September 18 is the day of software freedom, celebrated by people around the world who believe in the four basic freedom aspect of software — freedom to run, study, change and distribute copies with or without changes. It is the result of the techno-political resistance movement led by Richard Stallman (RMS) who is credited with launching it in 1983 by founding the GNU project. Many people were attracted by the ideas of RMS and switched to free software, especially when GNU/Linux became a stable operating system with all the goodies needed for any kind of computing work. In fact, we at River Valley have been using GNU/Linux (we also use free software like TeX as well) as our sole operating system both for our desktops and servers since 1995 without any fall in productivity, quality of services or difficulties to our 140 staff members who have been using it for one and half decades now. Except for the ten Mac OSX machines for graphics work, ours is an all GNU/Linux zone and we have proved beyond doubt that free software can be reliably deployed for commercial grade high quality production work in technical text processing which is our chosen area of activities.
In the beginning, there was a lot of passionate advocacy for free software which we all were part of and was needed at that time as people were ignorant of the implications of software freedom. We don’t have that kind of momentum now owing to the proliferation of GNU/Linux operating system, its deployment for various kinds of devices including cell phones, netbooks, tablets, etc., apart from computers, relative user friendliness of various distributions of GNU/Linux nowadays, availability of vast number of software choices in GNU/Linux platform for various kinds of computing tasks, etc.
Having said the above, it does not mean that we have lost the relevance of advocacy groups and celebrations now in its entirety. At least in India, public policy practitioners are overly corrupt and decision makers often go with appeasement and tempting payoff offered by proprietary operating systems and software corporations. That is why, a poor country like India spends unaffordably huge amounts on proprietary software for its infrastructure development. At least in the domains of public computing, like e-governance, health care, education and research where public funds are made use of, free software should be deployed. In order to ensure this to happen, every citizen should challenge the government
- to provide information about the software systems used in computers where citizens’ data are stored or processed;
- to provide justifiable rationale for non-deployment of free software if the public computing systems do not have any;
- to provide source code of the software used in public computing systems for the verification and satisfaction of the citizens that the software does exactly what it is intended for and no mischief/malafide intent is hidden; and
- to make available the sources of voting software, if electronic voting is implemented, to public scrutiny and audit of the source code for the entire satisfaction of the citizens.
Unless, the citizens come forward with due vigilance against misuse of software or deployment of wrong software like proprietary ones when better or functionally equivalent free/open systems are available which cause huge monetary losses to the exchequer, decision makers will cheat the citizens in a corruption ridden country like India. The software systems that take care of revenue and health records of citizens, treasury records and transactions of the government shall be subjected to public scrutiny while maintaining confidentiality of data. Also the formats of the data like land records, registration; various transactions of government including finance; deeds and agreements; proceedings of the legislature, etc., shall be in open and publicly supported formats like XML, OGG, etc., and not proprietary formats like Word. The proprietary formats prevent longevity of data/document making it obsolete within one or two years while that of open formats is future proof, ie., it can be used for decades and centuries since it is designed to be used by systems that are going to be invented in future.
I believe, the relevance of software freedom day is centered around this factor as all our lives are now connected and controlled by computers in one way or another. If we do not pay enough attention to how we’re controlled and take adequate steps to intervene and correct at appropriate moment, we only pave the path for our doom. Let the day of software freedom reminds each one of us this cardinal fact each year.