Saturday, February 6, 2016

Open-Source Software and Societal Infrastructure

I read two political news articles today that both suggest the importance of software freedom for the sake of our societal infrastructure.  The first article describes the Repair Coalition, a political lobbying group that seeks to make it both legal and possible for any repair person to repair any device.  In the context of repairs, the freedom to redistribute modified copies of software seems to me to have particular importance.  There is no guarantee that the manufacturer will release a defect-free product, and giving everyone the opportunity to improve upon it has great potential for benefiting all consumers.

The second article describes a controversy around the vote-tallying machines employed in the 2016 Iowa Caucus. These machines were manufactured and programmed by Microsoft.  The company is accused of a conflict-of-interest, as many of their employees have donated to campaigns for active candidates in the current campaign.  It is in our collective interest that these machines be trustworthy.  The only real path forward is to allow their software to be available for audits to any interested person, with no special permission needed.

In both cases, what we have is instances of closing software with the result of social exclusion.  Those who wish to repair devices are excluded from doing so by manufacturers who refuse to make the source code available.  Those who wish to audit the result of electronic vote-tallies are excluded from doing so by the manufacturer.  And cases like this are just the tip of the iceberg: for example, what about the passengers in self-driving cars?

For what positive end do we have this exclusion?  Must intellectual property be concealed to make it economically feasible for manufacturers to create their products?  Not all manufacturers agree. The pervasiveness of software throughout our society seems to me to correlate to an increase in the force of arguments for software freedom.