Auto-biographical notes by Russell McOrmond1
This work is licensed under a Canadian Attribution-ShareAlike Creative Commons License.
This article was started to be drafted on October 7, 2004 and will be authored and updated in pieces. It may be unusual to be publishing a document before it is completed in any form, but this is the wide-open way I prefer to work. If you have comments, or even possible corrections to dates that events may have happened, please send me an email or add new comment in my weblog.
I am actively trying to recover the source code (6502 assembly) to VicTronics (early 1980's), as well as the source code (in C) for Welmat (late 1980's) and/or WPL (Early 1990's) and related software for the Amiga. I have realized when thinking about this document that I no longer have easy access to the two largest projects I authored or contributed to in the past. VicTronics will be on 5.25" floppies accessible only on a Commodore floppy drive, and Welmat/WPL will be on 3.5" floppy that can only be accessed on an Amiga. In both cases the disks require special hardware to access them, assuming anyone can find the disks at all in a condition that are readable.
While we can access written materials from thousands of years ago, we must realize the problems associated with accessing digital works only decades old. While some misguided creators are asking for DRM which will only make this problem worse, there is a need for those supporting culture to recognize that we must be lobbying for open vendor-neutral and technology-neutral standards and strongly speaking out against technologies like DRM. Not only should creative people not be supporting legal protection for DRM, but they should be lobbying to have governments highly regulate DRM, including via competition policy, possibly banning DRM entirely in archival or other situations.
While my body was born on March 31, 1968, who I am today can be said to have been born some time in 1981. I was in grade 8 and I met my first computer. It is the relationship that I have had with this special type of machine that defined who I am.
My story is not a unique one, and is one that is shared by many people who go under the title of "Hacker". While this subculture has roots that are said to start in 1958 in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, far too many of us did not admit who we were in mixed company. Our culture has been misunderstood by the mainstream culture, with far too many associating who we are with what they feel is criminal behavior.
With the help of the growth of Free/Libre and Open Source Software, the Hacker Ethic is being recognized for its positive contribution to society. This year a few hackers started to prominently show a hacker emblem, a signal of our coming out.
I have been thinking quite a bit about my past in recent months. I have read "Free as in Freedom"2, the biography of Richard Stallman as well as the book "Hackers: heroes of the computer revolution"3. I have re-watched the movies "War Games" and "Hackers", feeling that rush that this movie is about who I was in my youth and a big part of who I am today. I stated to listen to Off the Hook4, the weekly Hacker radio show hosted by 2600 magazine, and am contemplating attending future HOPE (Hackers On Planet Earth) conferences5.
With this coming out I feel the need to write my story. Whether anyone else reads or finds my story interesting, it will be useful for my own thinking to express these thoughts publicly.
As a hacker I have authored a considerable amount of software code over the years. None of this code was licensed for royalty payment. I do not intend to ever intentionally allow my work to be "monopoly rent seeking" as this goes against my moral code, which I recently discovered was part of the Hacker Ethic. All my work was deliberately part of the public domain until the early 1990's when I discovered Free Software and the GNU project, turning instead to Free Software copyright licensing, and more specifically to CopyLeft6 licensing.
Certain governments, industrial associations and self-called "creators groups" are telling me that my creativity is not wanted. These governments are increasingly changing the laws around creativity to make the type of open collaborative creativity I grew up with illegal. I joined the worldwide fight against these misguided policies starting in 2001, and like others fighting against colonialist aggression will try to protect my way of life.
In Steven Levey's book, "Hackers: heroes of the computer revolution", he wrote about the Hacker culture as it grew in the United States from the 1950's at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, in Cambridge Massachusitts), through the 1970's in California with the homebrew computer club, and the 1980s with game designers.
The book was published in 1984 which meant that the problems seen in that 1980s game culture was mirrored again in the 1990s with what is now known as the "Dot Com Bubble". These were the stories of hackers who were able to be creative in a way that was both misunderstood by business interests who thought it was harmful to their interests, while at the same time coveting this creativity. In both cases a market was over-inflated as business interests didn't adequately understand what they were exploiting, only knew that in the short term that there was a gold rush that they wished to be part of.
I have little in common with the game designers of the 1980s, even though this was my time of introduction. Of the times written about in the book the philosophies that most closely matched my own were those of the hardware hackers of the 1970s. My experience will also be of someone spending his first 19 years in Sudbury, Ontario, then moving to Ottawa. I believe it is important for Hackers who grew up in Canada to also tell our stories so that it is clear that our culture is not centralized in the United States. In some ways Hackers outside of the United States are able to more openly talk about their stories in the current political climate given the war from some parts of the US government against much of what unites us as a culture.
