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The world trade center in shambles. The financial community is still mostly in shock. The airline industry is rightfully quite horrified. I know I'm horrified...
What can we, members of the free software community, do?
I know a lot of sites have put up banners linking to various helpful organizations, the Red Cross, funds for the families of all the emergency personnel killed, and so on. So much in fact, that I wonder how many charities will go short shrift of donations, clothes, and other things, simply because this one presently has everyone's attention.
But that's what we do as people. As a community we can do a lot more. Slashdot did great on keeping us all in tune with the news, when the routers in front of almost every major news service were going into meltdown. People used IRC and websites to find out if friends were alive and well, I saw wikis, I saw email lists briefly stop talking about the topic of the moment and reserve the day for traffic about who was okay. Now this didn't just mean wondering whether anybody died in New York. For instance, a friendly soul from the GNOME Usability Project was trapped in China for 6 days longer than he expected... making it to our user group meeting just in time, I might add, but I think it probably dampened his enthusiasm for our chinese food.
We're an international community, and now an international problem that has existed for a long time has been made more obvious. These people that took these planes used little that was unavailable to Cro Magnon Man. I'll update them to the Bronze Age because they found a cheat sheet for how to not be followed - but we're still talking tribal hunters, not 21st century "agents" from The Matrix.
Yet there are these pushes to "wiretap" email. (See the Crypto-Gram Newsletter, http://www.counterpane.com/crypto-gram-109a.html for some details.) The ultra-protectionism of Big Corporate copyrights continues (you think the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, already passed and being enforced, is bad? Look at the bill "SSSCA" up for attention. According to the EFF's Cindy Cohn it makes the DMCA "look like the Bill Of Rights".) while frankly, my ability as a real individual who writes about one tune every 2 years, lyrics a little more often, and at least one article a month, to continue to enforce my OWN copyrights and fair use rights under the US Code, Title 17 (http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/index.html) continues straight into the gutter. My expectation of safety when I visit a foreign country obviously won't be based on the idea that I was an invited speaker -- as far as I know, anybody who was trapped in another city because all flights were grounded has gotten home now, even the ones who took a taxi From Chicago to Los Angeles -- but Dmitry Sklyarov, a Russian citizen, continues to live trapped in the USA because eBooks can't be sold in Russia unless you can make a backup of them, and he agreed to TALK about how the encryption works on US soil.
NOW I'm terrified.
Of course most of my email lives a very public life already. But let's face it, a translucent dime store postcard written on in big black marker has more privacy than the average internet Joe. It's not a federal felony to hassle a small town ISP because they don't want to let you wiretap all of their customers just because you have a warrant on one of them. (We'll leave out whether the "up to something" they might be up to is about real life-and-death matters or merely about someone wanting to play Mom for us.) It's not a federal crime to impersonate being someone important so that your spam gets into a victim's box. Hey, I may dislike spam a great deal, but it's just a delete button, okay? He's said his piece and I ignore it. We paint over graffiti on the walls of small towns, no attention, no fanfare, and eventually the spams die. End of story.
Soon, however, it may be a federal crime -- penalty, to lose most of your rights of US citizenship forever -- to deface a website. HELLO real world! This is about equivalent to "joyriding". Give 'em some community service and get on with life. Goodness knows what level of punishment they have in mind for someone who believes that mail containing things about money matters really ought to be in an envelope that can't be steamed open, even in the figurative sense of cyberspace. (If you don't use PGP or GnuPG already, establish the habit now. Free interoperable clients for MSwin and Mac: http://www.pgp.com/products/freeware/default.asp) Or that we have a reasonable expectation of privacy and freedom to assemble as a group for any other reason. Or that the business transactions of any US company are none of any other company's or country's direct business, unless some sort of model of trust exists between them. Join the Electronic Frontier Foundation and keep up on other resources about what is going on. As a group we have a better chance. (There are other privacy related groups out there too. Cato.org, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Europeans might consider checking out the Justis database, http://www.justis.com/database/european_law.html. I'm sorry I can't read other languages or surely I'd have more pointers...)
The electronic 'zines I'm subscribed to were singing the praises of the IT staff who arranged for businesses to go onward regardless of the chaos. They're only just starting to notice the drastic legislation that's trying to come down the pipe on a wave of patriotism, duty, and budget-grubbing. I work with and know a lot of sysadmins. I can tell you that a lot of sysadmins right now don't like the idea of being put in a tight spot: as a cop, with none of the legal defenses a cop has for doing his job; as a carrier of bits, with none of the legal defenses of a telphony Common Carrier for the fact that we are not the origin of any of this information; as an implementor of company policy, and a professional with special skills, but without the defense of "client privilege" that other professions enjoy.
A number of legislators are quite up in arms over the idea that they are being asked to vote on these matters without enough time to read all the horrid little details. However, some seem to want this extra time so they have a chance to draft their own pet departments, see http://dailynews.yahoo.com/htx/ap/20010920/us/attacks_terrorism_laws_3.html. Call your reps now and make sure that whatever does finally get drafted actually defends and supports you. I'm sad to say that email probably isn't enough -- you can try it, but they get a ton, and it carries little emotional power. Use a phone and talk to these people.
While a proposed bill isn't exactly "closed source" it is pretty much what something huge like OpenOffice or the linux kernel is to someone uninitiated to the wizardry of C and perhaps even deeply experienced in the same. Of course in our scope we have all sorts of utilities to help us manage large projects and sort through things. So what I'd love to see is some sort of "pretty print" style parser that goes over proposed bills and exposes the described crimes, regulations, penalties and so on to a bit of serious debugging. The "sources" are readable by anyone on THOMAS, http://thomas.loc.gov/; although goodness knows if those are up to date with what is being argued on the Congress floor, it's a start. I'm sure somebody out there can give it a shot!
On a somewhat more local note, we had many more threads than this, in fact I am amazed at the percentage of incoming questions that we answered. But I just got all boiled up and had to let off the above rant. On the plus side my scripts are doing better by far than last month. So I have picked some highly juicy ones and hope you'll forgive me the short list. We have new Biographies for the Answer Gang, too, so you can get a sense of who answers your questions here.