During the Free Software Convention held at Hyderabad during 3rd and 4th of March 2007 I called proprietary documents ‘criminal’. In reaction to the press reports (The Hindu, March 4th 2007) a journalist asked me: “Declaring Proprietary Encoding ‘criminal‘ is a very strong statement.What are you trying to say ?” I replied promptly, but my reply was not published. So I publish here my justification.
First, why do I call proprietary encoding “criminal“. I thank the media which took care of not deleting the quotation marks, because I said precisely that way. Without the quotation marks, it can be called unethical.
Let us first understand that there does not exist, to the best of my knowledge, any government in the world that declared proprietary encoding criminal. Therefore according to the legislation of any country, it is not a crime. But, we want this to be made illegal. Legislation at this moment is either agnostic or in some cases protecting such evil by granting the industries such rights in the form of Digital Rights Management (DRM). Let me elaborate:
A software company makes software to facilitate you and me to create data/information, manipulate it, publish it, disseminate it etc. The information digitized belongs to me and you, and should not belong to the company that makes it. I agree that the company does not claim ownership of the documents you and I created. However, the company kept the sole right to DECODE the document that we created. This is where the problem lies. If I use one particular software application a few years ago, we are forced to use only that application today. We do not have freedom to opt for other software applications. This is done deliberately by the proprietary companies. They discourage users to save files in rtf (rich rext format) format, or HTML format, by warning the users that you will loose data if you do so. In fact, if they are responsible they should educate and advice all the users to save in an open standard rather than a proprietary format. The warning would have been other way around: whenever a user saves a document in a proprietary format the application must throw a warning saying …
You are now going to save the document in a private/proprietary encoding, we do not give guarantee that you will be able to decode this document in future, and we do not ensure interoperability. Therefore we advice you save your document in a free standard such as ODF, RTF, HTML, or plain text. Also we inform you that this format is known to be vulnerable for virus infection. If you still want to save, please say OK, but we are not responsible for your action.
This kind of warning is RESPONSIBLE and ethical, not the kind of warning that we see now.
Added to this “crime”, they keep changing their proprietary document encoding every few years, so that people will never learn how to decode. This is a clear illustration of their motivations. They are not interested in you and me, they are interested in making profits, and remain a monopoly. They are not interested in encouraging us or guiding us to use best practices.
Further, most of the proprietary encodings, since they are in a binary format, are vulnerable to virus infection.
As you see, these are a series of undoubtedly unethical practices. Free Software Movement has pointed to this malpractice long ago. No government, no industry body (including our own bodies named by you) so far have in the interest of the rapidly increasing digital community made such recommendations to either the Industry or to the Govt. So, whose interests are they (Govts and Industry bodies like NASSCOM, CII, FICCI) serving, people or private companies. But, is it necessary that Industry should be against the interest of the people? NO. There are several examples of good Industries, which not only encourage and support people to use free encoding standards, but are also voiced their demands to arrive at a good ICT policy. Debian, Ubuntu, and RedHat are a few examples of such companies, and there are several other such good companies. These companies have demonstrated in practical terms that ethical business is possible.
With this background, it is clear that proprietary software companies are controlling dissemination of our digitally encoded knowledge. Are they in nexus with the Government? Yes, we know that Govt organizations in India did sign memorandums of understanding with such companies to deploy such “criminal software” in the public sphere, including educational institutes.
These companies now are asking for a policy change so that they legislate this “crime”. They are asking for a right called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM). According to this, they are seeking the right to control the dissemination of cultural resources including knowledge and science. Is this the kind of right that Govt and legislation should grant to the profit minding companies? Or should Govt and legislation protect the interests of people. We are concerned that Govt might succumb to the pressures of those mighty companies and their agencies which are in the process of seeking amendments in the law of the land, so that DRM enters into this country. That is why we call DRM, Digital Restrictions Management.
We want the right to digitally ENCODE (write) and DECODE (read and decipher) be first provided through a legislation to each and every citizen of the world, not merely India. Once such a fundamental right is granted to each citizen, this right belongs to the companies too. Therefore private companies can exercise this right as well. We want this kind of digital rights legislation, and not the kind the Industry is pushing the Governments all over the world.
We must therefore wakeup. I appeal to all the concerned citizens to join us in this appeal to protect the interests of the people. We want a legislation that protects people’s interests and not one sided interests of the private companies.
Therefore, let me reiterate, we want the right to encode (write) and decode (read, and decipher) digital code be granted to each and every citizen. Undoubtedly the time has come to declare proprietary encoding `criminal‘. In the absence of such a policy a just knowledge society is not possible.