Levey detailed one version of the Hacker Ethic7. While I will reference this as I discuss my own relationship to this culture, it follows in point form:
Access to computer – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
All information should be free
Mustrust Authority – Promote Decentralization
Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
You can create art and beauty on a computer.
Computers can change your life for the better.
As I read these words they rang very true. While I live in Canada, my political views more closely mirror my own interpretation of this ethic than of the values that are often seen to define Canadian society. I have gone so far as to suggest that I am a Hacker in the same way that others consider themselves to be Canadian, and have written about this in submissions to the Canadian government8.
As with any other traits of a culture, they are often misunderstood by outsiders. One of the most misunderstood aspects is the idea that information should be free. Information is naturally non-rivalrous, meaning that my knowing something does not diminish the fact that you can also know the same information. In the words of Thomas Jefferson:
If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.9
It has been helpful for me to realize that a non-hacker like Thomas Jefferson wrote words like this in 1813, nearly 150 years before the birth of the Hacker culture. He would have understood what we meant by information being free. Far too many people, including and especially people in the government of the country that Thomas Jefferson helped to found, not only do not understand this concept but actively oppose it.
This misunderstanding has been one of the core battles our community has been dealing with. We have created tools to try to clarify this, such as the clarification of the word free in the definition of Free Software.
``Free software'' is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of ``free'' as in ``free speech,'' not as in ``free beer.''10
As someone who identifies with this culture, I don't consider policy decisions that oppose this culture to be simple policy decisions. For those of us who live within these countries and are expected to obey their laws, I see it nothing short of a colonial imposition by a foreign power. There are many who say that if they had the founding of Canada to do all over again, they would have treated the many Native cultures very differently than the colonialists did. I wonder if that is true as people who I would expect to understand have not acknowledged similarities to modern day events.
Some of my notes in my Experience file have turned out to not have accurate dates ;-)
Born March 31,1968
Sept 1973-79 (K-6 – L J Atkinson)
Grade 6 was Mrs. Lawrence – most improved student award
1980-1981 : Grade 7 – Robert Jack
Introduction to PET computers. Mobile class of computers going from school to school.
Graduated from Robert Jack (Senior Class 1981-82 – have class picture)
My sister recognized my interest in computers. There was a student in a grade younger to her at the high-school that was also interested in computers, so she arranged for the two of us to meet. Peter Malisani lived about a 15 minute walk from our home, and had bought himself his own computer: a Vic-2011.
I was given his address, and walked over. We met for the first time, and went down to the basement family room where the Computer was set up. This would become a very important place for many months as the two of us did what seemed quite natural for two teens with a computer: we combined our skills to create computer games. While I was the better software developer, Peter was well read in science fiction and fantasy. We designed and attempted to write a number of games for fun, not really focusing on them to completion or ever attempting to sell anything.
While what we had in common at first was that Vic-20 computer, we grew to be very good friends. While he was a grade higher than me, we had many more things in common. We were both smart, not good at sports, and other such things that one would attribute with what might be called "nerds". Peter was more school-smart, getting very good grades and sticking on the honor roll the whole time that I knew him.
I was not so good in school. When I was evaluated by the principle after grade 8 he had recommended to my parents that I be enrolled in the "Basic" stream for grade 9. The school was divided into "Basic", "General" and "Advanced". My parents were not convinced after what had happened in grade 6, so enrolled me in "General" at Garson Falconbridge Secondary School (GFSS) for September 1982.
Having spent the summer programming, grade 9 mathematics became another sign of my simply being different in how I learned. I was only in Mr. Zobetz math class for a few weeks when he noticed that I was quite advanced in math. He moved my desk to be separate from the other kids, and allowed me to read computer programming manuals and schematics on my own. The class would be working on some algebra problem, and he would sometimes get my attention for a problem that was stumping the class. I would look up, figure out the algebra problem in my head or write it out quickly on the board, and then return to my manuals. While this may have solidified my nerd reputation in the eyes of my classmates, it was one of those up-to-then rare moments where I seemed to have the upper hand in something at school.
Unlike Robert Jack, GFSS had a full classroom of computers. This was a classroom mixed between PET 200112, PET 4032 and PET 803213 computers, the same type of computers that had circulated around the public schools. While having access to computers at the school was great, I could only be in the room when it was supervised by a teacher which limited my access to only during regular school hours. I knew I could only be satisfied when I owned a computer of my own.
