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08.07.20

Freedom is Personal

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF at 9:54 am by Guest Editorial Team

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2020 figosdev

Freedom girl
Chapter 6: Freedom is Personal

Summary: “Before I say anything else, note that there are literally hundreds of GNU/Linux distros, and I put in a lot of work to rate which were the least encumbered by corporate politics — directly or indirectly.”

Loosely speaking, the Free Software Foundation defines Free software as software that you can freely use, study, change and share. The actual definition is more detailed, but these actions (when unfettered) are referred to as the “Four Freedoms”.

“DRM is a bit like ransomware, in that it encrypts data and demands payment to un-encrypt (decrypt) it.”The freedom to use the software could be considered a given, but was added later in response to DRM, which reduces the ability to use the software freely.

DRM is a bit like ransomware, in that it encrypts data and demands payment to un-encrypt (decrypt) it. The main difference between DRM and ransomware is that ransomware is less particular about which files it encrypts — while DRM (usually) only affects files that you legitimately purchased. Here is a more detailed comparison:

1. Ransomware: often gets on your PC without you deliberately installing it

2. Ransomware: encrypts the files on your machine, regardless of who the authors are

3. Ransomware: decrypts your files once — maybe — if you pay the ransom

4. DRM: often gets on your PC without you deliberately installing it

5. DRM: encrypts the files before they are copied to your machine, from particular authors — allegedly on the authors’ behalf

6. DRM: decrypts your files each time you open them — either via software on your machine, or via an authentication server that stops decrypting your files if it goes offline

While #6 varies a great deal, in essence this is a way for companies to continue to own and control “your” copy of something even after you legally purchase it.

“…in essence this is a way for companies to continue to own and control “your” copy of something even after you legally purchase it.”This puts libraries in jeopardy and flies in the face of first-sale doctrine (which says the copy of something you purchase is yours to do what you want with, even if you can’t make or share more copies of it) but these are not very nice companies — they really don’t care about libraries, or your rights.

While it is possible to break DRM it is also illegal in some countries (including the USA) and the best way to deal with DRM is to simply never buy “products” that use it. Not all publishers use DRM — Apple sometimes does, Netflix does, Amazon does for e-books.

If you want your computing to be free, the Free Software Foundation had a simple plan for you: download one of their “fully-free distros” and install it on your computer.

“If you want your computing to be free, the Free Software Foundation had a simple plan for you: download one of their “fully-free distros” and install it on your computer.”This doesn’t work anymore, because their distros are no longer fully-free. But they will say otherwise — if you want a “fully-free” distro, try Hyperbola. Wait, it’s not quite ready yet. That’s okay, Hyperbola is doing important work for our future (and setting a good example for the other FSF-approved distributions).

Now, what is this distro/distribution business about? When you have the four freedoms, and you can freely use, study, change and share your software — this leads to people putting together nice (sometimes they’re nice) collections of software called “distributions”. This has been going on since at least the 1990s, and for quite a while it was the best way to get Free software.

The best distribution (the word “distro” is shorter) of all time WAS Debian, but Debian absolutely sucks now. The distro sucks, the software sucks, the people suck — Debian is a raging galactic suckfest that craps on users and then demands apologies for you complaining about it. But it was so awesome, I was at one point certain we would never need another distro.

“If you’ve never used a distro before, don’t worry about it — just think of it like the make and model of a car.”When Debian was a good distro, users were still allowed to have personal opinions — now that Debian sucks mightily of course, hating it is a thoughtcrime that will get you branded for life, no matter who you used to be.

If you’ve never used a distro before, don’t worry about it — just think of it like the make and model of a car. Until quite recently, basically all cars were internal combustion engines attached to a transmission, wheels, frames and seats.

“For most people, a few free (as in freedom) applications or a “GNU/Linux” distro are their first step towards free computing.”Cars vary wildly, but you would know one if you saw it. A similar basic configuration (with parts that do vary a bit) is a theme that runs throughout all distros. What does a distro do? It is an operating system, with a collection of software.

For most people, a few free (as in freedom) applications or a “GNU/Linux” distro are their first step towards free computing. This chapter will invite you to consider taking that step, as it is still “better than Windows” — with the caveat that distros aren’t what they used to be.

The point of “rebooting” the Free software movement would be for the user to be free again. You won’t get that with any up-to-date “Free software” distribution available now, though Hyperbola gets the closest. Why Hyperbola is so special is a subject for another chapter. They’re doing things a little differently than everybody else — Hyperbola gives users something to hope for.

GNU/Linux itself is essentially doomed, but that’s a subject for another chapter as well. For the moment, it’s a relatively easy place to start on your your Free software journey.

