Free Software: Something Most Libertarians & Socialists Agree On? Or Almost

On Tuesday a democrat in New Hampshire’s house introduced a bill in support of free software. The House Bill (HB) 1273 would be a step forward for software freedom. It proposes to help protect the user freedom of New Hampshire residents in a number of important ways.

  • Prohibits the state government from requiring residents to use proprietary software, whether in remote court appearances, tax filings, standardized test-taking, coursework in public schools, or matters relating to any state benefits
  • Forbid employers from using non-compete clauses to prevent their employees from contributing to free software
  • Prevents state agencies from mandating the use of non-free JavaScript
  • Prohibits NH law enforcement from participating in the investigation or prosecution of copyright claims brought by proprietary software developers against free software developers
  • Forms a state commission to promote the use of free software in state agencies

Now much of the legislation is a bit wishy-washy with no real teeth, but there are some parts that in theory if passed could have a beneficial impact on our freedom. Other parts could be a little more problematic for those who are libertarian and do not believe in the use of violence to achieve social and political objectives (outside that of a defensive nature anyway). Fortunately most of the bill is tailored toward government and is more defensive in nature than not. Some not so great parts would likely also not have much real world impact.

One part in particular should get libertarians everywhere excited. While it probably was not intended by the legislator proposing the bill, a democrat, it would none-the-less be an amazing step forward in reducing the harm of violent thugs in government. The bill would ensure that users have the right to access the source code for any device utilized in the creation of evidence. This would in effect result in evidence being thrown out whereby the government could not produce the source code to the device that created it. Evidence from such devices as radar guns would no longer be valid in court for all practical purposes. The reason for this is that the suppliers of such devices will not release such source code and thereby prosecutors won’t be able to comply with the law. Before the socialists get upset by this though it’s something everyone should be concerned about. It’s already well known that these devices are full of bugs and this would likely result in evidence being invalidated everywhere if the code were released- not just in NH- and so the device manufacturers would never want to do this short of significant improvements to the code. The solution is to pass this in more states and force manufacturers hand-else let this stand as a means of eliminating a law that should not be in that there is no party that can actually show injury.

To have any real chance of seeing this pass the legislation would likely need to be significantly trimmed. Some parts are problematic such as the forbidding of employers from using non-compete clauses to prevent their employees from contributing to free software for instance. This would likely be unpopular with many state legislators who otherwise support software freedom while also supporting ones right to negotiate a contract free of government interference. Maybe there is a way to put this into law that were more freedom-focused, like letting such terms be unenforceable via law, but either way much of the legislature isn’t going to want to interfere in the private affairs of employee-employer relations either way. I suspect this is likely to have little impact in either case given non-compete clauses within the free software world are already taboo and many of us (myself included) would not sign (or require it) such in an employment contract.

One interesting aspect of the bill is that it would prohibit NH law enforcement from partaking in investigation or prosecution of copyright claims against free software developers. While I can in good conscious support this and would go farther to argue for the elimination of copyright it’s unclear to me where this is currently an issue. Maybe it’s connected to the breaking of digital restrictions such as would be the case with something like DeCSS. A free software program that breaks encryption on commercial DVDs. This falls under copyright law and might be prosecuted by state agencies although that said it’s normally a federal offense. State law enforcement can generally however prosecute federal crimes as I understand it or otherwise partake in federal investigation and prosecution thereof. Of which is more common I do believe with civil asset forfeiture cases.

In spite of some of the issues with the legislation a small contingent of libertarians showed up to more or less in support the legislation as well as others from the free software community. One Jon “maddog” Hall, the Board Chair for the Linux Professional Institute, for instance came out and spoke in favor of the legislation.

Jon “maddog” Hall is the Board Chair for the Linux Professional Institute

The main theme surrounding the hearing seemed to be that of software security and the cost of implementation. New Hampshire’s head of IT for instance also spoke from what appeared to be a purchased lobbyist point-of-view. Declaring more or less that it would be of significant burden and cost to transition to free software (while saying they’re already using free software humorously). The opposing side of course pointed out the truth in that there is always a cost to migrate from one release of a program to another, but it’s not significantly different from that of migrating to free software. Not to mention that while free software isn’t about price, but the liberty, security, and control, this twisting and confusing of the bill was quite disingenuous. The long term costs are reduced as no license agreements need be acquired. Commercial support is generally available too despite the head of IT trying to confuse the reps by comparing commercial software to free software. These are for all intensive purposes one and the same. You can acquire commercial support from Redhat for instance for free software and even much of Microsoft’s own code is based on free software. This bill was about libre, not gratis where libre means freedom, and gratis means price.

While the head of NH IT argued against free software on the basis of features, commercial support, and security the reality is these are more often than not mute points given features can be added to free software unlike the proprietary software he favored. Security bugs can be fixed not at the whim of a particular company, but that of either, you, the community, or the commercial entity you contract with for said free software (example: Redhat). Yes- you can buy free software and many companies do. Just because something is libre doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t pay for its development/support. And unlike proprietary software free software can be seen, read, and audited by third parties with or without the consent of the company producing it (once released). These are the things that ensure security- not anti-virus software or proprietary software vendors of which the former is a kin to putting up a fence and expecting it to stop ants from coming onto your property. The head of IT didn’t stop there- even implying that free software was insecure through association with Bitcoin. While not said outright during the hearing he referenced recent socially engineered attacks on municipalities. Somewhat recently there were reports of municipalities being ‘hacked’- which were in reality social engineering attacks primarily involving the traditional banking system. It was only after the attacks occurred and the money paid by employees of the municipalities to criminals overseas that said money was utilized to purchase Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies. If there is a flaw- it’s not the software- and it’s certainly not the result of it being libre.

Video Of The Hearing On House Bill (HB) 1273

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