I had been saving money ever since I first saw a computer, but the prices were so high. I also realized I had a few to choose from. Building my own computer from a kit would not have been a problem given my experience with electronics, so I investigated a few. One that looked very interesting was the KIM-1 6502 main-board14 which was not a complete computer, but a board that could then be programmed and connected to other hardware I would build myself.
I was also reading computer magazines at the high-school, and saw an inexpensive kit from Timex Sinclare called the ZX-81 with a Z-80 microprocessor. All computers of the day ran BASIC, but had already fallen in love with 6502 assembly and the fact that this computer ran with a Z-80 processor was a liability, even though the Z-80 processor was a more interesting processor in many ways.
While I don't remember if I asked for a computer for Christmas, the price of computers were such that it would not have been reasonable to receive one. Early in the new year I pulled together all the money I had earned up to that point and added in some money I had received in gifts during Christmas. My sister offered me an additional $100 as an interest-free loan so that I could buy a Vic-20 and tape drive for a price near $300.
Not having the money for a monitor, I borrowed a small portable television that my parents had received as a gift. This was sufficient 22 by 23 character display that the Vic-20 would output, and allowed me to program at home. The computer and TV were set up on a table beside a couch in the living room where the family watched T.V. While most of the family would be watching the program, I would be programming.
St. Stephens on the Hill United Church had a tradition of people placing at the front of the church things they were thankful for. When us children were asked to participate my sister brought in a telephone, and I brought in my Vic-20. The family had thought of a list of things that we were thankful for, and I wrote a program which would scroll this list across the screen continuously with a "Happy Thanksgiving from the McOrmond family...".
Home computers were not like they are today, something that a family may have many. It was rare to see one, and quite a novelty to see one brought into a public place like a church. It was what I was most thankful for. Like most hackers I believed that the power that computers could give people, especially those with the skills to program them, would radically change the world for the better. It had transformed the life of a quiet child not able to express himself to someone who could have something that he had created displayed to the world, as simple as that scrolling message was.
Summers in Kingston(?) campground with T.V. + Vic-20 rewired to use 12V from car battery. May be incorrect memory, as father seems to have graduated earlier than this (Summers of 79 and 80. Graduated in 1981).
Scott Adams adventure games + disassembling the 6502 assembly "adventure" and early attempts at copy protection aimed at disabling the software from running in RAM.
First modem for Vic-20 did not have dialer, so wired my own "rotary dial" system via relay to automate dialing process.
1983: Helped run BBS system at Science North. Volunteered in atmospheric lab where Alan Nursall (coordinator) allowed me hands-on access to terminals that connected to mainframe to write software. Coordinator of computer labs did now allow youth to program.
1985 Open House at GFSS: "Tandy" incident (brand bashing), met Charles LaPierre for the first time.
VicTronics: parallel Vic-20's running custom BBS Basic and "multi-tasking". I designed/built hardware and wrote "operating systems", Chuck wrote much of the application (in Basic) for the BBS he ran out of his home.
Custom 3.5" floppy system which allowed software switching between different floppy drives to allow for greater live access to up/downloads for BBS users of my own BBS now switched to VicTronics.
Teaching handicap kid math via programming (C64?)
Commodore 64 computers – phone phreaking, authoring glue to bring together music and animations to run at the same time using personally discovered techniques I would later be told was called "multi-tasking". Would trade "unauthorized" games for any information about networks (phone, DataPac, etc) or hardware (manuals, schematics, etc).
Xmas gift of Apple II clone with 300bps modem which ran my first personal BBS. Social engineering: pretending to be both parties in a couple who had an "online" lovers quarrel.
Amiga 500 (Bought Sudbury, or in Ottawa?)
Spring 1986: Graduated grade 13 with many awards including "Outstanding Male Student". Many teachers helped bend the rules for this to happen. I didn't have the credits required, but volunteer work (fixing hardware in electronics shop, managing sound/lighting for assemblies and shows put on my school) was counted as "arts credits" and I was allowed to graduate.
Fall 1986: final year was at different school, NDSS.
Spring 1987: Science fair with Chuck – VicTronics. Alan Nursall was coordinator of trip to Canada-Wide science fair in Toronto.
Virtual tour of Ottawa while still living in Sudbury through Bell Canada's DataPac Network (a service running X25) connecting to Carleton University which had a modem pool connected to X25, their Honeywell CP6 mainframe, a local TCP/IP network as well as a modem pool. Modem pool would allow both dialing in as well as dialing out. I would dial out (local call) to Ottawa area BBS systems and get a feel for the city. Without this access I may have stayed in Sudbury, or went to one of the Toronto Universities which also accepted me.
