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  • Doug Belshaw 5:33 pm on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: censorship, ideology,   

    Be careful what you wish for 

    Protesters topple Confederate soldier statue in Durham, NC

    After years of not intervening because of their ‘neutral’ stance, all of a sudden tech companies are shutting down access to white supremacist online content. For example, GoFundMe has shut down attempted crowdfunding campaigns for the man accused of driving a car into protesters at a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville at the weekend, Discord has banned servers that promote Nazi ideology, and GoDaddy (and then Google) washed their hands of hosting a white supremacist website.

    I’m not a white supremacist, and as an historian find neo-Nazisism abhorrent. However, I can’t help thinking that knee-jerk reactions like these are unhelpful. By denying space on the web to ideologies with which we disagree, we’re applying technical ‘solutions’ to social ‘problems’ —  much as we’ve tried to to with Islamic terrorism. It doesn’t work. Or, at least, it doesn’t work by itself, but should instead be part of a wider, more nuanced approach.

    In addition, I can’t help but think that it sets a dangerous precedent. After all, what happens when the tech giants decide that your way of thinking should be censored? These aren’t democratic processes; you can’t vote tech companies out after four years. To use a recent example, when things are going well and who you like is in charge of the country (Obama) and tech companies have your back (LGBT rights), everything looks great. A bit of ‘harmless’ state and corporate surveillance looks reasonable. But then what happens when someone else comes along (Trump) and we realise that we’ve built a surveillance state? All hell breaks loose. We tear down statues and call for everything we find abhorrent to be immediately banned.

    So, I can’t help but think we should be careful about the tactics and approaches we normalise. We can and should respond to specific events, but we shouldn’t do it in the compressed timelines that social media demands. And I certainly don’t think it’s tech companies that should decide these things on our behalf. At the end of the day, I don’t want to end up a world that feels like Black Mirror. Perhaps we’d do well to heed what Audrey Watters has to say about teaching history as well as ‘love’, and Mike Caulfield writes about teaching facts and skills.

    • Aaron Smith 6:11 pm on August 15, 2017 Permalink | Reply

      In the specific case of the Discord server, Discord pointed out that inciting violence is a TOS violation. They don’t monitor servers for content, but if reported, they investigate and take action.

      Several users on Twitter tried the “OK are you going to shut down all the anti-fascist servers now?” line of reasoning, but were unhappy that the same burden of proof was required.

      It’s not so much that corporate entities have our backs. It’s that if you decide to be a horrible person, regardless of your politics, chances are corporations will eventually show you the door. Turns out you get to do more business when you’re not seen as a safe haven for extremists.

  • Doug Belshaw 11:14 am on August 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: free software, , Totara   

    Free software, open source, and sustainability 

    Image by William White

    I’m doing some work with Totara at the moment. Before I started, I had a couple of conversations with their CEO, Richard Wyles, as I didn’t fully understand their business model. I discovered that, instead of providing solutions directly to customers, they develop open source software for their partners, who then customise solutions for customers. Money flows back to Totara through partners to cover costs around development, administration, and co-ordination activities. Customers get access to the source code, and aren’t locked into a relationship with a vendor reliant on proprietary code.

    The reason I wanted to know more about Totara’s model before starting work with them is because there’s been a lot of sensitivity around ‘openwashing’ over the last few years. Openwashing is whereby a company uses the language of the open source world, without actually adhering to its principles. You can read more about how to spot (and avoid) openwashing in this excellent article. It’s a contentious area and involves some interpretation.

    Today, an article by Richard Wyles has been published on opensource.com. Entitled We don’t make software for free, we make it for freedom, Wyles reiterates Richard Stallman‘s point around the true meaning of software freedom:

    Basing a business on an open source strategy is undoubtedly challenging, because no matter how many times you quote Richard Stallman that software freedom means “free speech,” not “free beer,” there is a persistent expectation that open source means free: free software, free updates, free knowledge, free support. In part, the confusion comes because a lot of GPL software is “free as in beer.” Many open source projects come from individuals or small groups coalescing around a problem they want to solve. They publish their output for free because they want others to join their effort.

    The problem we’ve got here is partly one around semantics: Stallman focuses on the Free Software movement, which actually has nothing to do with cost, and everything to do with liberty. Unless you really care about this stuff, it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees.

    In any case, it’s an article that’s worth reading. I’ll just pull out one more quotation from Wyles:

    Many single-vendor commercial open source firms adopt [a] dual-licensing approach, with a free community version and a paid-for enterprise proprietary license. The risk here is that the company prioritizes the proprietary version, because that’s where their money comes from, and the community version is soon perceived as “crippleware” or even worse, “abandonware.” For example, SugarCRM suspended or slowed development on its Community Edition and now makes it clear that it is not suitable in a production environment. I’m not criticizing them—you have to earn enough to keep the lights on, right? But are they still an open source vendor?

    This stuff is hard, but I’ve been persuaded in my conversations with Totara that not only are they not openwashing, but they’re actively trying to make open source software development into something that’s sustainable.

    Photo by William White on Unsplash

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