it was unfair of Microsoft and others to bar access to the code and the technology that would make it possible to use a particular printer or video driver, but it was still breaking the law. Could violating the terms of service be considered a crime?

There were also questions as to whether it was even legal to erase Windows from your computer so that you could install a Linux distribution. Hackers in Open Source have managed to bypass pretty much every copy protection technology that came along. We geeks also shared SSL-capable browsers back when the encryption technology was considered a military secret. Back in the late 90s, Phil Zimmerman, the creator of “Pretty Good Privacy,” was being investigated by the US Justice Department for trading in military secrets. His crime? Making “military grade” encryption technology available to foreign powers by putting it up on a website.

It gets better. There was a famous “Munitions shirt” that included a three-line bit of Perl-code that made RSA encryption possible. Since sharing military grade encryption technology was considered exporting restricted munitions, so was adding the code to .sig (your signature) in emails. Open-source advocates around the world traded in that little bit of Perl and bought T-shirts to advertise their total disregard for the law. Some of the proceeds from T-shirt sales even went to the Phil Zimmerman legal defense fund.

In 2018, Open Whisper Systems, the people behind the Signal messaging applications defied the Australian government by refusing to accept new encryption laws, claiming they couldn’t even if they wanted to. The Australian parliament had passed the so-called, “technical compatibility notice,” under which companies can be forced to provide back doors so that police and government could have access to their citizens’ encrypted communication of the type Signal was famous for.

Perhaps we can use a different phrase than “breaking the law”. Maybe the right term is “civil disobedience” which can also involve breaking the law, but it sounds more wholesome. Open-source apps with strong end-to-end encryption are being used around the world by groups fighting for democracy, against extremism, for action on climate change, for the freedom of religion, of speech, of the right to fall in love with and marry whoever you want.

Civil disobedience can be good.

There was even a “Disobedience Award” put together by the M.I.T. Media Lab, spearheaded by Joi Ito, the Lab’s former Director, and LInkedIn founder, Reid Hoffman. Ito is quoted as saying, “You don’t change the world by doing what you are told.” Sadly, the Award was short-lived due to the association with the recently deceased sex-offender, Jeffrey Epstein. In the end, the award was only handed out twice. Ironically, the 2018 award went to leaders of the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movements.

Also interesting is that M.I.T. also ran a “Forbidden Research” project.

Ah . . . the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I’m going to finish this where I started it, with Baretta, or rather the theme by Sammy Davis Jr. Sometimes, laws are bad laws and need to be ignored, overturned, of simply broken. Sometimes, the law demands that innocent people be threatened, terrorized, imprisoned, or even killed. It’s a big world and what we consider unacceptable in our particular countries is standard operating procedure in another. That said, if you do the crime, you risk doing the time.

Witness one Aaron Swartz, co-founder of Reddit, whose work focused on “civic awareness and activism.” Outside of his work as a programmer, he worked to develop effective methods for online activism and founded the group Demand Progress. One of Demand Progress’ more famous campaigns was against SOPA, the “Stop Online Piracy Act.” Swartz also believed that documents owned and paid for by the public should be freely available. In 2008, he used his M.I.T. access to set up a computer system to make documents stored in the Public Access to Court Electronic Documents (PACER) database open to the public.

In 2011, he was arrested on charges of breaking and entering, wire fraud, and a number of other charges, for the PACER ‘breach’. He faced 35 years in jail, a massive financial penalty, and forfeiture of all he owned. He was hounded and threatened by the legal system and even M.I.T., but prosecutors eventually offered him a six-month jail sentence in a minimum-security prison if he pleaded guilty to some 13 federal charges. Aaron Swartz refused the plea deal. On January 11, 2013, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. For the record, the FBI had decided not to press charges.

I’m going to go out on the proverbial limb here and suggest that sometimes, you need to, if now break the law, bend it.

As I write this, I’m wondering if people remember, or can remind me of, any other instances where FOSS/Freedom types just said, “up yours,” to existing laws and just went ahead and “did it”