VW’s fraudulent software points to need for copylefted free software

Recently it was announced that Volkswagen had since at least 2009 “cheated to make nearly half a million diesel cars appear cleaner-burning than they are” (source, local copy of original article text, article as originally seen).

The US government has it in their power to negotiate terms here. They could choose to negotiate that VW release its car software under the GNU GPL version 3 or later and give VW owners a chance to inspect and improve the software themselves, rather than leave the tools for more fraud in the hands of known fraudsters. VW could also choose to release the software under the same terms without being pressured into doing this; this will help them rehabilitate the “broken trust of [their] customers and the public” VW CEO Martin Winterkorn referred to. In fact this will help give them a leg up above their competition in the short and long-term.

In normal use, the VW diesel cars burned fuel in a way that allowed far more pollutants to enter the air. When tested, the same car would burn fuel far more cleanly in order to pass environmental tests:

During normal driving situations, the controls are turned off, allowing the cars to spew as much as 40 times as much pollution as allowed under the Clean Air Act, the EPA said. Such pollutants are linked to a range of health problems, including asthma attacks, other respiratory diseases, and premature death.

This is obviously fraudulent but how many people were adversely affected or killed by VW’s choice?

“I don’t suppose we’ll never know how many people died—asthmatics, for example—because Volkswagen designed its ‘clean diesel’ vehicles—all 482,000 of them sold in the U.S. since 2009—to burn dirty except when they were being tested,” wrote UCLA public policy professor Mark Kleiman at The Reality-Based Community blog on Friday.

Situations like these point to the need for strongly copylefted free software—software users have permission to run, inspect, share, and modify—in all the computers they own, such as software licensed under the GNU General Public License. VW being caught is the exception and this is hardly surprising; proprietary software is often malware. This would naturally include software in their vehicles. It’s critical that derivative programs must convey the same freedoms to its users so the consumer protection of software freedom is carried on.

Copyleft—a means of protecting the freedoms of free software for derivative works—is why mere “open source” is inadequate to the task. Any call for “open source” would purposefully fail to distinguish between copyleft and non-copyleft licenses. The open source movement was built to be silent on software freedom. A non-copyleft license would allow proprietary derivatives. If VW owners get more proprietary software as a result of this, they might get more fraudulence when they’re in a bargaining position to demand and expect justice and fairness. All computer owners deserve software freedom to help them avoid fraud and make their software run safely all the time, not just when being inspected. And don’t buy into any proprietor-friendly excuses of VW’s hands being tied by upstream program providers or regulatory restrictions—people’s lives are at stake and it’s important to prioritize what people need to live safely, ethically, and not pollute their environment unnecessarily.

Update (2015-09-25): ExtremeTech.com reports that more information is coming to light which brings suspicion on more automakers—Audi, Porsche, BMW. It seems that comparable fraud and environmental damage are coming from BMW vehicles (“the BMW X3 2.0-liter diesel model spitting out 11 times more nitrogen oxide than the current level set by the European Union”). Basically, if your car has a computer in it, that computer probably runs on nonfree software. You, the car’s owner, deserve the right to run, inspect, share, and modify the software at any time for any reason. But only the proprietor does, hence the name “proprietary software”.

Related articles:

  • Wired magazine on a remotely-exploitable Jeep Cherokee as well as mention of exploits for Ford Escape and a Toyota Prius dating back to 2013, and word of a recall for the same Chrysler exploit and a lengthy list of vehicles with vulnerable software.
  • Tesla’s Model S software apparently allowed “shut[ting] the car down when it was driving“. Tesla claims to have fixed this in an “over-the-air update to Model S owners”, but without the ability to inspect the software only the untrustworthy proprietor can say what else the software allows (either pre- or post-“update”).
  • Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF): Researchers Could Have Uncovered Volkswagen’s Emissions Cheat If Not Hindered by the DMCA. Fleeting exemptions to the DMCA are mostly a waste of time[1, 2] since they quickly render whatever is done under them unreproducible using the same methods the original researchers used under the exemption. One could even convincingly argue such exemptions were designed to discourage filing for exemptions, possibly with a long-term goal of changing the DMCA to remove exemptions if exemption applications prove sufficiently unpopular. But one exemption the EFF filed for was recently objected to by the EPA—an exemption that would let people tinker with their car’s software. It’s worth noting that “the EPA is asking the Copyright Office to leave copyright law in place as a barrier to a wide range of activities that are perfectly legal under environmental regulations: ecomodding that actually improves emissions and fuel economy, modification of vehicles for off-road racing, or activities that have nothing to do with pollution” and cars that predate computerization could be modded to not obey ecological regulation, but the US has a long history of being reacting to this by inspections and fines. So there’s no reason to stop computerized car owners from fully modifying the cars they own. And the EFF is right when it concludes, “When you entrust your health, safety, or privacy to a device, the law shouldn’t punish you for trying to understand how that device works and whether it is trustworthy.”.