## Information Technology Wants to Be Free

### Jonathan A. Poritz

Department of Mathematics and Physics
2200 Bonforte Blvd.
Pueblo, CO 81001 USA
jonathan.poritz@csupueblo.edu
www.poritz.net/jonathan

#### Colorado State University — Pueblo College of Science and Math Food For Thought Colloquium 25 September 2014

If you are coming to this page after missing the talk itself, there is a video available at the bottom of this page. I would suggest starting the video and then following along with this page while listening to the audio, since an enormous amount was said which is only suggested in this presentation page.
[Perhaps some day I will make a screencast which uses the live audio, follows along at the right spots on this page, and makes the same excursions to other web sites I made during the live presentation....]

The original motivation for this presentation, or at least for me to be invited to speak, is two things I've been involved in recently.

1. An on-line math homework system, competitor to things like MyMathLab from the publisher Pearson, about which I took a summer course given by the Mathematical Association of America:

2. A textbook I used last semester. The obvious choice would have been to use the quite good, but somewhat closed, forbidding (in its immobile closedness), and expensive book I'd used in the past when teaching Number Theory:

 http://www.amazon.com/Friendly-Introduction-Number-Theory-Featured/dp/0321816196/ref=la_B001IR1KIU_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1411625786&sr=1-2 But instead I used a book I wrote, and whose openness I guaranteed by giving it away.

 Q: What do and have in common? A: They both come out of the Free Software Movement.     (in a certain sense)

Some linguistic background for the terminology I will use:

 cost = $0 unencumbered IT: gratis libero FR: gratuit libre DE: kostenlos frei Free/Libre Open-Source Software The standard quip here is that we mean Free as in Speech, Not as in Beer [or Pizza]. (This is due to Richard Stallman, about whom more later.) Another important technical term which is hidden int that "FLOSS": Source [code] /* Hello World program */ #include main() { printf("Hello World"); }  in the language C. There are many others. [E.g., here is the famous Hello World program in a language called Brainfuck:  ++++++++[>++++[>++>+++>+++>+<<<<-]>+>+>->>+[<]<-]>>.>---.+++++++..+++.>>.<-.<.+++.------.--------.>>+.>++.  Which is really an elaborate inside joke.] Source code is run through a compiler to produce a binary/executable file. Which computers like but humans don't — look at one. The difficulty in trying to make money selling software: preventing copying. Technical attempts involve distributing only the binary, which incorporates some form of DRM [="Digital Restrictions Management"]. Hardware identities, spoofing, sandboxing, trusted paths. It's about control. Who controls your machine, your software, and your data. Current neo-liberal ideology would describe all of this as the following tension:  coders who want to earn a living entrepreneurs innovative companies engines of the economy job creators the good guys vs hackers thieves data pirates pornographers spies the bad guys But, particularly in this room, the economic argument for closed-source should be obviously ridiculous. For example, do you, my academic colleagues, think that I should I have my students sign an #### Calculus End User Agreement Any student in Poritz's Calculus II may use the method Integration by Parts so long as they remain enrolled at an accredited four-year institution of higher education. Immediately upon graduating from such an institution, said student must cease and desist from using IbP in any context whatsoever. ["U-substitution", however, is considered a basic human right by the United Nations and so is not restricted in any way by this license.] For an additional annual fee of$500, graduates may purchase an employed person's Calculus license, which permits up to up to 17 [seventeen] uses of IbP per annum. Of particular interest to graduates in STEM fields is also the CalculusPRO® license which costs $1000/year and allows 50 uses of IbP and unlimited trigonometric substitutions in each and every year! [Maybe that first clause is too generous: we might improve student retention if it read instead "...so long as they remain enrolled at a campus of the Colorado State University System." Should I propose this to our Provost or BoG?] Likewise, perhaps chemists and biologists should start publishing papers without a Methods section, unless an extra fee is paid, or mathematicians should likewise embargo the proofs of their new published theorems without particular financial recompense. Actually, the philosophical (ethical!) argument motivated some of pioneers of the FSM, particularly Richard Stallman Stallman started the GNU project and wrote the GNU General Public License, which is now in version GPLv3. These licenses are called viral by detractors. Fruits of this movement: • The third most commonly used PC operating system on the planet, GNU/Linux • The most commonly used web server on the planet, Apache. [E.g., Google runs a variant of Apache on server farms which all run a variant of GNU/Linux.] • Most of the best cryptographic software one can find, such as gnupg. • FLOSS equivalents of expensive commercial software products: • Sage instead of Mathematica (Sage a fair bit behind in features of recent Mathematica releases, however it does bring under one umbrella many FLOSS projects, including NumPy, SciPy, matplotlib, Sympy, Maxima, GAP, FLINT, R, and many more, making them accessible within one environment • TeX for typesetting science and math. • Octave, a very complete replacement for MATLAB • the GNU C/C++ compiler, used by a majority of software developers who write in C or C++ • the GIMP, replacing Photoshop • "content management systems" like the commercial one we recently bought to improve our campus website • Libreoffice instead of MS Office (including word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations) • etc. • Wordpress • the Mediawiki wiki engine (which serves Wikipedia) • etc., etc., etc., — challenge me! FLOSS tends to be more efficient, more reliable, and more secure than unfree software: e.g., there are around 100,000 known Windows viruses in the wild, but probably fewer than a dozen known for GNU/Linux. There are several reasons for this: 1. Virus writers are more drawn to Windows, since it is a larger target. 2. The fundamental security model which underlies Windows is quite different from that which underlies GNU/Linux, in a way quite that makes a lot of sense in the context of the control issues we've been discussing: • The issue is that Microsoft's business model has moved farther and farther down the road of enforcing their near-monopoly market dominance, and in being a good partner to those who wish to continue to exercise control over users' hardware and software. • It is far more important to this business strategy for the Windows operating system to provide tools for application software writers to exercise control over users than it is to protect the users' privacy and security. • In fact, protecting the users' security and privacy is relevant to this strategy only insofar as catastrophic breaches become a PR issues. • As a consequence, fundamental aspects of the Windows security model do not enforce (or sometimes even enable!) appropriate sandboxing, fine-grained permissions, etc. — all the tools that GNU/Linux has built in. 3. The FLOSS community, for historical, political, and emotional reasons, contains many who are very concerned (not to say paranoid) about security and privacy. These individuals have written FLOSS software to support their concerns and of course given them out to the community for peer review, customization, and free (as in speech and beer) adoption. In fact, the overwhelming majority of computer security and cryptography academics use and write FLOSS, providing a solid intellectual foundation to the FLOSS tools in this area. This is not to say FLOSS is perfect! (Nothing on this mortal plane is....) E.g., the recent Heartbleed bug was in a piece of FLOSS software called OpenSSL. But generally FLOSS is far superior software: this should come as no surprise in this room, since all of those eyes reading the source code are essentially doing continual, ongoing peer review. (We believe in peer review, don't we?) E.g., a recent back door was found that someone had submitted to the Linux kernel by vigilant readers of that open source code; so it was not allowed out in the official version — who is creating or looking for back doors in commercial software? Which brings us back to the issue of control and forward to some very current events. • the National Security Agency is creating back doors in commercial software and exploiting security flaws which they find without telling the companies about their flawed products (this we know from the Snowden revelations).... National Security Letters, and ubiquitous surveillance • corrupted/malicious commercial software vs what happened to Lavabit and Truecrypt (leading to the cool idea of an NSL semaphore) • Facebook is a Skinner box designed to train the public not to value its own privacy. [Cory Doctorow] • major hardware and commercial software, with its seizure of control, is mostly American. How would you feel about that if you were German or Brazilian or Russian or Chinese? How about if you were a dissident tweeting from the streets in Damascus, Syria, Gaza City, Palestine, or Zuccotti Park, Manhattan? • The European Union has enshrined interoperability into many laws. • Several local European governments have moved to FLOSS for price, customizability, openness, etc. (e.g., Munich (Germany; see this story, or look into LiMux, the GNU/Linux distribution remixed particularly for Munich), Valencia (Spain; actually, it was their public schools, not the entire regional government; see this story), saving, in their estimates, many tens of millions of euros. ### Final plug for open textbooks The FSM and GPL also inspired Lawrence Lessig, an intellectual-property lawyer at Stanford, to found an organization called the Creative Commons and to make viral licenses for no-software [digital] materials. This license is sometimes call copyleft. There are now more than half a billion CC licensed works which can be found all over the Web, for example at the Wikimedia Commons. Now, why should my students be paying$130.62 for a textbook about number theory which is filled with theorems (so, ideas, and ideas cannot be copyrighted) which are mostly more than a hundred years old. And why should my calc II students pay $214.09 for a textbook? The first calculus textbook was published in 1696 (written by L'Hospital, he of the famous Rule) — while it would be ridiculous to assign this to my students, it is hard to believe that this aren't other calculus textbooks from the last 300 years which would be, like L'Hospital's, in the public domain (so: cheap!), and would also be modern enough to be useful to my students. Here's a nice future to imagine: 1. Before every semester starts, in most classes (at least in math, maybe in STEM, maybe more widely in the university...), the instructor would go to a central repository and download a bunch of copyleft chapters on the subject they would teach. 2. Simple tools would enable the materials to be put together easily, with the instructor's desired emphasis, examples, special topics, etc. 3. If the instructor wished a topic for which there was no existing material in the repository, or wished to use a novel presentation approach, or wanted new examples or problems or applications, she would use simple tools to write those new sections and to incorporate them into the bespoke textbook under construction. 4. During the semester, the students could read the textbook online entirely for free, or could purchase an on-demand printed hard copy for a few dollars. 5. At the end of the semester, anything newly created this time would be uploaded back to the repository, under a Creative Commons license, for others to use in the future. I don't want to prevent authors (professors) from charging for new books on new topics or topics never before described in a particular way. I do want to save my students thousands of dollars, and I want never to see a story like this one again. When total US student debt exceeds$2trillion and we professors have the technology (almost!) to make better, customized, (essentially) zero-cost textbooks for many of our classes, I cannot justify our inaction.

