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08.07.19

Guest Post: Enough is Enough!

Posted in EFF, Free/Libre Software, Microsoft at 11:16 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

By figosdev

Enough

Not even two weeks ago, Techrights founder Roy Schestowitz said:

“I have been writing for many years about threats to Linux and more recently I focused on threats to Git (development processes, centralisation, censorship etc.) as well. I think we’re now at a critical point.”

And I agree. The FSF has settled into focusing too much on matters of licensing, even as they dabble with other important issues such as the “cloud” (clowncomputing) and hardware that respects your freedom. I’m concerned that long term — years from now — the FSF will shift its focus towards being a hardware standard almost exclusively; as the software ecosystem moves further and further from the GPL and the FSF needs a way to justify itself to sponsors and members alike.

“…as the software ecosystem moves further and further from the GPL and the FSF needs a way to justify itself to sponsors and members alike.”If software becomes almost completely controlled by monopolies again, the FSF won’t have any serious influence over software anymore and thus like Mozilla since Eich left, its real mission will be defunct. But their RYF campaign is both important and about something you can rarely get for free, so the FSF can focus on something meaningful and commercial; even while it backs away from its primary mission of fighting for software freedom.

For years, half a decade even — people have complained about the threat that systemd poses to freedom. It is designed to consolidate power into the hands of a single corporation. Microsoft outlined 20 years ago that to compete with Open source, they would need to target “a process, not a company.” With systemd hosted on Github, they can now do both.

The FSF recognised the threat of code being on Github even before Microsoft owned it — now that Microsoft hosts (controls) the code used in the FSF’s most popular fully-free operating systems, they continue to ignore the problems that systemd brings to the table:

- It reduces the security of every GNU/Linux distro that adopts it (it already won a Pwnie.)

- It divides the communities that adopt it (quite deliberately, but let’s blame every critic, and give a divisive project a limitless benefit of the doubt.)

- It reduces the modularity in every distro that adopts it, which reduces the user’s freedom.

“Microsoft outlined 20 years ago that to compete with Open source, they would need to target “a process, not a company.” With systemd hosted on Github, they can now do both.”The FSF in the past has talked about backdoors that Microsoft puts in their own products, but it won’t talk about how systemd is hosted on servers owned by Microsoft (and that this is one more reason people shouldn’t use systemd) and it doesn’t acknowledge that Microsoft can now add backdoors to systemd (and every distro that uses it) themselves. Do you trust Microsoft to run secure servers, when they deliberately compromise their own operating system?

And what people are waiting for is a concrete example of this grand f***-up in the making, and all we have are smaller examples for now, but those are ignored year after year. Meanwhile, various major problems that the FSF has acknowledged in the past continue to cluster around the software weapon formerly known as an init system, and the FSF doesn’t dare speak against it or advise people to even question it.

I’ve said for well over a year, that systemd is not the only problem — just the biggest so far. Google has its own anti-POSIX weapon, which it is a little more honest about being a way to crush POSIX itself, in the long-standing Microsoftian tradition of “de-commoditising protocols.”

POSIX more than anything, is what the free software ecosystem has in common. Sure, there are many exceptions. But POSIX is the biggest rule even if implementation is incomplete, and attacking it is a great way to win the war against free software.

Finally, these attacks are not just against the core of most operating systems. Thankfully, along with their aging flagships Trisquel and GnewSense, FSF is at least welcoming Hyperbola– the most free FSF distro of all time, and GuixSD — what will probably become the most customisable FSF distro of all time. In the long run these may help a lot, but for now, Trisquel continues to destroy itself.

There are additional problems of infiltration of non-profits, which the FSF will not talk about. There are additional problems of degradation of software quality and security, followed up with denial and inappropriate claims of “FUD.”

There are shills in the tech press, as many as ever before, misleading the public that the FSF will not talk about. And one of the best weapons these shills have, is the facts about what is happening to the quality and reliability of free software. systemd critics have warned about those for years, only for it to fall on deaf ears.

“Do you trust Microsoft to run secure servers, when they deliberately compromise their own operating system?”The facts matter — always. While some of the points raised by shills in the media are accurate, others actually deserve to be called “FUD.” The FUD about VLC is a great example — they tried to paint VLC as insecure, but left out that the vulnerability was actually in a 3rd-party library. That’s FUD if I ever heard it, and FUD is an age-old weapon used by Microsoft to fight competitors.