Fall 1987: Started at Carleton University.
Ran DOS tools used in coursework which ran faster on Amiga 2000 at home running DOS emulator than XT and 286 computers used by classes. Would use XT computers running NCSA TELNET, connect to the Gandalf PACX, dial my home computer, and run classroom applications.
Fall 1987 - Microplay Video Games
Went in to buy a modem (one that went 'beep'), and ended up getting a job offer. Could accept job given I was receiving OSAP money, so got paid other than in money, essentially working for hardware.
hacking original Nintendo system to remove region checking for cartridges to allow import of games not available otherwise in Canada.
As well as the Nintendo hardware hacks, I repaired everything from VCR's to ADAM computers. Adam was made by Coleco which was a company that made Arcade Game machines. http://oldcomputers.net/adam.html
Fidonet.. Running a BBS for Microplay I joined Fidonet using an XT computer running Opus BBS15 software with the Binkley Fidonet front-end. 1:163/18 then 1:163/109 after reorganization. 1:1/109 was used for Amiga technical support, and I was also a member of FTSC.
Point systems: http://groups.google.ca/groups?q=f109.n163.z1.fidonet.org
September 1988: Mike Richardson (MCR) bought a modem (1200 baud, plugged into wall, went beep when powered up) that was being resold through the Microplay BBS. One of the most influential people in introducing me to UUCP, UNIX, GNU.
1989 : through connections that MCR had, joined UUCP
http://groups.google.ca/groups?hl=en&lr=&as_drrb=b&q=author%3Arwm%40atronx.UUCP&btnG=Search&as_mind=12&as_minm=5&as_miny=1981&as_maxd=31&as_maxm=11&as_maxy=1989 (October 1989)
1989: July - Washago – Using James C-64 to communicate with deaf aunt and uncle. Lillian and Neil Davidson
1990 Lynx Technical Services – certified Commodore hardware technician. Last of the soldering-iron techs
While it was natural for a hacker to mistrust authority, it was the Gulf War which helped solidify my feelings about the untrustworthy authorities around me. This marked the beginning of what I might call my "smash the state" years where I believed that all nation state governments were corrupt, and that I should dedicate my time to trying to weaken them in order to allow them to be replaced. Of course this replacement would need to better reflect the value of decentralized decision making.
While most North Americans were getting their reports of the lead-up to and the war itself, I amended this with reports distributed in Fidonet Echos. I was able to compare media headlines in Canada with those of other countries. At one point the North American media was talking about these babies being stolen from hospital incubators and killed, some Eropean media was talking about "friendly fire" and how it seemed almost as if the Americans were killing as many Europeans as they were Iraqis. It turned out that the incubator story was false, and as has become common with the unholy bond between broadcast media monopolies and governments, this lie was used to help justify a war.
Two enemies were defined in my mind at this time. One enemy was Nation State governments, with my inability at the time to really notice much of a difference between the position of the Canadian government and that of the United States. The other enemy was mainstream broadcast media, whether it was print-media, radio or television. I did not believe that it took people that were necessarily bad people to have a bad outcome, but had a belief that any centralized authority was almost by definition corrupt. It was the belief that politics were very much defined by Historian Lord Acton's warning that "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."16
1990+ - Amiga Fidonet technical support at 1:1/109 http://groups.google.ca/groups?selm=53358.657477124%40atronx.UUCP
Amiga 3000 prior to Nov 1990 - http://groups.google.ca/groups?selm=54811.659833076%40atronx.ocug.on.ca
(OCUG was prior to OCUNIX.on.ca which started in Dec 1990)
1991 promotion of Open Standards - "Destroy the Modem
'Tower of Babel' - Buy only V.32(bis) high-speed modems"
My first question in the gnu.misc.discuss newsgroup17 in February 1992 was what I suspect was a typical problem. I had been releasing all my software deliberately (militantly?) into the public domain, what I saw as consistent with my own ethics about software. There was, however, a problem with works in the public domain: someone else with a different ethic could take this work, add value, and then never release the resulting work to the public. As much as those who wanted to collect royalties thought that people not paying was "theft", I too felt that people making derivatives of public works without giving back their updates to the public was "theft". I had heard of the concept of the tragedy of the commons, and felt that if this (in my mind) immoral practice continued that this commons would be destroyed.
