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Monday, October 22nd, 2007, 4:16 am

Linux Cannot be Trusted, With the Exception of Freedom

WE have entered a period when GNU/Linux desktops gradually become more widely accepted. An increasing number of people choose to migrate not only for cost savings, but also — because software takes more control of the user’s privileges over time — for freedom, which becomes attractive. To some, independence and choice are newly-realized traits and they are inherent in the software. In many cases and to many people, these traits were never understood or explored before, but they have a great deal of impact on behavioral and security. Thus, they are related to trust.

With changes in software paradigms — from closed source (proprietary) to open source — changes in mindset do not necessarily ensue. Ideological and conceptual views cannot be changed overnight. Experienced Linux users strive to find a point of balance wherein both worlds (and both mindsets) can settle and thrive together, without exclusion of peers.

It is often argued that openly sharing code leads to elegant solutions. Poor solutions perish whereas better ones evolve and spread. While many remain united by the goal of producing and supporting the best operating system and applications, there remain at least one divide; there are those who who argue in favour of full transparency and those who are more apathetic towards it.

Apathy gives more control over technical decision to parties other than the user him/herself. These leaves a door open to abuse of rights, which is usually motivated by financial interests.

Other divides involve learning curve (e.g. command-line versus GUI) and perception of intellectual property, but these divies rarely affect the development model and the quality of software. Different distributions of Linux address the needs of different users, yet there is at least one component that is shared by almost everyone — the kernel.

Computer code is hardened and bug are removed when more pairs of eyes reviewed its quality. It is a question of visibility. Visibility is trust. What happens, however, when partial visibility becomes a necessary evil? Increasingly, as the reach of Linux broadens, a desire is born to choose easier routes to working solution. As the technology-savvy crows becomes a minority among the userbase, principles are compromised.

Arguments about pragmatism arise whenever a company or an individual is unwilling to disclose secrets. If this company or individual is kind enough to meet half way, by providing a solution which enables function but insisting that this function remains cryptic, a dilemma becomes inevitable. If this gift is accepted and becomes widely adopted, it becomes difficult to beg for change.

The importance of open source drivers is largely underestimated. Due to their proximity the the core of an operating system, they can affect security, privacy, and stability. An open source platform cannot be truly understood unless subsystems are entirely visible.

A truly trustworthy system is one where there is an open route of visibility which extends downward to the lowest level. Such a system is needed to ensure that no single mind or faction is misusing its ability to embed self-serving and user-hostile code. Trust is as deep as the layer of the stack which defines separation between known and unknown — that which permits the user to access the core.

In the future, we are likely to see widespread use of free/open source BIOS, open specifications for graphics cards with an open source implementation, and processors that are open (consider Sun’s processors whose design is already licensed under the terms of the GNU GPL).

Due to the fact that Free Linux distributions take a lot of criticism, I’ve written an article. Free software is, sadly enough, largely misunderstood. Only days ago, Mark Pilgrim was ranting and Don Parris responded. My own 50 cents were posted in Datamation. The article could be called “The Importance of Gobuntu to the Goals of Linux”, but I chose a different (and more generic) headline. Gobuntu was born to serve specific needs. It is built for users to whom freedom is an important quality of the software they use. More in Datamation:

As GNU/Linux becomes more popular, the motives behind its inceptions are often forgotten. Linux is a free operating system, but its broadening userbase perceives this freedom as pertaining to cost, not rights and liberty.

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