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Why Software = Politics

Enclosures of the software commons and the Internet invite abuses of power.

| by David Bollier

Photo by Sebastian Bermann, via Flickr, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, ShareAlike license.

As more of daily life moves to the Internet, the political implications of software design become more apparent. A case is point: the Russian government’s practice of seizing computers from various citizen advocacy groups because they allegedly contain “pirated” Microsoft software.

As reported in the New York Times, Russian security forces are “confiscating computers under the pretext of searching for pirated Microsoft software.” The raids appear to be politically motivated because the most frequent targets seem to be groups like Baikal Environmental Wave, which is fighting pollution in Lake Baikal; Golos, an election monitoring group; the Foundation to Support Tolerance advocacy group; and a variety of dissident newspapers.

Raids and prosecutions occur even though groups can often verify that they purchased their software legally. But Microsoft doesn’t object to the political raids because it has too much of a stake in collaborating with the Russian government to fight pirated software.

It’s another case of collusion between the state and market against the commoners: Microsoft wants to stamp out pirated software and to curry favor with the Russian government to help it — and the Russian government is happy to use anti-piracy laws and Microsoft’s name as a pretext for quashing civil society activists.

The cynicism of this collusion is revealed when the commoners try to demonstrate the legality of their software, only to be rebuffed. For example, when the Baikal Wave advocacy group showed Microsoft its software receipts and other documentation, and asked the company to confirm to the Russian authorities that the software was entirely legal, Microsoft declined to do so. Presumably confirming the legality of the software because would anger the Russian government by calling into question the legitimacy of the raids.

It is easy to dismiss the Russian software raids as a familiar case of Russian authoritarianism and contempt for law. Yet the truth of the matter is that governments and corporations share many complementary political and economic interests. Those interests converge and co-mingle in the design of (proprietary) software and the Internet. In both cases, government and corporations may find it mutually beneficial to neutralize or stifle the freedoms of civil society.

For example, here in the freedom-loving United States, Verizon in 2007 decided to block messages sent by NARAL Pro Choice America to supporters who had asked to receive them. After the New York Times published a story about it, Verizon backtracked. Last year, in the wake of the Haitian earthquake, Sprint blocked Catholic Relief Services’ text messages when it attempted to raise money to help victims of the Haitian earthquake. Then there was the time that AT&T censored Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder during a webcast of a concert. When singing the Pink Floyd song, “Another Brick in the Wall,” Vedder substituted the lyrics, “George Bush, leave this world alone” – but as he continued with other lyrics, including “George Bush, find yourself another home,” the webcast was silent through the end of the song.

The whole “net neutrality” debate is about whether cable and telephone companies should be entitled to discriminate against the types of Web traffic that it will carry. Without net neutrality rules, Internet service providers could provide faster, premium service to websites that pay extra fees and it could block websites that represent a competitive threat. Thus in a world without net neutrality, Verizon could block Skype because Internet telephony undercuts Verizon’s landline service, and AT&T could give preferential treatment to Hulu, a video website that carries television programs, while blocking competing video-streaming.

Consider, too, how the U.S. Government surely lusts after Google’s vast search-engine database about people’s individual queries. What a great tool for snooping and “fighting terrorism.” It can’t happen? Consider how President George W. Bush invoked national security and his political and policy leverage to “persuade” telecom providers to hand over people’s telephone-call records without court orders. Telecom providers, eager to secure favorable government policies for their businesses, complied — and later won immunity from prosecution for violating the law. Echoes of the Russian “anti-piracy” raids?

Finally, consider the pending Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that has been privately negotiated for years by a shadowy, off-the-record policymaking process dominated by the U.S. Trade Representative, EU nations and leading tech and media companies, with no representation by public interest groups, no public deliberations and no public disclosures of treaty drafts. ACTA would dramatically extend the powers of governments and companies to stamp out unauthorized copying and sharing, including practices that are customary and legal today. It would also legitimize the kinds of government/corporate anti-piracy “partnerships” that we see in Russia, and privatize much of the law-making and enforcement processes outside of conventional legislatures and courts. (More on ACTA here.

The point is that as software companies, Internet service providers and social networking websites become dominant, centralized platforms for our daily lives, governments will increasingly want to exploit the convenient, centralized chokepoints of software and websites. It’s the perfect tool to extend their power, punish adversaries and invade our privacy. And corporations will generally have a vested interest in cooperating. They understandably fear government retribution through policymaking and civil enforcement. Consider how CBS gave the boot to the Smothers Brothers for their politically pointed, antiwar entertainment, after it angered LBJ and his administration. No corporation wants to be on the wrong side of the incumbent administration.

The co-dependence of governments and corporations is not going to end any time soon. But we can at least minimize the inevitable abuses by insisting upon net neutrality, open, competitive markets, and a greater reliance on free/open source software. The Russian abuses (or at least, the uses of pretexts like anti-piracy law) would be impossible if the groups were able to use free/open source software. The commoners would be vested with a power of their own that could not be abridged in a summary, extra-legal way.

Economic enclosures of software and software platforms create the control points that governments can exploit. That’s something to think about as the FCC dithers in finalizing “net neutrality” rules and as more people build their personal lives around Facebook, Twitter and Google.

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