Bonum Certa Men Certa

Microsoft's Mouthpiece Mary Branscombe Tries to Shoot Down Free Software, But Fails Miserably

"Just keep rubbing it in, via the press, analysts, newsgroups, whatever. Make the complete failure of the competition's technology part of the mythology of the computer industry. We want to place selection pressure on those companies and individuals that show a genetic weakness for competitors' technologies, to make the industry increasingly resistant to such unhealthy strains, over time."

--Microsoft, internal document [PDF]



Summary: At the CBS-owned ZDNet, which is Free/Open Source software-hostile, new FUD surfaces, but the FUD is so flawed that a full rebuttal is easy and almost imperative

Microsoft still chronically hates Free/libre software (especially classic copyleft) and it is desperately craving for some 'dirt' on it, no matter how hard it is to find. Microsoft propagandist (for nearly a decade now, or at least half a decade, both at CBS and at IDG) Mary Branscombe decided to pick on Free/libre software. The result is laughable. It's a terrible piece. ZDNet, part of CBS, published this nonetheless. The editor (probably Larry) was apparently OK with that.



With fair use in mind, we are going to deconstruct everything in Branscombe's article and show that it's just a pile of baloney. Let's start with the headline:

"Open source: Free as in speech, beer - or puppy?"

Not even original. Sun's old CEO used this analogy ("puppy") a very long time ago, before Sun defected to Free/Open Source software (FOSS) and got a new CEO. Branscombe is just copying or even 'stealing' the analogy without any attribution.

"It's hard to give developers more control over how their work is used and still keep it open source."

That's an insane talking point. It's like saying that the needs of the developers to oppress the users outweigh the needs and the interests of users. Branscombe encourages and advocates user-subjugating software. How ethical does it make her seem? Moreover, as we shall explain later, this affects all types of software, including proprietary software. It's not a FOSS issue at all.

"When you put your code out under an open source licence, how much control can you expect over what it's used for?"

Free software developers are developing because they want people to use their software. If Branscombe had spoken to any developers (even those of proprietary software), she would quickly realise that exercising control over the users is not the goal of these developers. Exploiting users is often the job (or the goal) of non-technical managers, who sometimes share users' data with marketers, spies, etc.

"Open source has often been described as 'free as in speech, rather than free as in beer'. Yes, it's software that's free to use, but the lack of a price tag isn't always the main point."

That's quoting Richard Stallman without naming him. But to say that free software means "free to use" is to show lack of comprehension of his points. Free/libre software isn't about "free to use"; the four freedoms which Stallman speaks about are what it's really about.

"For some it's about not being encumbered by limiting commercial licences or patents and royalties, for others it's about the importance of being able to see and modify the source code of what they're running (or distributing source so users can see it)."

By "commercial licences" she means proprietary licences. That's a different thing. Regarding "patents and royalties", this may inadvertently refer to software covered by the terms described under the text of the GPLv3.

The point about "distributing source so users can see it" is bizarre because visibility alone does not make software "Free software" or even "Open Source". That's just how Microsoft fraudulently openwashes a lot of its software. Branscombe helps this villainous mirage.

Now comes some of the more horrid stuff, as Branscombe probably believes that she kindly introduced FOSS in a fair and balanced fashion.

"And as I've long said, open source can also be 'free as in puppy'; you take on the responsibility of care and keeping when you start to depend on open source software."

Right, because nobody ever comes to depend on proprietary software? Whose stewardship and maintenance are both monopolised by people whose agenda differs from yours? This, if anything, is a point against proprietary software.

"You can run into problems if the project is no longer developed, or pulled suddenly when the company is bought by Apple and you discover you were using open source components that depended on a closed source core like FoundationDB, and that core is no longer available."

Because proprietary software companies never get bought? Or discontinue a product? Oh, wait, they do. And often. If it's Free software, then you can at least take charge or rely on others to take charge (e.g. forks or newly-created successors). Again, if anything, this is a point against proprietary software. Branscombe twists a problem with proprietary software as one exclusive to Free software. We saw other examples of that shameless spin very recently, as recently as one week ago.

"That makes it vital to always look carefully at the licence for open source software, especially if your business is involved (that's part of the care and keeping of the free puppy)."

Right, because proprietary software licences never change? Or the EULA (see how Vista 10 trashes privacy this week)? You don't even get to vote on or reject those. If a Free software project diverges from a licence in a way that people are opposed to, they can then fork while maintaining the more desirable licence. This, in turn, puts more pressure on the developer to obey the needs of the users. It keeps developers honest and obedient to their users; they cannot merely 'occupy' and thereby mistreat users. Isn't that a positive thing in a moral society?

"But for some software developers, the free speech comparison is getting more relevant."

The example she thus provides is irrelevant to free speech:

"Take the GIMP project, which stopped using SourceForge to distribute the Windows installer for its open source image editor in 2013, because of the ads that started appearing on the site featuring download buttons for alternative versions of the software."

Advertising is not a matter of free speech and denying advertising is not a matter of free speech, either.

"GIMP left the site up because there were so many links to it online, but stopped updating the installers there. SourceForge deemed the product abandoned and started mirroring the releases from GIMP, but it also 'experimented' with wrapping the GIMP installer with adware."

Therein lies the problem. Adware. It's not just about ads on a page. It's proprietary garbage that is not wanted and is improperly bundled.

"The GIMP team wasn't happy (and SourceForge stopped wrapping the installer, although it didn't stop mirroring it). But because GIMP is under the GPL and LGPL licences SourceForge did nothing wrong: those licences allow software to be repackaged."

Nobody ever alleged that SourceForge had violated any software licences, so it's unclear where Branscombe is going with this. No point is being made except the fact that developers can revoke endorsement (not distribution) of some piece of software if inappropriately packaged. GIMP developers packed up and moved. That's a good thing. Some call it "free market".

"Android tool developer Collin Mulliner was equally upset to discover that Hacking Team (an Italian company that sells surveillance tools to governments) had used his Android framework to build their Android voice call monitoring software."

That is a licence violation. So what's her point?

""For the future I will use a license for all my software that excludes use for this kind of purpose," he said in the blog he wrote to make it clear that he didn't work on the Hacking Team tool. But that might be hard: writing a licence that lets people use your code freely means they can use the code for anything they want."

But Hacking Team violated the terms of the GPL. Therein lies the main issue. Proprietary software would not have done any better at preventing use for malicious purposes, so how is this even relevant?

"Douglas Crockford famously added a line to his licence for JSON that said it couldn't be used for evil (and just as famously said that IBM had asked for a variation because they couldn't guarantee that their customers wouldn't use it for evil)."

Is that a bad thing?

"Yes, the GPL has repeatedly been used in court, but mostly to force companies to comply with the rules about open sourcing their own code if they've published software based on GLP-licenced code."

The typo/bad English aside (the verb has an "s" in it, but maybe this poor pieces was composed in a rush), is Branscombe trying to insinuate that honouring a licence is a bad thing?

"Commercial use is easier to police, but anyone who is going to use open source code for evil is unlikely to pay much attention to licences that say they can't, and having people use your code for purposes you don't approve of is pretty much the definition of free speech."

Proprietary software (commercial software as Branscombe calls it) has exactly the same issues, so what is her point anyway? Where is that "free puppy" point ever coming into play?

"It's going to take some careful writing of licences to give developers more control over how software they open source is used in the ways they want, without stopping the open uses they want to enable."

Again, nothing to do with "Open Source" (Free software) at all. Branscombe takes an issue that applies to all software and frames it as one pertaining to Free software. But why? Just look at Branscombe's history of badmouthing Microsoft's competitors.

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