Mike Richardson had spoken to me about the GNU project, and what they were doing with their software. I was already familiar with the GCC compiler which was available for the Amiga, and knew that it had a license that protected the GNU project from people taking without giving back. Not understanding any of the law around copyright of licenses, I asked whether it was possible to take works in the public domain, whether they be mine or authored by someone else, add value, and put the result under the GNU General Public License (GPL)18.
While my views on technology law were quite different by 2001, my thinking in the early 1990's was simple. Copyright law had created a problem, and it seemed like a wonderful hack to use the same law against itself. Where "proprietary" authors were using copyright law to restrict software freedom, the GNU project was using copyright law to not only protect software freedom, but to create a pool of software that could not be pillaged to create non-free software.
My views on copyright were also quite simple: it was not at all useful to me, and I would have been quite happy if it went away. I did not see it as possibly being beneficial to me, only harmful. I didn't see the GNU GPL as a tool to specifically build free software, but as a tool against copyright itself. Given these feelings, I can today understand why some creators groups and policy makers misunderstand Free/Libre and Open Source Software as being opposed to copyright.
CDTV prior to July 1992. http://groups.google.ca/groups?selm=rwm.712299630%40atronx.OCUnix.On.Ca
"Avid Amiga users who particularily think that MS-DOS is
a very bad attempt at a user
http://groups.google.ca/groups?selm=1563.AA1563%40atronx (Posted 1989-11-27 )
1992 National Capital Freenet – offered to replace FreePort with non-proprietary Gopher based shell before official launch, but offer was not accepted.
1992 Discovered UNIX on home computers. First NetBSD on an Amiga 3000, then Linux on Intel hardware.
Apple "look and feel", and LPF
1994 Array Development – Linux/UNIX administrator for Internet Websites/etc.
1994/1995 FLORA Community Web
The winter that included new years 1995 saw the beginnings of two important loves in my life. The founding of FLORA Community WEB, and meeting Rina Sen.
December 1994: Intimate in Ottawa (SWM)
(Personal mail folder "rina")
Thinking about Linux and Singles in Nov/Dec 1994: http://groups.google.ca/groups?q=author:Russell+author:McOrmond&hl=en&lr=&as_drrb=b&as_mind=1&as_minm=11&as_miny=1994&as_maxd=31&as_maxm=12&as_maxy=1994&filter=0
January 1995 - flora.ocunix.on.ca http://groups.google.ca/groups?selm=D373vx.E5E%40cunews.carleton.ca
Feb 3, 1995 : met Rina Sen (ott.singles)
June 1995: Going self employed to retain control over business model. Did not want to ever charge royalties for software which I considered to be immoral. Wanted to focus time on commercially supporting growing market for Free Software on the Internet.
Married Rina Sen on Aug 9, 1997
Dec 1998 and Dec 2000 trips to India http://www.flora.ca/russell/india/
Starting from mid-2000 onward I began to think differently both about governments and about technology law. I had numerous conversations with people such as Alan DeKok about the need for copyright law. Up to this point I believed that a CopyLeft license was a tool to remove the power of Copyright, and that we would accomplish the same goals if we worked to eradicate the source of the problem which was copyright law itself. These conversations lead me to believe that this thinking was shortsighted.
Copyright is a tool not just to create a form of control over a creative work, but to also try to direct that control in a specific direction. Where I had always seen this control as something that would be exerted against me, it was now becoming clear that it could also be a tool I could use to protect my own interests, as well as what I saw as the interests of the public as a whole. There was more going on that was restricting the growth and communication of creativity than copyright, and copyright, if patched to fix some bugs, could be used to put this control back into the hands of creative people and their audiences.
The threat I saw to creativity was no longer from what I saw as misguided creative persons, but from intermediaries that were increasingly creating artificial dependencies (harmful addictions) in the communication of creativity from artist to audience.
Full list of related events from this time to fall 2003 in table at http://www.flora.ca/copyright2003/
During this time also started to rethink my allegiances to the Green Party. One of my strong values related to freedom of speech. I did not believe that one should seek to censor hurtful speech, but to respond to bad speech with good speech. One should use the good sense of the community that would choose to ostracize from the community an antisocial member, allowing them to slip into obscurity and powerlessness rather than become a powerful martyr by attempting to censor their bad speech.
The Green Party of Canada and Ontario had a high profile member and election candidate named Richard Warman who was on the warpath against someone named David Icke19. Mr. Icke was quite clearly not very credible, and could have easily have been ignored by most people with a small amount of documentation being made available to the public. Instead of taking this route, Mr. Warman raised the profile of Mr. Icke by launching protests against venues that allowed Mr. Icke to speak, and going as far as to send threatening letters as a lawyer to independent Media centers. His personal vendetta got so bad that he was willing to mow down anyone who disagreed with him, and this included sending me threatening letters suggesting he would attempt to sue me for defamation for speaking the truth against him publicly.
