It’s a class issue: Power over the users is unjust power

A flight simulator company FlightSimLabs was caught embedding malware in their proprietary software which copies a user’s website credentials. FlightSimLabs claims they only had plans to use this against users who “pirated” the software but nobody can be sure because this malware was in every copy of the FlightSimLabs software; the credentials copying was indiscriminate. We won’t really know when this issue will go away or if it does go away because we can’t tell where the unethically copied data will travel. But there are aspects of this case which bring to mind the underlying class basis of users vs. proprietors, how things were different in the recent past with home computing, and what the changes of always-on networked computing (in which we store sensitive information) means for the public.

The chief underlying problem here is proprietary (non-free, user-subjugating) software. Software you’re not allowed to run, inspect, modify, or share (also known as ‘software freedom’). Proprietary software is licensed and distributed to keep you from running the program despite doing normal maintenance, software meant to keep you from treating your friends as friends by sharing a copy, inspecting the program to see what it does, and distributed to prevent you from modifying your copy the program should you wish to for any reason.

I experienced something quite similar with the Commodore 64: A video game called Elite on the C-64 had an anti-copying scheme so clumsy and prone to problems it drove me to understand what was really going on. Today we’d properly call this DRM—digital restrictions management (expanded that way because I take the side of the user class, not the publisher class) which was only visited upon those who obtained their copy of the program in a way the publisher found acceptable. Typically this meant buying a copy, but I later came to understand some copies were distributed gratis. The packaged game came with media, a manual, and a flat plastic device with a see-through window. The device could be bent so it resembled a table like an inverted letter “U”. On starting the game, the user was shown some blocky image that looked incomprehensible. When the plastic device was folded, placed on the monitor at the proper distance (via the “legs” of the device), and peered through one could see the blocky image turn into something readable. If I recall correctly, the readable image was a page number reference in the manual one was expected to look up and type in the proper word to get past this stage of the loading program.

After I did this a couple of times it dawned on me that those who engage in filesharing and treating friends like friends (sometimes propagandistically called “pirates“) never have to put up with this. Only the people who used the publisher-distributed copy did. And most of those users had paid for this treatment.

Those who shared copies were doing us all a favor: they let us try programs before buying a copy, they let us run copies that didn’t have what we now call DRM; the anti-copying code had been stripped away. They let us have copies that one could copy in an ordinary fashion, no need for special copiers (such as “nibblers”, or any copier that knew how to get past the errors which were deliberately added to the disk to defeat the standard file and disk copiers). There was no need to work around the issue by using audio tapes instead of disks (since audio tapes didn’t have copy-prevention added to the media). These so-called “pirates” were doing us a service, a service I might have paid for if offered the opportunity to pay a publisher for a headache-free copy of the program.

Later I obtained a memory snapshotting cartridge called “Isepic” which let me make my own copy of the RAM-resident portion of the game. Isepic produced a copy which loaded faster, never prompted me for the manual lookup, and played identically to the other copy loaded from the distributor’s media (no surprise there, it was the same code being loaded into memory). I never loaded the distributor’s media again. But this got me to thinking about all the other programs (not just games) that treated the users this way across all the computers I had used. And I began to realize that this was a scam perpetrated on the people who treated the publishers the best. We were literally exchanging our money for being treated badly. And this harm pushed on the users was indiscriminate, just like the flight simulator company did here.

There was one more issue to wrestle with: proprietary software. This was an issue even the filesharers couldn’t really contend with. Almost all of the software I saw anyone use on the C-64 was proprietary: users weren’t allowed to do things we wanted to do: understand how the program worked, share copies, modify the program, or (in some cases) even run the program whenever we wanted. At best, the filesharers could grapple with runtime limits: Want to play ‘Elite’ from the publisher’s media without the plastic device? Too bad; that plastic device and loading routine is DRM to stop one from running the program (meaning that even if you copy the media you’ll probably make a copy you can’t really use). It’s not likely one will be able to look at the screen and manually decode the image, by design. Tough on the paying users, easy on the users who know how to share with each other. But this won’t help you with the other freedoms of free software.

As a practical matter we didn’t face some very serious problems with always-networked computers: We didn’t have our C-64s constantly on, we didn’t store sensitive credentials on the C-64, and we didn’t connect them to networks most of the time. So we didn’t have the privacy-busting ramifications proprietary software poses for ordinary computer users today (copying people’s credentials to websites ought to be criminal; this is very likely to include copying credentials to medical, banking, and work-related websites). What if that flight simulator company doesn’t keep the lid on whatever they illicitly copied from the users? Remember they did this indiscriminately: They did this to all of their users; there’s no reason to believe they won’t mistreat a paying user. They’ve already lied to all their users by misrepresenting what the flight simulator does—I’ll bet that people who got a copy thought they were getting a flight simulator, not a credentials copier.

In the end I came to recognize that the heart of this issue where the computer owner has less power over their computer than an organization that convinces the user to run their software is the main issue of software freedom. Software proprietors have unjust power over the users. The only way to break that power and keep people opting for freedom is to teach people to value software freedom for its own sake, and then choose free software consistently: play free software games, run free software apps for other jobs, and install and use free software operating systems. You’ll have to have the spine to say ‘no’ to a lot of what is advertised, but you’ll retain control of your data and your computer and it’s a lot less likely you’ll ever bump into DRM. Free software DRM is ineffective—edit out the DRM code and run that version instead. You also get to treat your friends like friends doing something natural to do with digital computers—sharing copies of published software.