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Dmitry Sklyarov: geeks learn political activism. Last week, Dmitry Sklyarov, a PhD computer science student from Russia, came to the United States to share knowledge and information regarding serious security flaws in Adobe software (see last week's Front page) with fellow developers. He was promptly arrested.
This week, a broad-based gathering of individuals within the computer science/IT/security community came together to protest this arrest and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) under which he is being charged. For those of us within the United States, the basic freedoms we were brought up to believe in are being challenged: the Fair Use rights of the individual (the ability to use that which we have purchased), the pursuit of knowledge, even freedom of speech.
The software program that Dmitry helped develop performs a necessary step to allow the blind to read one of Adobe's eBooks: it takes a legally purchased eBook and translates the file into PDF format, which can then be processed by a speech generator. Once the file is in PDF format it could be illegally shared, making the program, even though it has legitimate uses, illegal under the DMCA. The Fair Rights lost in this case are the rights the disabled have to legally purchased copies which they cannot use unless modified.
Since the only action Dmitry performed within the United States was to give a talk describing the weaknesses in Adobe's security system, his arrest clearly signals that none of us can safely raise our voices about security issues. While the arrest may signal the beginning of unprecedented damage to our basic rights, it will also have a deleterious impact on research into computer security within the U.S., potentially forcing such research (and future associated revenues) outside the United States.
It is to these injustices that members of the free software community have begun to react. The individuals that comprise this community, both within the United States and internationally, don't often fit the standard profile for "political activist". Most are modestly private individuals, trying to do their job, to feed their families, and enjoy the creative feeling of developing software that gets used. Nonetheless, when faced with the clear injustice that touches so closely to their own expertise, they can and have spoken out.
Dmitry Sklyarov does not deserve to be jailed. Adobe Software touted its eBook Pro software as "virtually 100% burglarproof". They should be ashamed of attacking a researcher that exposed this claim to be false, that their software was not secure and, in fact, can easily be compromised by existing software tools. Such compromises do not require the use of the software developed by Dmitry Sklyarov (check this week's Security page for details).
The free software community organized quickly to protest Dmitry's arrest. The following protests were staged in the United States in Dmitry's support this week:
Add to that list an international protest held Wednesday, July 25th, in Moscow, Russia.
The protests had an impact on Adobe, who has withdrawn their complaint but stands still in support of the DMCA. Unfortunately, Dmitry is not the subject of a civil charge from Adobe, but a criminal charge from the US Justice Department. Adobe's letter is no guarantee that Dmitry will go free.
So the fight continues, with two goals: the first, to free Dmitry, and the second, to educate the citizens of the United States on the issues at stake, rousing support for the repeal or modification of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.
In another form of protest this past week, Alan Cox resigned from the board of the ALS conference and encouraged non-US participants to boycott US conferences until the DMCA has been removed or modified enough to make attending such conferences safe for participants. His action was noticed by the major news media outlets, indicating that such a boycott may, indeed, draw needed attention to the issue. New Scientist reports that other scientific organizations are following suit. If you choose to boycott US events as a result of Dmitry's arrest, we only ask that you speak up loudly to make sure that people know you are choosing to boycott and why.
If you're moved by all this there are a number of things that can you do. First, check out the Community Declaration: Free Speech, Free Sklyarov and consider signing it. Then keep an eye on the Electronic Frontier Foundation's site. And subscribe to the Free Sklyarov Mailing List to get contacts for upcoming protests, letter campaigns, etc. It will take hard work to keep media - and legislative - attention on this issue.
Meanwhile, we do have a recent report on Dmitry's status. "As on today's morning (25 Jul 01) Dmitry is still in Las Vegas. He has spoken a few times to his wife via the lawyer. Dmitry is in a good health and spirit. He was also cheered up by the news coverage on TV and thanks everyone for the support".
In addition, the EFF has announced a scheduled meeting with the US Department of Justice to try to convince them to drop the charges against Dmitry.
Richard Stallman inaugurates FSF-India. Here's a press release from the Free Software Foundation; Richard Stallman is in India for the opening of the FSF's first Asian affiliate.Is it immoral to use proprietary software? We recently received a letter (and included it on the July 4 Letters to the Editor page) which made the following claim:
As RMS once put it, using non-free software where there is no free alternative is no valid option for a member of the free software community. If it's not free it is of no use to us, whatever added value it may contain.
This sort of opinion is common among certain types of free software advocates, and it can be very forcefully expressed. When a long-time Linux kernel hacker has to step around the issue with a comment like:
P.S. I'm sure that the Church of the FSF will no doubt excommunicate me and declare me a heretic for daring to advocate the use of proprietary software, but if so, so be it. You heard it here first --- this Linux kernel developer has absolutely no problem paying money for at least some proprietary software.
it seems clear that a certain type of "political correctness" is in the air.
Let's leave aside the little fact that Richard Stallman and the GNU project developed much of its early code on proprietary Unix systems. Is it truly "no valid option" for a member of the free software community to use proprietary software? What, exactly, is the harm in doing so?
The biggest fear that is overtly expressed seems to be that use of proprietary software reduces the motivation to write a free equivalent. At its worst, proprietary code could somehow block the development of a free package entirely. Take, for example, Richard Stallman's level of discontent three years ago when Oracle finally announced its support for Linux. While many users saw Oracle's move as an important step in the wider recognition of Linux, Stallman complained that Oracle brought nothing to the free software community and that people should be working on free alternatives instead.
At that time there was really only one free relational database management system available: PostgreSQL. It was a solid system but it lacked some key features and was not that widely recognized. Many free software users based database solutions instead on MySQL, which while not free software does provide source.
Three years after Oracle's arrival, the free software community has two solid, thriving, free database management systems, both of which have proved themselves in demanding deployments. And that doesn't count InterBase, a recently freed system which is still establishing its development and user communities. It would be very difficult to make the claim that the presence of Oracle (and Informix, and Sybase, and DB2, ...) has impeded the development of PostgreSQL and MySQL. The world of free database systems has never looked better.
Looking back even before Oracle's arrival, GNU emacs competed for some years with multiple proprietary emacs editors. The GNU version emerged from that conflict in rather better shape than the proprietary variants.
Can one really argue that ApplixWare, WordPerfect, and StarOffice have discouraged the development of free office suites? Did Netscape's browser slow down the development of free alternatives? Has the development of Linux in general been hurt because some people use dual-boot systems?
The truth of the matter is that free software tends to quickly achieve the capabilities of its proprietary competitors and push them aside. LWN has frequently trumpeted the advantages of free software and the importance of freedom in this space; there is no need to repeat those arguments now.
Today's argument is different: free software is not threatened by the presence and use of proprietary software. There may be a strong moral purpose in an individual or corporate decision to use only free software, but there is no moral need or purpose in trying to prevent others from using the tools that work best for them. No member of the free software community should be made to feel an outsider just because the programs they need to get their work done now are not available under a free license. Free software will succeed because of the liberty and technical superiority it provides. Ostracizing those who use (or sell) proprietary software is neither appropriate nor helpful.
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July 26, 2001