The problem with KDE however, is a fine example of the sort of design problems that we used to make fun of Windows for. It turns out, some designs are so terrible that they don’t just compromise the security of non-free software — quite a few bad security practices work on multiple platforms, including FLOSS platforms, and some designs count as bad security practices themselves.

As with systemd, Windows cared far more about new features than security or good design. Their constant design compromises and lack of care dragged security and privacy into crisis, with really awful technologies like ActiveX, Office macros, Hidden extensions that let people fake safe-to-open document types that were actually executables — you think you’re opening a file in notepad but it’s actually malware — users could improve security just by turning off “Hide known file extensions” but that one stupid feature alone caused how much damage?

When you bring these historically terrible designs from Windows to GNU/Linux, they don’t get better. Sure, they are more likely to get patched after the damage is done — and that’s an advantage over non-free software. So is freedom, of course! Ben Mako Hill wrote “When Free Software Isn’t Better” in 2010, and all of the points are valid — but so is the fact that people are making free software WORSE.

That’s a real threat to the free software ecosystem, and the FSF refuses to talk about it. They prefer denial and compartmentalisation.

The FSF ignores free software advocates when they talk about systemd making free software worse — they ignore other people working to make free software worse — they ignore the infiltration of Microsoft employees into highly relevant organisations like the Linux Foundation, who control a trademark that the FSF uses on a daily basis.

“Because we made fun of Windows for all of these things, many of us got into free software as a way to get away from all these terrible designs.”And the war against free software continues, with KDE adding the equivalent of autorun.inf behaviour (another of those terrible Windows designs) to its software.

As with macros, non-executable formats should never, ever execute code unless the user runs them and knows they’re running them. OFF is the only secure default for such features. Windows made all sorts of exceptions to good practices along these lines, while other problems like buffer overflow vulnerabilities are more about bugs in code than terrible design (perhaps there is some small overlap.)

But terrible designs are terrible designs, and at a minimum these features should be turned off. The motives of paid/bribed shills disclosing vulnerabilities is relevant, but do not change facts — when dangerously stupid designs are exposed, it’s alright — even a good idea — to note the motives of shills, but it’s also still relevant that the designs are stupid and dangerous.

Because we made fun of Windows for all of these things, many of us got into free software as a way to get away from all these terrible designs. The people working on free software were avoiding these pitfalls, because their priorities did not put really dumb features over general safety. Modern free software developers are increasingly of the wrong priority set, and we are already experiencing the results.

Every bad design idea brought in needs to be heavily mitigated, preferably avoided whenever reasonable, and above all not simply denied when pointed out.

Either “outsiders” are attacking the quality of well-established free software products, or “insiders” are attacking the projects themselves — which one it is doesn’t matter as much as the fact that software we rely in is being degraded and made less reliable, harder to control, harder to secure, and harder to get away from — in an awful trend lasting for at least half a decade now.

All of these things are problems for free software, and as with any bad war — the denial only extends the ability of the people responsible to do more damage.

By all means, if you want to suffer more, then say nothing! Or better yet, deny the facts. But don’t do so and expect people to be able to offer something better, or even good to people that want freedom.

“Questions are not dealt with honestly, goals are compromised and critics are abused.”I can’t think of a single distro to recommend right now, because too many of the people who cluster around the only distro I’ve loved to use in 5 years are COMPLETE dicks. I’m not going to subject innocent people trying free software for the first time to that. Questions are not dealt with honestly, goals are compromised and critics are abused.

Things are not just critical — we are actually losing now, more than we were a few years ago. GNU/Linux reached its height in 2014, and it’s been largely downhill ever since.

“GNU/Linux reached its height in 2014, and it’s been largely downhill ever since.”I’m VERY grateful to the people working hard to fix this, including the Hyperbola team. Everybody else, needs to figure out whether they prefer to march this thing forwards, or backwards. It’s gone backwards for half a decade — perhaps it’s time to re-consult the map?

Don’t wait another five years, we’ve already lost those to the people actively trying to destroy our ecosystem. Now is the best possible time to turn around and start winning again — but only if we stay honest. If we can’t be honest about it, any victory will be hollow, fake and pointless. The history of free software is so much better than this, and it should be again.

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A Single Comment

  1. Canta said,

    August 8, 2019 at 1:21 pm

    Gravatar

    @figosdev

    Dude… I mostly share your feelings, but I don’t think a “PEOPLE WAKE THE F$%K UP!!1!” tone is the way to go, and also you’re mixing several different things. They’re related, ok. But they’re also issues in their own right.

