14 June 2005

Freedom - guard it with your life, while you still can

For the last few years, I have become increasingly concerned about the number of areas in which our freedoms are being eroded. Surely, I hear you say, this is a problem in some parts of the world, but not in the developed nations? There is no doubt that some of the worst restrictions on freedom have happened in places like China, Zimbabwe, Sout Africa, Iraq, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Palestine and other nations. These may hit the mainstream headlines, but because they are highly visible this generally has the effect of restraining those who seek to oppress. I have no doubt that the Chinese government realises that the Tiananmen Square massacre did nothing to improve its image overseas, and the fact that it has not been repeated is possibly a consequence of this. Likewise, high profile campaigning against apartheid in South Africa eventually lead to that system being dismantled, and the country now enjoys much greater freedoms than it did previously.

However, I don't intend to talk primarily about these restrictions which, by and large, are confined to the poorer nations. I want to talk about the restrictions that occur in wealthy, so-called developed nations. I will use three examples to illustrate the point.

1) Software Patents in Europe
2) Proposed Introduction of Identity Cards in the UK
3) Microsoft's Censorship of the words "Democracy", "Freedom" and "Demonstration" in China.

Let me just clarify something about this third point. What I wish to talk about here is the part that Microsoft, one of the wealthiest companies from one of the wealthiest nations, is playing in this.

1) Software Patents in Europe.
For the background to this, please take a look at This website.
Let's take a quick look at what patents are, and what purpose they intend to serve. Patents were introduced in order to encourage disclosure of inventions. Prior to the introduction of patents, many inventors protected their ideas by keeping them secret. Once others found out about an idea, they were able to reproduce the idea freely and compete with its original inventor. This gave the inventor a strong reason to avoid disclosing any details, much to the detriment of the advancement of science and technology. Patents were introduced in order to give inventors a time limited monopoly in exploiting their idea, in return for fully disclosing their ideas. There was no requirement that an inventor use this scheme, they could choose to remain in secrecy and hope that no-one copies their ideas. But by and large patents have been the better route for inventors to take.

So why are patents such a problem in software?

Firstly, software is just mathematics, expressed in a formalised manner and applied to solving a particular problem. Mathematics in not so much invented as 'discovered'. Looked at another way, the mathematical realities would still exist whether or not someone had discovered them, or formalised them into a particular algebraic language or used them in some other way. Secondly, any software program of any complexity will use a vast number of different mathematical constructs, so if these were all patented then even writing a simple "Hello World" program would make you potentially liable to be sued for patent infringement by multiple parties.

So what is the fuss about?

Software patents have been allowed in the USA for some time. In practice, large corporations such as Microsoft, IBM, Novell have the resources to acquire patents in large numbers. They have then used these as weapons against each other, or more importantly, against those that have no patents. In effect the major patent holders have become like a cartel, wielding a large amount of power and shutting smaller players out of the process. It doesn't matter whether the patents are valid or fulfil the purpose for which patents were created - challenging a patent's validity is an expensive process which smaller companies cannot afford. All they can do is give in to the bullying and pay a patent licence to the big players.

So it comes as no surprise that those who are trying to introduce patentability of software into the European Union are the big companies with deep pockets. The only people who could benefit from this are the big companies themselves - the smaller companies, the individual users of software (that's you if you're reading this) and the general public all lose out. Free Software developers stand to lose a lot in particular, because many of them are young individuals with no financial resources behind them, often students. Incidentally, a deeper look at the process of how this has been handled in the EU shows the EU to be deeply undemocratic in its inner workings - but that's a story for another article.

So briefly, the large companies that support software patents are trying to take away our rights to use software, on the often dubious premise that they invented some part of the whole and that we should pay them a licence fee. It's a bit like travelling down a road when someone jumps out in front of you and demands a fee to let you pass. Except that, unlike the traditional highway bandit, software patents would make this legal. That is why this move should be opposed in every way possible.

2) Proposed Introduction of Identity Cards in the UK

See the UK Home Office press release and this discussion of the impact were they to be introduced.
It is a fact that many countries require their citizens to hold identity cards, including many European nations. Tony Blair's government has used this as an excuse to attempt to introduce them in the UK. They claim that the technology is foolproof, and that it will help to reduce terrorism and crime. It is also a fact that these ID cards will prove very expensive to introduce.

Let me state a few facts. The terrorists who hijacked planes on the 11th September 2001 were all in the USA totally legally, and their paperwork was in order. A legal requirement to carry ID cards at all times does not mean that everyone will carry them, and those who have no problem with committing terrorist acts will certainly not see a problem with failing to carry an ID card at the moment they commit those acts. The cost per person of introducing ID cards could go a long way towards alleviating the problems that lead to people becoming terrorists. In fact terrorists usually are influenced very strongly by situations that severely restrict their freedoms to live as they wish; Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, western exploitation of oil in poorer countries spring to mind as obvious examples.

So at best, Tony Blair's intention to bring in ID cards is based on erroneous premises and will fail to achieve its stated aims. At worst it is a pretext to increase government control over the population and restrict our freedoms further. ID cards may only be used for specified purposes today, but in 30 years' time their scope could very easily be extended by a new goverment over which today's government has no control or influence. How do you know you can trust the generation that has yet to be born? You can't even trust the current generation.

3) Microsoft's Censorship of the words "Democracy", "Freedom" and "Demonstration" in China.

I use this example not because I dislike Microsoft, but because it is current at the time of writing and illustrated the principle very well. See This Article for more details. Microsoft are not the first organisation to give in to pressure and put profit above principle, and I am sure they will not be the last. But by giving in to Chinese demands to censor their web users, they are effectively saying "censorship is fine with us". Yes I know they are only doing it because they don't want to lose their business in China, but I would ask "What price are you willing to pay for profit?". If everyone gives in to others' demands to restrict our freedoms, we will be living under a global dictatorship within a very short space of time, and have very few freedoms.

It has taken me years of thinking hard about the issues of freedom but this is the conclusion I have come to:

"Everyone should be totally free to do whatever they want, at any time, in any place, and in any manner they wish, except in cases where it can be shown to be in the public interest that certain acts, behaviour or choices should not be allowed."

Note that I said the public interest - not the individual interest, not the government interest and certainly not corporate interests. So for example murder, drink driving and theft should not be allowed as that would lead, ultimately, to total breakdown of society. Patents, if they are to be awarded at all, should only exist if it can be shown to be in the public interest. I do not believe that Software Patents are in the public interest, nor are ID cards, nor is censorship implemented by businesses to protect its profits.