by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume V, No. XXIII
For the Week of June 11, 2001

This Week's Clue: Find the Cost of Freedom

This Week's Clue: Find the Cost of Freedom

SSP (Shameless Self Promotion)

SP (Shameless Promotion)


The Real Threat to the Internet

A Dramatically Under-Reported Story

Clued-in, Clueless

The first great debate of the 21st century has been joined. Like the great debates of the last century this one is about the nature of freedom, and whether a "new age" makes the concept obsolete.

Insiders may term it a debate between copyright and copyleft. Outsiders will see it as a debate between Microsoft and Linux. Those with a Clue will see it as a debate between the rights of buyers and those of sellers in the new market.

Microsoft threw down the gauntlet with a now-infamous speech from Windows manager Jim Allchin. . It called "Linux" a "threat to innovation," tied it to Napster, and called the combination "an intellectual-property destroyer."

C|Net quoted Allchin this way. ''I'm an American, I believe in the American Way. I worry if the government encourages open source, and I don't think we've done enough education of policy makers to understand the threat.'' 

Allchin was painting with a broad brush, but what was most chilling to me was his invocation of "the American way." It reminded me of Huey Long's famous aphorism, that "If fascism comes to America it would be on a program of Americanism." That's the kind of line that can be quoted freely by all sorts of extremists , and in extremism there can be no liberty, but there's a germ of truth in it. Beware of anything that wraps itself in a flag.

On the other extreme we have Richard Stallman and his GNU Project . Stallman rejects the capitalistic trappings. He is highly idealistic. He's an old hippie-weirdo freak, the kind of man Steven Wozniak wanted to be until his Apple II design made him a multi-millionaire. (No wonder most of his supporters prefer the image of Linus Torvalds . Stallman reminds many of us of our younger selves.) 

You might call Stallman the "John Brown" of this story, and the DECSS case its "Dred Scott" decision . You might, if you believed we were headed to war over software. I certainly hope that doesn't happen but if it does Stallman will make an appealing martyr because he makes a compelling case . He made that case in a recent speech at New York University. 

Stallman gives four levels of freedom to software that users may demand. "Freedom Zero is the freedom to run the program for any purpose, any way you like. Freedom One is the freedom to help yourself by changing the program to suit your needs. Freedom Two is the freedom to help your neighbor by distributing copies of the program. And Freedom Three is the freedom to help build your community by publishing an improved version so others can get the benefit of your work. If you have all of these freedoms, the program is free software."

Stallman saw X Windows , a windowing interface developed under the rubric of "open source," as violating these principles, which is why he wrote a General Public License (GPL) he calls a "copyleft" (as opposed to copyright). "The license defends the freedom of the software for every user," he explained at NYU. Anyone who signs a GPL license and improves the GNU code must give away the improvements.

This is an extreme position, and the "open source" movement has developed a host of standards that sit between GPL and the proprietary Microsoft framework. Stallman himself set this in motion after posting the original GNU in the days before Internet access became general. He sold disk copies of Emacs, a GNU-based text editor, for $150 each. That's the first step down a slippery slope. The next step is to package the software free but sell the instructions. Then you start limiting freedom.

"In the free software movement we say -- you're entitled to these freedoms," Stallman said. "In the 'open source' movement they say, yes, they can stop you if you want, but we'll try to convince them to deign to let you do things." The fact that Torvalds, who is completely apolitical, wrote what became the GNU kernel under the name "Linux" started the confusion, Stallman said, with the press and industry quickly becoming complicit in it.

But Stallman also knows who the real enemy is. "There's a big difference between less than perfect, and evil." Microsoft's stand, he says, is evil.

"The fact that the GNU General Public License (GPL) defends your freedom -- uses copyright law to defend your freedom -- is, of course, why Microsoft is attacking it today. It doesn't allow embrace and extend. It says, if you want to share our code in your programs, you can. But, you've got to share and share alike. The changes that you make we have to be allowed to share. 

"Many companies --- even big companies like IBM and HP are willing to use our software on this basis. IBM and HP contribute substantial improvements to GNU software. And they develop other free software. But, Microsoft doesn't want to do that, so they give it out that businesses just can't deal with the GPL. Well, if businesses don't include IBM and HP and Sun then maybe they're right." 

Why am I wasting your time today on a philosophical discussion of software, when I know you care most about Internet commerce? It's partly because software is vital to what you do, and the rules of software determine how your site will grow and what it will cost. But it's also partly because this debate has now extended into other realms of copyright, into music, and movies and books. A balance must be struck, between authors and their audience, between publishers and buyers. 