In the spring of 2002 I had an event that caused me to change my views on party politics.
...events.. Public consultation, "anti-copyright crusader"20, etc.
I finally had my meeting with the Copyright Policy Branch of Heritage Canada. What I found there astonished me. Far from being confrontational people who thought my ideas were insane, I found people who were open minded and trying to understand what I was saying. In this room of bureaucrats, people who I had been thinking of as "the enemy" for far too long, were public minded and thinking people. They may not share the same ideas as my own, but their ultimate goal of serving the public interest was clear.
I then realized that in my many years involvement with the Green Party I did not receive the same feeling. I had issues that were at the core of who I was, but there was little interest to pursue these in the party. While there was a vague understanding from some members of the importance of Free Software as a money issue (free as in beer), software freedom was not something generally understood. They were quite willing to ignore long term issues like software freedom in order to get a tiny bit closer on shorter term issues.
(Note: This section has been separated into a separate article. You may prefer to read that version)
As I think about technology law and how it is created, I recognize how software governs the activities of citizens. I don't know exactly when I discovered the work of Lawrence Lessig21, but when I did I instantly took a liking to the thesis of some of his work. While I read his book "CODE and other laws of cyberspace"22 in 200423, I had already deeply integrated this thinking into my policy work.
A professor of law at Stanford Law School, Lessig talks about "East Coast Code" being code authored in Washington, DC by policy makers and politicians (to be executed by law enforcement and the courts), and "West Coast Code" being code authored in Silicon Valley in California (to be executed by a computer). In the United States they have this theoretical geographical division between the authors of these types of code, but in Canada we have the federal government and Silicon Valley North both in Ottawa.
In the conclusion of CODE24 Lawrence Lessig asks:
We live life in real space, subject to the effects of code. We live ordinary lives, subject to the effects of code. We live social and political lives, subject to the effects of code. Code regulates all these aspects of our lives, more pervasively over time than any other regulator in our life. Should we remain passive about this regulator? Should we let it affect us without doing anything in return?
If code is a form of law that regulates us, why must we treat that code as simply another product? Should we not be questioning this highly pervasive form of governance? Should we not be demanding the same level of transparency and accountability for this code as we do other regulation? Should we not interact with code as citizens, not a consumers?
With software code recognized as a form of governance, the importance of FLOSS becomes obvious. I do not see FLOSS as a way to save money, but a set of criteria that offers the adequate transparency and accountability required for public code. When I see software I don't analyze it simply in engineering (natural science) terms, but more often analyze it in far more critical political (social science) terms.
A further understanding of this concept can be understood by breaking down a provocative statement that I started to use in early 2003.
Governance software that controls Information and Communications Technology (ICT), automates government policy, or electronically counts votes, should not be thought of as something that should be bought any more than politicians should be thought of something that should be bought.
The statement was intended to suggest that where other people saw legitimate business models or methods for creating software for protecting copyright (so-called Digital Rights Management or DRM), e-Government, e-Voting or direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems, I saw forms of political corruption. In all of these cases there are far more important policy considerations than the lesser concerns that policy makers have thus far concerned themselves with.
Imagine an election where a voter hands their ballot over to a private corporation. Internal to this corporation is a trade secret process used to count and destroy these ballots. Nothing in this process is disclosed to the public, and it is considered illegal to discuss the process used. The government then asks this corporation for the outcome of the process, and based on what this corporation says a new government is formed.
As ludicrous as this sounds, this is how an increasing number of elections are decided, including the November 2004 election in the United States. The reason why people do not understand this as the process is because of their blind trust in computers, and their lack of understanding of the policy nature of software code.
When a company like Diebold authors software that is used to count votes, they are authoring the process by which an election will be decided. When you mark your vote on, for example, a touch screen you are in effect handing your ballot over to this privately authored process. This machine, under the control of Diebold, then decides what to do with this ballot before "destroying it". There is no paper ballot to destroy, so no record for election scrutineers to verify the accuracy of the count. If the machine records the vote incorrectly, there will be no mechanism to find out. Given the "power corrupts" human nature, it seems impossible to me that these private corporations, including and especially ones already making sizable donations to specific candidates, will not abuse this ability to untraceable corrupt the election process in the future, assuming they have not done so already.
