Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Richard Stallman on threats to & due to digital inclusion

Yesterday evening, I attended a presentation by Richard Stallman at the University of Canterbury. He was in Christchurch to present a keynote at the annual LIANZ – library association of NZ conference. So a good chance for me to catch up on the current thinking around creative commons, copy left and the GNU

The presentation was very well attended. At least 70 – 80 people filled most of the large lecture theatre. Richard Stallman (bio) is best known for starting the free software movement, however his talk was focused on digital inclusion, its effect on society and the threats digital inclusion presented.

Free software (read as in ‘free speech’ not ‘free beer’) provides choices including freedom to use programme as you wish on your computer, freedom to have access to the source code to amend, to provide assistance to others/contribute to the community by improving the source code & to be able to provide changes of source code to others. There is therefore democratic development of the programme. No malicious features included as for proprietary software.

He covered threats to digital inclusion including surveillance, censorship, restrictive data formats, proprietary software, software as a service and war on sharing.

On surveillance, digital technology allows for ease of access by authorities to the private lives of citizens. Eg. Eftpos which traces all your purchases/spending or mobile phones aka a portable tracking device – which does not only track where you are but also who you talk to. Ditto for social networking sites. CTVs track where cars go (eg. UK). Citizens need to resist the automatic collection of all this data about our lives.

Censorship is facilitated by people using computer networks. Networks tend to be directed through very limited number of ISPs. Therefore it is easier for governments to block or censor websites (including information about censorship!).

Restrictive data formats (eg. Microsoft word!) do not have code which is accessible or patented or copyrighted. Another example is Abode’s continual versions of Flash, so that it is difficult to keep up with each version & restricts users from viewing these files. Many media players (realplayer, windows mediaplayer & quicktime) plus audio formats like .mp3 & video .mpeg2 etc.. Better to use formats which are not closed or secret. Make an effort to use formats which are not restricted –

Proprietary software, users do not have control, only developers are able to access the source code. Some proprietary software may have features in them which may collect data about the user which the user does not know about (eg. Real player, windows media player sent information back to the organisations about how users are using these). Microsoft windows is able to use a back door to install changes, restrict access of users to parts of the programme & sends messages about the user without the users knowledge back to the company. Kindle from Amazon is also another example.

Software as a service involves another company doing the data processing using software which you do not have access to. Users then not only have no control of their data but also no choices on how their data is used.

The war on sharing prevents individuals from sharing copies of published work. Publishing houses take the stance that sharing is pirating and is lobbying governments to tighten laws on copyright. His view is that sharing provides more advantages to society than not sharing, therefore should be encouraged, not forbidden.

Thought provoking, providing another way of understanding the viewpoints which revolve around the complex issues presented by digital information technology. We need to be aware of all these perspectives and ensure that evangelisation of ICT in education includes the threats as well as the advantages.


Anonymous said...

elearning tools can be viewed as threats? i do not believe this...

Selena said...

Hi John,

Hmm. well it is just another perspective :) & something to be aware of when especially relying on proprietary software.