“As with GNU/Linux, removing your operating system doesn’t fix everything — there are still firmware issues, but those require longer-term solutions.”In Chapter 4, we imagined taking the hard drive out of the computer or simply erasing it. Goodbye, Windows! Au revoir, Cortana!

As with GNU/Linux, removing your operating system doesn’t fix everything — there are still firmware issues, but those require longer-term solutions. You can buy a computer with those firmware issues removed, though we are still imagining a computer with a blank (or non-existent) hard drive.

If you have a computer (which you don’t care about breaking) to spare, feel free to try the following. Otherwise, let’s imagine it for now.

“Your robot assistant in the previous chapter just worked, and pretty soon it was sending your personal life off to corporate HQ in the post.”Now let’s pretend we are erasing the drive. Any files and programs on there will be gone. First we go to Tiny Core Linux and go to the Downloads page, then download the file that says “Core” on the left.

It claims that this one is “recommended for experienced users only.” Sure, but none of the options on the page are ideal if you’ve never done this before — we want Core for this experiment, as it’s mostly to make a series of points about software. The other downloads are nice too, but they make different points.

None of these options are “fully free” — the kernel probably has bits in it that are proprietary. Windows has loads of those — some people go to the extra trouble of removing them from the Linux kernel — that’s a nice feature and it would be nice if they made a fully-free kernel for Tiny Core, but that’s not how the FSF works. They have never really offered a minimalist distro.

I used to offer a distro that had a fully-free kernel, but this book is about (among other things) why you won’t ultimately want GNU/Linux anyway.

Chances are, you’re just reading this — you haven’t gone to the trouble of making Core bootable, putting it on CD or USB, or running it on your computer.

I installed this very recently, and I thought you could run a single command to put it on a USB stick. That didn’t work, so I did a lot of other things you won’t find interesting here (including use my own distro to install the bootloader, so I could just COPY Tiny Core to the machine and “install” it that way).

In the past I would have actually taken you through each step of installation, using the most reliable distro I could find. Those days were nice. Now most things are broken, and I don’t care if you think “man, this stuff could be a real pain to install” — because it shouldn’t be a real pain. But sometimes it’s just stupid.

“Tiny Core is really one of the most free distros you can use.”What about my own distro? If I still wanted to promote it, it would be part of this chapter. I will talk about it more later, where its relevant to do so. But if I recommended it to you, I would do that here. Instead, I talk about Hyperbola and wave my hands about the future. Because that is pretty much where we are at the moment — in limbo between the world before and maybe the one where Free software comes back.

So you get Core installed and voila, you’re Windows-free. You’re pretty much free of software as well. Welcome to the early 1980s. If we wanted to, we could get a text editor going. We could get a programming language installed. But this is how computing used to be.

What does it look like? You have a black screen, a bit of text, a “penguin” made at the top with some parentheses and letters (typewriter art goes all the way back to actual typewriters) and most importantly you have line with a dollar sign (regardless of your local currency) and a blinking cursor, to let you know that you can type text in.

It may not look like much, but you can actually do a lot of stuff from here. You’re probably thinking “but why would I want to?” That’s a good question.

From here, you are closer to “pure” computing. Not “pure” as in some majestic perfection — not even as “pure” as it could possibly be. From here, the possibilities are nearly endless. You have a canvas — the world of modern computing was imagined from modest beginnings like this. What would happen if they stopped making canvases, and you could only buy new paintings from corporations?

You could just install a graphical environment and start adding software. Before you know it, you’ll be asking why this tiny feature isn’t identical to this other tiny feature on a completely different system — the answer is really a simple one:

Someone didn’t want it to be the same.

What about you, what do you want? A lot of people say “I want something that just works.”

That’s not very specific though. Your robot assistant in the previous chapter just worked, and pretty soon it was sending your personal life off to corporate HQ in the post. You might as well think about it though, because anything you fall in love with about any software you can install right now — they’re going to screw with it until it’s something you probably won’t like anymore — plus, it won’t work.

And Debian is a GREAT example of that. But it’s one example of so many.

The goal of no user I’ve ever known is to stay “pure” in a particularly meaningful sense, though a few are extremely minimalist. If they see you using this plain, black screen, they might smile — they might ask what distro you’re using. They might chuckle and walk away.

Before I say anything else, note that there are literally hundreds of GNU/Linux distros, and I put in a lot of work to rate which were the least encumbered by corporate politics — directly or indirectly. Tiny Core was easily in the top 30 (out of hundreds) though I didn’t rate the distros within the top category (relative to each other, I mean).

Tiny Core is really one of the most free distros you can use. But since the FSF doesn’t agree (nor would I have, 7 years ago) it will be necessary to explain that a bit better.

If just this much of the computer were really yours, I would tell you so much about it. But it’s not, it’s merely closer to the computer itself. So I will tell you a bit about it instead — and how to maybe get from here back to being free again.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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