Linux, Liberty, and Software Freedom
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Linux and Liberty

One of the common images of libertarians is that as a group, they don't like any special controls on business, beyond requiring it to have the same respect for life, liberty, and property that individuals must have. As a result, we are often seen as very pro-business and pro-big business. Linux, on the other hand, is a bunch of hackers, and hackers are anti-business, right? So how is it that a libertarian can support Linux?

But the fact is, libertarians aren't pro-business so much as anti-regulation. And to be honest, most regulation helps large businesses (especially agribusiness, but that's a whole 'nother rant) at the expense of small business. This is because it's a lot easier for the leaders of a few large businesses to come together and put up a nice fat campaign contribution than a horde of their smaller competitors. Without government regulation, they have no reason to do so. But I digress.

As far as a libertarian is concerned, if you don't force anyone do what they don't want, lie, cheat, steal, or damage property, or hurt anyone in running your business, you're fine. The people who write and distribute Linux are in line with all that. Nobody is forced to use Linux. In fact, the GNU Public License is much closer to a libertarian ideal for software than the notorious End-User License Agreement, because it gives you a property right to the code and the software.

Have you ever read all the way through an End-User License Agreement? It is a LOT of work, but here's what they all pretty much say: "This is not your software. It is OUR software. But because you paid a lot of money, we graciously permit you to install and run OUR software on ONE computer, and make ONE backup copy of OUR software. Anything else you want to do with OUR software is illegal. You may not try to find out how OUR software works. You may not modify OUR software to better suit your needs. You may not allow anyone else to make a copy of OUR software. And furthermore, anything that happens because you use or try to use OUR software is YOUR fault."

The GNU Public License, on the other hand, pretty much says this: This is your software. You can look at the code, see how it works, change the software, make a bazillion copies, sell it or give it away, or anything else. It is YOURS. And since it's yours, you are responsible for what happens when you use it and/or change it. But if you sell or give away copies to somebody else, that becomes THEIRS, and they have all the same rights to their software as you do to yours.

Now how can a libertarian, somebody who holds property rights every bit as dear as those to life and liberty, not love something like that? And Linux has many benefits beyond the fact that it's distributed under a license that gives you a property right to the software. Because you own it, you are free to do with it as you like. That's why it's called "free" software.

For starters, it is shunned by the most aggressive organization in the world, the United States Government. I'd guess that over 98% of federal agents and bureaucrats would be totally helpless trying to run your linux box. They know nothing about Linux, or its parent operating system, UNIX. They're nearly all on Windows, especially at work.

For another, as long as you don't run in superuser mode all the time, Linux is much more secure than Windows. The most popular versions of Windows -- Windows 3.1, Windows 95, 98, and Me, all use a filing system called File Allocation Table. Some versions are meant for 16-bit processors, and others are meant for 32-bit processors. But none of them were ever meant to be secure. UNIX is meant to run mainframes, and Linux has pretty much all of the UNIX administrative tools. That means they are set up to allow the system administrator to control dozens or even hundreds of users, some of whom are probably very good with computers, and keep everyone's access limited to what they need or are assigned.

Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows XP all use the NT File System, which is more secure than FAT. But XP includes a remote operation "feature." In other words, it's designed so that while you're connected to the Internet, Microsoft technicians can connect to your computer and take control of it.

Now, Microsoft promises that they will only ever use their power to look at every file and program on your computer, and a list of all the places you've ever been to on the Internet, to do good. But suppose some government employee comes along and says, "I need to use remote access. It's part of a terrorism investigation, so I can't tell you anything." Do you think they will ask to see his search warrant and try to protect your privacy? Sorry, but these days of the Patriot Act, that's a good way to go to jail for obstruction of justice and/or collaborating with terrorists.

And do you think that government employees are specially blessed by God with such love for their fellow man that we should never worry about anything they want to do? Sorry, but I don't. I trust the guy who says, "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help," LESS than I'd trust the guy who says "Hey, the check's in the mail!"

Also, do you really think that nobody else will ever figure out this built-in back door? I know enough about crackers to know that there are currently a lot of them trying to figure out how to open Microsoft's built-in back door to your computer; it's probably their current Holy Grail. I have no idea how many, but it's probably hundreds, and possibly thousands. How long do you think it's going to be before one or more of them does it, and then trades their technique for some stolen credit card numbers, or passes it on just for the fun of causing havoc?

On top of privacy, stable Linux distributions almost never crash, and they usually run much faster than Windows on equivalent hardware. If the latest version of Windows is too big and bloated for your current computer, you might get almost as much of a performance increase by changing over to Linux as you would from upgrading. And some varieties of Linux can take a bunch of old machines, and get them all to run the same process -- it's almost like having all of their CPUs and RAM on one motherboard.

Linux is not without its problems. The largest one, in my opinion, is the availability of drivers. When somebody makes a new piece of hardware, whether it's a video card, modem, printer, scanner, or anything else, they'll write device drivers for Windows and Mac OS before release. But they generally won't write them for Linux. Instead, what happens is some Linux developers go and buy the new do-dad and they try to figure out how it works, and they write drivers for it. This may well take some time, and you may have to search far and wide on the internet to find it, though some hardware makers will post stable Linux drivers on their support sites.

Linux is extremely powerful; nearly everything can be configured. And as a result, nearly everything has to be configured before you can run it. Consider oclock, a very simple utility that puts an analog clockface on your screen. You can configure the colors of the hands, the edges of the hands, the dial markings, the clock face, and the border, as well as the border width and how often the utility checks the time on the computer's clock and how often its display is refreshed. And that's a simple utility. Others are far more complex, and require far more elaborate configuration.

There is no standard interface, nothing comparable to the Macintosh Standard Interface or the Windows Standard Interface. Having to choose all of your configuration options can be very frustrating and frightening for the new user. And the fact that everything gets configured differently makes it even worse. Distributions are the usual answer to this. A distribution is a Linux setup that typically has the most popular programs already preconfigured and tested to have a unified look and to all work together.

Support is an issue with Linux. It has a lot of free support, but you have to find it, and then you have to find what you're looking for in it. It's found on IRC channels, newsgroup mailing lists, and websites, and man pages. The larger problem after you've found support is finding out how to do what you're trying to do. And you'll be hampered in this by the fact that there are usually a bazillion variables that have to be taken into account. This is a skill that improves with experience.

Because anyone can modify Linux, put a different name on it, and sell it, there's a fairly large variety when it comes to Linux. Each distribution tends to emphasise a different thing in its setup tools. However, they all use recent versions of the kernel and they tend to all have the same software applications included, if not set up to install. Mandrake has ease of installation as the primary goal. It doesn't work too well on 486 and 386 processors, being optimized for Pentiums, but it does tend to have the most drivers, particularly for newer hardware. SuSE is a distribution out of Germany, with ease of use, particularly for large organizations, as a design goal. Red Hat is the most popular distribution in the US, used by IBM on their latest file server products. They don't make money from selling Linux so much as Linux support -- you can easily get all kinds of contracts from Red Hat to provide tech support for Red Hat Linux, and they certify experts much as Microsoft does. Debian is a mom-and-pop operation devoted to software freedom; they and their thousands of developers will not charge for code, and you can copy, sell, modify, or do whatever you like with their code -- as long as you give permission to do that to anyone else who gets a copy. And Slackware is devoted to being the most UNIX-like distribution of Linux. They also have a rep as the most powerful, in that you can use it on anything, and control it down to the most minute level. It's the hacker's fave.

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