Speaking Notes from the SpeedGeek at Toronto Penguin Day on November 20, 2004.

by Russell McOrmond1

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Please see the WIKI for this topic.

Most people think of software as something that they buy, and then it does what it is purchased to do.

I would like to introduce a different way of thinking about software: software is the rules that govern the activities of a computer. It is a type of law or policy.

Computer hardware becomes the police, judge, jury and executioner of that policy.

Now back away from the technology, and think of software from a political science point of view. You should concern yourself with three important questions: who is the author of this policy, who are the beneficiaries of this policy, and who is governed by this policy.

I will use 3 examples to get the thinking started.

Electronic voting machines.

In the recent United States election approximately 1/3 of the votes cast were cast on ballot-less voting machines. The citizen would push buttons on a screen, some policy was then executed, and the machine would then output who won that specific poll.

Who authored that policy? People immediately think that if the current government authored that policy that it would be a conflict of interest. We don't want the current government authoring the policy that decides the next government.

The problem is that it was worse than that. Proprietary software vendors authored this highly secretive policy. If you compare these vendor names to the campaign contribution database you will find out that these were partisan Republican software vendors. This should cause us to question exactly who and how the recent election was decided.

Automation of government policy.

You take some "bureaucratese" and translate it to "geekese", and have an electronic form that citizens use to interact with their government. If the electronic form does not exactly match the bureaucratese, which takes precedence? The electronic form. If this is the case, shouldn't the policy, the software code that this electronic form represents have the same level of transparency and accountability of any other government policy? If you tried to do an Access to Information request for the software policy that is used to calculate your taxes you would likely be told "no" as there are "proprietary interests" in that policy. Should there be allowed to be "proprietary interests" in the government policy represented by software used by the government?

Digital Rights Management

In order to stop people from "cutting and pasting" when the copyright holder does not want them to, the theory is that some policy in the form of software should be created that will regulate this behavior. A copyright holder would then write in their document, in a computer language, "please do not cut and paste". Some policy would exist on the audiences computer that would then regulate the activities of the citizen that owns the computer.

Who is the author of this policy? It is not the copyright holder, but the vendor of the operating system, the office suite, or other such software. Will this policy obey the request of the copyright holders? These vendors have their own interests that are often quite different than those of other copyright holders. This policy will not obey the requests of the citizen who owns the computer as the whole point of this policy is to harshly regulate the activities of the owners of the computer.

In a democratic society I believe that whether it be my eye glasses, a VCR, or a home computer, that it should be the citizen (the owner) that should be in control and not any third party. Digital Rights Management is not a protection of copyright, but a replacement of copyright where the policy is no longer authored by government but by software vendors. Is it really the intention of Creative Canadians and our government to outsource cultural policy to software vendors?

What is Open Source?

With this political science hat on, I would like you to think about what Open Source really is. I believe it is a process that allows citizens to have direct (if they are a software developer) or indirect (by hiring a software developer) influence on the policy that will govern them. This makes Open Source similar in some respects to a Representative Democracy.

If Open Source is like a Representative Democracy, what is Microsoft?

1Russell McOrmond is a self-employed Open Systems/Standards/Software Internet Consultant. http://flora.ca/ (Accessed November 21, 2004). He not only believes that "code is law", but also that "law is code" and spends much of his time "hacking" this type of code. A longer article on this topic can be seen at http://www.flora.ca/russell/drafts/code-is-law.html (Accessed November 21, 2004)