Early FSM and CC activists loudly declaimed

Information Wants to Be Free.

I assert that, at least in a university (although probably everywhere in a free society), we should stand on the principle

Information Technology Wants to Be Free

Remember, this is the "free as in speech" meaning of that word — how much it costs is a different issue... maybe I should change my proposed slogan to

Information Technology Wants to Be Libre

[although as a thing to chant on the street in our assembled thousands, it looses some of its punch when you have to stop to explain that last word.]
Whatever the slogan is, the take-away for a university, at the very least, is

Every time we buy a piece of commercial software or e-mail a Microsoft Word document to a student (or colleague), or require our students to buy an expensive textbook when there exists a free alternative, we are violating the foundational ethic of what we do as scholars and educators, and not even getting a better product for it. We should stop these violations immediately.

This presentation was filmed and can be seen here:

Some of the things I would have liked to have time to talk about:

• the vibrancy of FLOSS communities (so: this is an enormous selling point to me for WeBWorK over the commercial on-line homework systems).
• the customizability of FLOSS software
• I taught a class last semester in which the students installed a version of GNU/Linux on a thumb drive during (part of) the first class meeting, and then for the rest of the semester, they rebooted the computers in the math department computer lab to this system at the beginning of every class, and without even the slightest hiccup used FLOSS for every minute of every class session the rest of the semester, and at home when they needed to work away from the school lab.
• HCI studies on command-line versus point-and-click UIs
• Difficulties in transition to FLOSS are less significant when compared with malware-related downtimes of commercial software, users and their data locked into walled gardens, and transitions even in the commercial software world just due to new releases of software.
• Commercial software often provides heavyweight solutions to lightweight problems, because getting users locked in is part of their business model — but lock-in is the antithesis of what a free scholarly (or, for that matter, any) environment wants.
• I've written scholarly and general-audience articles about some of the above issues, see my [p]reprints sharing page.