    - FSF role is a complex problem. For us, and for them. Reducing it to “needs a way to justify itself to sponsors and members alike” is frankly rude given its history. The freedom we all claim to defend here also comes with the freedom of specifity: they’re people, have limited time, limited health, limited budget… I can’t blame them for focusing in something. They’re not the all-grabbing monster that private corporations are. And I’m sure this stuff has its place in their internal debates. Yet, as I see it, the problem you bring is not about the FSF not doing what it should, but us asking too much from them. We may need other organizations.

    - The same about freedom goes for KDE, and whatever other organization out there doing its own thing. Remember the desktop shift circa 2010? It was a cancer. I was between the few who liked canonical’s Unity, specially for their convergence initiative. But a lot of my peers were rabid against it, even smiling when the projects kinda died, and always found “facts” to be like that. To this day, mobile GNU is not even up to “marginal” status, but there’s people around us that still finds it funny. Have you ever tried to go buying a new mobile phone? I stick to my ~2014 Firefox OS low budget, but it’s going to die eventually, and I would have to deal with the Android community and their infinitely complex hardware offers with no software freedom in mind. The FSF didn’t spoke about this issue just until after Ubuntu Phone and FFOS were officialy discontinued, and then recomended us Replicant: an Android fork instead of any mobile GNU iteration. Who won anything on that? GNOME and KDE are still being harshly critized in the name of objectivity and purity, and so we have 3475639846539456 forks of current and previous versions anybody hardly need. I’m frankly sick of people critizing others desingns as if they’re somehow brilliant and the others are blind, and that’s the same way I feel about big projects shooting themselves in the foot either by doing wrong things or by just being assholes. Both things are frequent and recurrent ad nauseum. And that’s a problem in itself. We need some middle ground, and we don’t have it: POSIX doesn’t tell me (AFAIK) how to do a GUI/Graphical Shell/Desktop Environment/whatever-the-name. There’s no interoperability standard for user interaction with a screen using a keyboard, a mouse, and/or a touch screen. We need something like that with the bigger picture in mind, and not just “objective criticism” for the sake of “what is right”.

    - Systemd, I still can’t understand it. Lots of people were happy with it even when it hardly worked at all. And that’s part of the problem: how did that happened? Because if it wasn’t some supervillain level PR like Trump or the brexit, then there’s something for us to learn there. It’s fine to denounce it as the problem it is. But we also need to tackle its spread methodology, specially between our peers. Slack? Nobody forced our peers to use Slack. They were even running away from Skype, and then choose that. That’s a big issue in front of our very nose, and a very different one from quality standars or evil corporate agendas.

    - Thing is (and this is core in most of the problems in your post), Free Software community, and GNU/Linux in particular, is full of technical people not even closely related to FSF ideals. They’re more on the open source side, which is full of enterprisey mindset: prestige, doing stuff to get a job or not losing it, trying to be someone’s boss someday, making money, and so on. “Freedom” for this mindset is “freedom of commerce”, and little more than that. So they feel free as long as they can buy and sell stuff, and that’s how far human rights reachs their work. I’ve been seen much more vegan programmers than free software supporters in a strong sense. And I’m most likely being unfair with lots of people saying this stuff, but the example stands: one doesn’t need to be related to our “freedom” definition to be an active part of the GNU/Linux community.

    - And then there are the dicks. A lot of code of conduct issues were raised in last years, reaching even Linus and RMS themselves. There has been lots of debates online about the toxicity of different GNU/Linux related communities, and the impact it has in GNU/Linux desktop adoption, developing, and ideals. For some people this is even a tool of the devil, as if it weren’t a real problem (it’s both things).

    With all this in mind, my point is simple: the problem is people. And when the problem is people, the tool is politics. You can use mixed sciences to get knowledge from different phenomenons, but when going into changing things you will be doing politics and no other thing. From that point of view of mine, I believe your “facts” will hardly reach anyone not already convinced, no matter your objectivity level, and that’s not a problem of the world but yours. And I also believe that different problems require different knowledges: it’s not just about “being right”, but also “how to make it work”. Honesty is a GREAT start, I fully agree with you in that. And yes, in the history of Free Software may be the key to solve this. But it’s far from a “facts” issue, and more about how do we organize ourselves and do something about it.

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