posted by Kroc Camen on Fri 10th Dec 2010 14:28 UTC
IconI know that there's a number of readers who don't like it when OSnews covers political topics, I'm one of them. These political upheavals however spell danger for operating system hobbyists and so I dedicate this article to framing the political news within the context of what we are here to read about: operating systems.

Of Brands

What is beautiful about computing in general is that everything is open and free for information to travel until restrictions are placed in the way. Before a programmer has written a line of code [he] has a blank canvas of pure openness and it is boundaries that [he] creates to shape and to direct the flow of information.

The operating systems we use therefore are as open or closed as those who choose it to be so. Sony chose to remove the Other OS feature from the PS3. Carriers chose to prevent rooting of their mobile devices. These restrictions did not come by default from their hardware and from their software, they had to be actively placed in.

With the Internet, we have been given a network of such a chaotic and naturally open nature that it is impossible to think how such a thing could have come about in the first place. What company in their right mind would agree to route the unknown, random, and legally unvetted traffic of everybody else, with no agreement or payment from the originator?

Any operating system is allowed to participate on this network without first getting an agreement with the network operator (who would not be interested in anything that didn’t make them money). Would Haiku OS get anywhere if before it could connect to the Internet it would have to produce a sales pitch to AT&T for them to decide if this would be a worthwhile product on their network to generate income for their network services?

All this political hoo-hah going on has highlighted that all around the open and chaotic core of the Internet the fringes are not open, are not chaotic. Large corporations have shown that with little difficulty—and with less reason—they can effectively cut off websites from operating. Over-reaction seems to be the norm, anything that falls into a legal “grey area” is safer to remove (citing ToS / T&Cs) than to keep and allow the actual legality be determined. So panicked are they to protect their brand’s image that the end user does not enter into consideration.

That means you, hobbyists and tinkers, are perceived as a threat to brand integrity.

You may not install your operating system of choice on a device because that may bring the manufacturer’s brand into disrepute.

There will not be for sale any material that may bring the manufacturer’s brand into disrepute. The Internet is not a brand so therefore “little Johnny Dogood got porn from the Internet!” is not a problem, when “little Johnny Dogood got porn from the Google Android Marketplace!” is.

We are seeing an industry-wide, lateral, fear-induced lock down of user freedoms in the name of brand identity. When the desktop has faded away and you can no longer purchase any kind of computing device that freely allows you to install your own operating system (because someone might abuse the wireless network), then alternative operating systems themselves become the next fear-induced target.

‘Why are people circumventing protection measures put in place to protect the integrity of the network and ensure the safety of all users against cyber attacks, so as to install their own software, when everything they need is already provided and anything they want to run is not allowed in the app stores because it’s “illegal” or unsavoury?’ they will say.

When running your OS of choice is no longer a majority, and when doing so prompts “isn’t that illegal?” questions of ignorance then alternative operating systems will become a niche not designed to solve the needs of everybody, but to solve the wants of the technical elite.

Now I admit that I am fear-mongering myself, but you must understand that the constant pursuit of profits produces a hive mind effect whose results are not equal to any individual’s input. The individual thinks it’s reasonable for people to choose music appropriate to their tastes and age. But add money into the equation and the hive mind says that all music must be sanitised so as to not upset any of the paying customers.

My point here is that it is neither Apple’s or Google’s express intention to create a world where all the good benefits of alternative operating systems do not exist, but that is what will happen.

When Google create a web app store that only works with Google Chrome they are only looking after their own interests. The fact that this could eventually prevent others from innovating outside of Google’s influence is not the intention of the individual Googler; they all love the open, unpredictable and awesome web.

Of WikiLeaks

Getting on to WikiLeaks. The world’s governments and mega corporations have been playing a lot of inside baseball. The secretary at the front door of Shell might not agree that it’s ethical for Shell to be operating inside the Nigerian government, but then she doesn’t need to know that and it is still achieved otherwise. The stock holder’s demand to see not steady profits, but always increasing profits means that morals are not part of the equation. The only way they can achieve this without damaging the brand identity is through secrecy of information.