There have been attempts to expose this corruption. In one specific example when flaws in the voting system was disclosed, Diebold attempted to suppress the information by claiming copyright infringement under the US DMCA25. Whether this type of policy (code that electronically counts votes) should be eligible for copyright protection at all is questionable, but it should be without any doubt that this material should be openly available to public scrutiny.
Given the importance of elections I do not believe a ballot-less process should be used regardless of how transparent and accountable the software is26. In a process that does not allow a recount it is always possible for someone to corrupt the process by executing software on a voting machine that is not the software that was publicly disclosed. With a machine that generates a human readable (and thus human verifiable) ballot you solve all the mechanical problems with ballots, and with having a paper ballot you have the ability to have multiple hardware/software combinations used to ensure the integrity of the vote.
Even before the Government-on-Line (GoL) initiative in Canada there were many examples of government policy being automated in software. When a policy maker authors a policy, and then a software author implements this policy in software, who verifies the accuracy of the translation? When there is a discrepancy, whether a software bug or some type of corruption, how is this found and if it is found how good is the public disclosure of this problem?
When a citizen interacts with government through an electronic form, it is the rules that these forms obey that they come to know as government policy. If the electronic form has a bug in it where it does not allow an option which the underlying government policy would allow, it is the operations of the electronic form that takes precedence. Currently most interactions that can be carried out electronically can also be done on paper or in person with a government employee, but not all citizens may understand this option. Increasingly we may find some government interactions that will only happen electronically, possibly with government employees interacting with government databases using the same electronic forms.
What happens when this software is outsourced? There are two types of software outsourcing, with one being when a specific project is outsourced, but also when the government acquires Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) software. In both of these cases software which will be part of the automation of government policy was authored by a private interest which may have its own policy goals. Like the voting system it would be impossible to convince me that these private interests would not abuse an opportunity to affect government policy without being detected.
Should this software be treated as a product that is bought, or as simply a translation to another language of government policy. If this is government policy should it not be open to public scrutiny via the Access to Information Process (ATIP) like any other government policy? Should the claim that economic interests in the software code or methods should be "protected" by copyright and patent law be honored as a legitimate business model, or recognized as attempts at government corruption?
Any 'hardware assist' for communications, whether it be eye-glasses, VCR's, or personal computers, must be under the control of the citizen and not a third party.
Corollary: The "content industries", such as the motion picture and recording industries, are not legitimate stakeholders in the discussion of what features should or should not exist in my personal computer or VCR, any more than they are a legitimate stakeholder in the production of my corrective eye-glasses. If a member of a content industry doesn't like the technology that exists in a given market sector, be it consumer electronics in the home or personal computers, they can simply not offer their products/services into that market.
What is commonly referred to as Digital Rights Management (DRM) can be seen as made up of 3 components: Digital Rights Encoding (DRE), Technological Protection Measures (TPM), and vendor controlled ICT. To understand the policy concerns we must recognize that it is not the first two components where there is controversy, but the third.
Digital Rights Encoding (DRE). These are methods of marking content to mark what uses are authorized by the "rights holder". There are both open and closed examples of this, with one example of an open DRE being used by the Creative Commons movement27. This encoding is intended to be, and should be, under the control of the copyright holder. It should be considered a crime to impersonate a copyright holder and fraudulently claim rights, regardless of the technologies used.
Technological Protection Measures (TPM). There are many methods that are lumped within TPM. Simple passwords are used to gain access to resources, such as protected documents on a website. Digital signatures are used to verify that a document (content plus DRE) is from the expected source. Various types of encryption are used to ensure that only those with the proper key are able to unlock a message such that third parties do not have access.
Vendor controlled ICT. It is claimed that in order to enforce DRE that the vendor of a communications tool must have ultimate control of any ICT. In my mind this is based on a number of misconceptions, the most obvious one being the belief that ICT vendors are not themselves special interests in the process. In a world where ICT intermediates more and more of our lives, those who control ICT end up with a considerable influence on our lives. While ICT vendors could obey the DRE of a copyright holder, they could also ignore the rights of copyright holders that do not sign agreements with the vendors. With vendor control over ICT these vendors could disallow the use of ICT for creativity that is not authorized by the vendor.
It is my hope that those who support creativity will eventually understand this concern. While DRE is something we would all benefit from, DRM is not in the interests of creators28 or their audiences. It is an unaccountable private replacement of the public policy known as copyright. Those who support DRM are actually anti-copyright, a title that has ironically been given to those of us trying to protect the balance of rights expressed in copyright law.