Because the purpose of software is to become a component in other things or a tool to create other things (like this newsletter) its balance should tilt more toward users if it's to be truly useful. Yet software today is the most proprietary media - it's the one thing you have you don't own. And every other copyright wants the same power over you. 

So put this on a t-shirt and sell it for the price of the cotton:

Zero: run it any way you want. 
One: help yourself. 
Two: help your neighbor. 
Three: help your community.

Make freedom more than just another word for nothing left to lose. 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)

"Living on the Internet: How to Make Money, Live Right, and Fight For the 21st Century" is tentatively due for release around Labor Day. I'm still writing it, but it looks good. I call it the "first book of the 21st century" because it is designed to feature hyperlinks in all formats - PDF, eBook, and print. Drop me a note to get on the mailing list for more information on this book.

Boardwatch has launched its newsletter under my byline called ISP Executive. Check it out. You can join the A-Clue.Com discussion at I-Strategy , our shared e-mail digest produced with Adventive.Com. You can also read me at ClickZ , B2B, at Boardwatch, and at Internet Content. More deals are being negotiated as we speak. Remember that it's journalism that keeps the Clues coming...

Shameless Promotion

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Takes on the News


The recent attack on CERT received breathless coverage on both sides of the Atlantic .

The coverage, however, was awesomely one-sided. When someone or something is attacked, physically assaulted, the cause of the one committing the assault is often forgotten. But is there a cause here?

Yes, unfortunately, there is. The fact is that users have not been consulted on the changes being made to the Net by law enforcement on behalf of their own interests and those of copyright holders. There is no legitimate mechanism through which we, the people of the online world, can strike a balance between our own rights and those who govern us. In that kind of atmosphere extremism will flourish, and so ultimately will violence.

Extremism and violence are anathema to business and wealth-creation. We can choose to meet violence with violence, and at some point that's the only way to go. But when there is no legitimate challenge for either protest or change violence is the only possible result. Until the people who make up the Internet are brought into the discussion about its future this violence will escalate on both sides, making a revival for Internet commerce harder to achieve.

The Real Threat to the Internet

What we have most to fear is fear itself. On the Internet fear manifests itself most obviously in such things as "acceptable use policies" and "e-mail disclaimers," both of which assume that people will abuse the resource and that protection against them is more important than encouragement of their efforts.

Recently the Register in the UK held a little contest on e-mail disclaimers . The winning disclaimer, that of UBS Warburg, ran to over 1,000 words!

How much business do you really expect your people to do online when you force this monstrosity onto the bottom of each of their notes? The smart ones will respond by doing business from their private e-mail accounts. The dumb ones won't do any business at all. The result will be you'll lose the smart ones and keep the dumb ones. That's a fate you deserve.

A Dramatically Under-Reported Story

Despite a last-minute breakdown in the talks some rapprochement is coming between AOL and Microsoft, in which AOL will gain extraordinary access to Windows XP .

Like Coke and Pepsi, the software and media giants believe they have the power to divide the world. AOL is being asked to give up Netscape, acknowledging Internet Explorer as a monopoly. But in exchange its software will ship as a standard offering with the new operating system.

No other company has something similar to offer, and no other company will get any deal. Anti-trust authorities should (but won't) read that last sentence carefully.

The fat is that Coke and Pepsi fight each other tooth-and-nail, but they cooperate to keep out competition from others. Supermarket promotions for both are tied to the markets' refusal to offer the same deal to those outside the duopoly, and the companies are now seeking to extend this not just into international markets but into areas like fruit juice and bottled water.

That's the model here. The danger is that, if a small number of companies are allowed to dominate the media all protests against that control will be ignored . Again, this only plays into the hands of extremists and those who would bring down capitalism, democracy and liberty.

No either-or choice is truly free. (My wife, God bless her, is a committed Pepper.)

Clued-in, Clueless

Clued-in is BannerStake, a nifty little tool that can tell you what banner ads pop-up when someone inputs your brand at a search site. (Inputting a-clue.com brings you an ad for Hotbot's own e-mail alerts at Hotbot, a credit card ad at Altavista, and an Orbitz ad at Webcrawler.) Great fun for the whole branding family! The service was put together by a copyright protection service .

Clueless was Reed Adelson of the New York Times , who mis-identified Cyberangels.org  as helping individuals attacked in Internet chat rooms. In fact it's a Curtis Sliwa front trying to censor the Internet on behalf of kids. This got past the Times' editors either because they lack browser access from their desks or don't have time to double-check what's easiest to double-check.

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