Because our computing hardware and our computing services are wholly dependent upon brand-aware companies, the necessity to maintain secrecy of information has been filtering down to what is available to us in the shops and what services we use on the web.

When the device you purchase is closed, and the operating system it comes with is also closed, and the apps you use on it are closed, that operate with a closed service through a closed API, then at any point in this chain your choice to pass information on can be vetoed without reason, without justification and without any recourse on your part. The ability to spread information could be cut off with no more reason than that “we don’t like it”.

BitTorrent represents a software, network-level chaotic natured force mimicking the hardware of the Internet. I can quite easily see BitTorrent like concepts being the backbone of the next tier of the Internet to come, but the next generation of hobby operating systems — on mobile devices — may not get far at all if AT&T can say that anybody using an alternative operating system on a mobile device on their network is a threat to “network stability” and won’t be tolerated.

The chaotic nature of Internet hardware is what allowed WikiLeaks to operate, and to continue to operate despite the best efforts of governments, but the software is not chaotic enough — anything that which was commercially provided under contract specifically to WikiLeaks was taken down; that was the extent of the American government’s power, but they could not just switch off the Internet hardware because there is no contract, no agreement with WikiLeaks between peering points on the Internet.

With BitTorrent there is no agreement, no contract between the sender and the receiver. BitTorrent cannot just be switched off. It is necessary if we are to see a free and open web, seen through the vestiges of all kinds of operating systems, that information cannot simply be “switched off” because one government takes a dislike to it. We need a DNS system that switching off one website will also see the loss of half of the Internet. We need a money transfer system that cannot be switched off to prevent donations to one activist organisation without also killing the revenue flow of big companies.

What WikiLeaks has shown us tech enthusiasts is that governments and large corporations are playing a game of ‘ring-a-round the Internet’. Willingly, or unwillingly tying our very ability to communicate with each other to a set of Terms of Service and throwing their hands up and denying everything when calls of censorship arise. If WikiLeaks could not do what it does, then governments could continue unabated in censorship that would, without doubt, extend eventually to all devices in a way that would easily effect you who—at this moment—have no interest in WikiLeaks. We’ve seen it with DRM, with the industry’s pressure to secure video transmission from end to end. In order to watch a Blu-Ray film you now require an encrypted media path from optical drive to graphics card, to software, to cable, to screen. Crazy, just crazy. Hackers may have beaten this system, but that hasn’t prevented HDCP graphics cards being common. It hasn’t stopped HDCP being common. It hasn’t stopped what the consumer buys when they go to the shops requiring this.

At OSNews, we’d very much like to read and write about hobbyist operating system projects for mobile devices. I myself have stayed clear of smart phones thus far because the interfaces do not suit my requirements and I'd prefer to design something myself. If I were a C programmer rather than a web author I would already be working on my own mobile phone OS. Right now, I am severely limited in mobile devices in which I can install my own operating system. It is no longer the norm.

That should terrify you.

OSNews cannot avoid the political happenings of the world if it means that there won’t be interesting news about operating systems coming out to discuss in the first place. “Upgrade to commercial OS version n+1! — new feature: Twitter client” is boring.

Nor do I want to report about the constant cat and mouse game of jailbreaking. That is not news. That’s a happening that tells us nothing about innovative operating system design except the ability to waste a lot of time and money on DRM.

I want to hear about the one guy who looked at what was in the market, and said “No, It can be better”. I want to hear about the guy who made a real difference to people’s lives by clobbering together a solution to a real problem out of what was available out there (e.g. Ushahidi).

Other engineering disciplines have been around for thousands of years, and computing has only just begun in that regard. There was political upheaval at the introduction of the printing press. The powers that be feared its ability to disseminate information and tried to put a stop to it. There is no difference to what we are experiencing today. Eventually these powers will pass away because they do not serve us.

OSNews will continue to report on political issues that ultimately affect your ability to use whatever hardware and software you choose to access our content. The editors write and publish stories within their field of knowledge, so it is likely that wide-ranging topics such as political stories are easier covered by any one of the staff. We ask that you combat any flood of political stories by using your interest in operating systems to find and submit news of other more technical happenings out there as described by you.

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