Free Software Foundation vs Microsoft -

Free Software Foundation vs Microsoft


At the end of July, Microsoft announced Windows 10, their latest version. As expected, there's been a media blitz and lots of commentary. There are the fan boys, singing the praises of the best OS ever (or at least, the best ever from MS), and others raising concerns about privacy and security. I'm not going to comment on either.

Like clockwork, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has released a diatribe attacking Microsoft and Windows 10. Windows 10 is available as a zero cost upgrade to Windows 7 and 8, a significant change from past policy, where everyone paid to upgrade. While that meaning of free seems to be what most people, even Open Source supporters, are interested in, this isn't the meaning that the FSF uses. Windows, as defined by FSF, is not free.

According to the FSF, using Windows puts you, as its user, “under the thumb” of what they call its “owner”. I'm not clear how I would be “under Microsoft's thumb” if I ran Windows. After all, they wouldn't suddenly appear wearing jackboots and force me to do something like confess to crimes against the state of Microsoft, or swear never to peek in when I walk by the Apple Store on University Ave. I don't think I'd be any more under Microsoft's thumb than I am under Google's thumb when I use my Android smartphone. Oops, that may not be a good comparison; FSF also believes that Google and Android are the devil's spawn.

Microsoft, according to the FSF, uses “draconian” laws to prevent you from looking at the source for Windows. They don't say which laws they are referring to, and I have the idea that they may not really understand the meaning of “draconian.” As I understand legal matters, two sets of laws prevent you from seeing the sources for Windows. The first is trade secret law which says that you and I (and Microsoft) can keep the details of how we work private, just as McDonald's can keep its “secret sauce”, well, secret. The other laws are copyright, which says that people (and in this context, as Mitt Romney said, corporations are people, too) have exclusive rights to their creative works. And it is exactly copyright law that the FSF uses as the cornerstone of the GNU Public License.

There's more hyperbole, with FSF describing a change in update policy from voluntary to mandatory for home users, while excluding enterprise users, as forcing them to “test less-secure”updates, as apparently unwilling guinea pigs. FSF may not be thinking of the many home users who never run Windows Update, who know little more about computer viruses than they hear on the evening news, and who find their computers part of a botnet or attacked by ransomware. The folks at Microsoft may not be saints, but my guess is that being able to push security updates to Windows users is a more credible explanation for the policy change than any lack of test engineers.

The FSF rant goes on in the same vein, saying that Windows users have to “take Microsoft's word that their computers are safe.” Which is true, just like we took the FSF's word that bash and OpenSSL were safe. Oh, snap, I just remembered that the GPL license used by these programs, both of which had serious security flaws (since corrected), disclaims any warranty and makes no promises that your computer will be safe if you use them.

FSF finishes by recommending that people use Linux instead of Windows, a recommendation I endorse. Of course, they refer to it as GNU/Linux, a bit of hubris I'll ignore for the moment. They even have a list of distributions which receive their imprimatur. On this list, notably, you will not find the major exterprise distributions like RedHat or SUSE. You also won't find the popular hobbyist distros like Ubuntu or Mint. In fact, I've never heard of any of the Linux distros they mention.

FSF press releases about Windows are just what we have come to expect. It's like your crazy uncle who shows up for Thanksgiving who holds forth on the latest conspiracy theory to everyone's embarrassment and dismay. Maybe next time the FSF could just take a breath and write a press release which sounds like they read it before hammering the “send” button.

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