When I set out in the summer of 2001 to respond to the consultation on copyright reform, I read both the Copyright Act29 and the Competition act30. In analyzing these acts I found I was using the same techniques that I would when analyzing software code. I would try to think of data (a case study) that I would then attempt to execute through the code. I would see if the code made sense, or had conditions where it would clearly fail.
Not only have I discovered that one can understand the social implications of software by recognizing it as a type of law, but also that an important way to understand law is for hackers to think of it as yet another type of code. I have used the following tagline in a few places to explain my policy interests:
Where Lawrence Lessig suggests that "Code is Law", Russell takes this further and suggests that "Law is Code", and spends most of his free-time hacking this type of code.31
While software code is executed by computer CPUs which, even with hardware bugs, are relatively reliable in the code matching the outcome, law is executed by unreliably by law enforcement agencies and the courts. While a software author is able to match executing code against a requirements document. policy makers are often writing code without adequate requirements documents to meet the political requests of special interests, and often do not adequately set up test cases to detect serious bugs in the code or to test whether the code meets any stated public policy goals.
When I am called in as a technical consultant to help a customer set up a firewall, the first question that needs to be asked is "protected from what". We need to go through a threat analysis, balancing the protective measures limiting access we wish to deny with the related consequence of harder access for that we wish to grant. It is impossible to have one without the other: the harder it is for the "bad guys" to get in, the harder it is for the "good guys" to get in as well. It is always just a matter of ensuring it is much harder for the "bad guys" to get in than the "good guys".
The only fully protected computer is one which is not plugged in (to power or the network). As soon as you give a computer power and plug it into the network, you then have that act of balance.
Copyright and most other public policy is no different. The only way to "fully protect" creativity is by effectively "pulling the plug", and disallowing its creation. As soon as you allow creativity you then have a balancing act between allowing creativity you wish to authorize and disallowing what you wish to deny.
Unfortunately, policy makers do not yet understand this. They are under the misconception that if "some copyright is good", then "more copyright is better". There are many things in our lives where we know this type of simplistic belief is false. I often use analogies to more well known substances to explain the issue: Copyright is to creativity like water is to humans; too little and you dehydrate and die, too much and you drown and die. Policy makers have thus far been quite happy taking most of their direction from "bottled water" special interests who convince them that we are dehydrated and need to buy their brand of water, when in fact we are already drowning.
1Russell McOrmond is a self-employed Open Systems/Standards/Software Internet Consultant. http://flora.ca/ (Accessed September 27, 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.
2Williams, Sam – Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's crusade for free software, March 2002 (ISBN: 0-596-00287-4)
3Levy, Steven - Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, 1984 (ISBN: 0-440-13405-6)
7HACKERS, Chapter 2, "The Hacker Ethic"
9Thomas Jefferson to Isaac McPherson, 13 Aug. 1813, Writings 13:333—35 http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a1_8_8s12.html (Accessed October 18, 2004)
11A Vic-20 from Commodore was one of the least expensive of the commuters available at the time. http://oldcomputers.net/vic20.html (Accessed October 11, 2004). Commodore was the same company that made the PET computers that the schools had, and both computers used the same MOS 6502 microprocessor and thus the assembly language I learned on one computer also worked on the other.
13Details of the 4032 and 8032 are at http://oldcomputers.net/pet4032.html (Accessed October 7, 2004). The difference was the resolution of the screen, with the 4032 having a 40 column display and the 8032 having an 80 column display.
I believe to be my earliest posting to the newsgroup
gnu.misc.discuss was on Feb 11, 1992 and it pertained to problems I
was having with the WelMat project and people making proprietary
derivatives of various work. I wanted to protect any of my work from
there being proprietary derivatives.
Public Domain re-worked and re-released under GNU Public Licence?
http://groups.google.com/groups?selm=rwm.697776780%40atronx.OCUnix.On.Ca (Accessed October 7, 2004)
23Review of CODE and other laws of Cyberspace, by Russell McOrmond http://www.flora.ca/russell/drafts/review-of-code.html (Accessed October 18, 2004)
24The conclusion is available online at http://www.code-is-law.org/conclusion_excerpt.html (Accessed October 25, 2004)
25Online Policy Group v. Diebold, Inc. http://www.eff.org/legal/ISP_liability/OPG_v_Diebold/ (Accessed October 18, 2004)
26There are transparent and accountable Open Source software for Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) voting machines, including one project at the Open Vote Foundation http://open-vote.org/ (Accessed October 25, 2004)
31One example is in the biography used for the Ottawa Linux Symposium http://www.linuxsymposium.org/2004/view_bio.php?id=68 (Accessed October 20, 2004)