Free Software EULAs?

Ubuntu is now being forced to show a EULA before letting users run Firefox, on pain of losing the rights to the Firefox trademark.  (You know, End User License Agreements: those pop-ups Windows and Mac users have to put up with all the time, with the big “I Accept” button at the bottom.)  Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu top dog, weighs in on the bug:

Please feel free to make constructive suggestions as to how we can meet Mozilla’s requirements while improving the user experience. It’s not constructive to say “WTF?”, nor is it constructive to rant and rave in allcaps. Your software freedoms are built on legal grounds, as are Mozilla’s rights in the Firefox trademark. To act as though your rights are being infringed misses the point of free software by a mile.

This is a bit surprising, and a bit disappointing.  Both the decision itself, and Mark’s take on it, are quite wrong.

One of the most important benefits of free software is the legal agreement you work in.  You don’t have to agree to some long contract every time you need to do something new on your system, or sometimes even when you get a “critical update” to something you’re already doing.  You don’t have to read pages of legalese, or go through some long process with your company’s legal department, or just click the “make it go away” button with this vague unease that you’ve just signed your first-born child away to the Devil.

Most importantly, you feel like you actually own your computer when you run free software on it.  When you enter a situation where you always have to ask permission to do things, and have to be constantly reminded of the rules, you don’t feel comfortable.  Clearly, the thing in front of you is not yours, whatever your credit card bill might say; if it were, there wouldn’t be all this stress over you doing something the real owners don’t like.  Free software returns your computer to you, by guaranteeing that you don’t have to enter into all these contracts before you can use it.

Well, unless that “free” software is Firefox 3.0.2 or later, it seems.

It’s “free” by a technical definition (you can strip the Firefox trademark rather easily, and get rid of the EULA as well).  But when users fire up Ubuntu, and decide to do some browsing, and get confronted with pages of legal garbage and ALL CAPS, they will ask: “What’s so different about this open source stuff?  I thought I was getting rid of all this legal crap.”  And, suddenly, they’re slogging through the same drudgery they had to endure with every Windows service pack, and they wonder what they’ve gained.

Perhaps there is a price we should be willing to pay to help Mozilla preserve their trademarks, but this price is too great.  Mozilla should never have asked this of us, and Ubuntu should never have decided, on our behalf, that this price was acceptable.

Debian has already turned its back on Firefox, and I have yet to have a problem with Iceweasel (the branding Debian chose for its Firefox-alike) that was caused by the branding change.  But I’m tempted to bring it back, in Debian’s “non-free” software repository.  Perhaps we could provide Firefox, complete with nasty EULA, but launch Iceweasel instead of Firefox if the user clicks “No”.  There are probably all kinds of reasons why this is a bad idea, but I’m still drawn to the idea of illustrating how silly and useless click-through EULAs are.

But it would be much more productive for Mozilla to back down, and not ask us to sacrifice such a large part of our identity on the altar of their sacred mark.

UPDATE: First, I notice I was remiss in not giving a hat tip to Slashdot.

Second, Mark has posted another comment on the bug.  I encourage people to read the whole comment, but here’s a telling part:

For example, at the moment, we’re in detailed negotiations with a
company that makes a lot of popular hardware to release their drivers as
free software – they are currently proprietary. It would not be possible
to hold those negotiations if every step of the way turned into a public
discussion. And yet, engaging with that company both to make sure Ubuntu
works with its hardware and also to move them towards open source
drivers would seem to be precisely in keeping with our community values.

In this case, we have been holding extensive, sensitive and complex
conversations with Mozilla. We strongly want to support their brand
(don’t forget this is one of the few companies that has successfully
taken free software to the dragons lair) and come to a reasonable
agreement. We want to do that in a way which is aligned with Ubuntu’s
values, and we have senior representatives of the project participating
in the dialogue and examining options for the implementation of those
agreements. Me. Matt Zimmerman. Colin Watson. Those people have earned
our trust.

On the one hand, yes, I believe that the Canonical people have earned our trust, and I do appreciate the utility of quiet persuasion with a proprietary software company that doesn’t understand our community.  On the other hand, I had been under the impression that Mozilla was not a proprietary software company, and didn’t need persuasion and secret negotiations to see our point of view.

Is Mozilla still a free software company, or not?

UPDATE 2: Cautious optimism is appropriate, I think.  Mitchell Baker, Mozilla chair:

We (meaning Mozilla) have shot ourselves in the foot here given the old, wrong content.  So I hope we can have a discussion on this point, but I doubt we’ll have a good one until we fix the other problems.

The actual changes aren’t available yet, and I wonder how much of this had been communicated to Canonical beforehand.  Still, it’s a good sign.

Election Time: Republicans Win

It’s silly season again in America: a Presidential election year.  If you don’t know that, you must really be living under a rock.

As I did four years ago, I’ll post my thoughts about how I vote online for all the elections I can participate in: national, Congressional, Indiana-wide, and local.  That way, you can do more than curse the ignorant Americans for their choices; you can possibly influence at least one.

Local races look to be more boring than usual this year, because neither of Indiana’s Senators is running this year.  Fishers trends strongly Republican, too, which makes a lot of the other local races uncompetitive.

But that’s not why I said the Republicans win.  I figured I’d be able to watch the speeches from the conventions at my own convenience online, so just now I tried both sites.  Here’s what the Democratic convention site told me:

We’re sorry, but the Democratic Convention video web site isn’t compatible with your operating system and/or browser. Please try again on a computer with the following:

Compatible operating systems:
Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista, or a Mac with Tiger (OS 10.4) or Leopard (OS 10.5).
Compatible browsers:
Internet Explorer (version 6 or later), Firefox (version 2), or, if you are on a Mac, Safari (version 3.1) also works.

That’s because the Democrats chose Microsoft as their official technology provider, and Microsoft chose to deliver all video using their Silverlight technology, which doesn’t work on Linux (yet).

And what are the Republicans using?  Good ol’ YouTube.

Yes, I’ll probably be able to find the important Democrat speeches on YouTube.  But how easy will that be?  And how many of the obscure Democrat speeches will I be drawn into watching just out of curiosity?  I’ve already listened to portions of Fred Thompson’s and Joe Lieberman’s speeches–because it was so easy.

Advantage: Republicans.

Comment Policy Updated: No More CAPTCHA

The comment policy has changed; check the page links for the details.  The big change: I’ve turned off the CAPTCHA page that would be presented for comments judged to be “borderline” spam by the spam filter software.

For those not aware, CAPTCHA is the name given to the funny letters and numbers on weird backgrounds that you sometimes have to type in to do things on certain web sites.  The idea was that computers couldn’t read those letters and numbers, but humans could; thus, each solved CAPTCHA was proof that a human had done whatever it was that had been done.

CAPTCHA had issues even from the beginning.  They present obvious issues for the blind, and were often simple enough to be read by modern OCR software.  Because of this, I never turned it on for every comment, and any comment rejected because of the CAPTCHA just went into the moderation queue.  But I’m now convinced that CAPTCHA has reached the end of its useful life.

So when a commenter on my last post expressed his dissatisfaction with my CAPTCHA, I decided it was time to turn it off.  And so, references to it have been expunged from my comment policy.

The Esperanto translation of my comment policy has also been updated, in the hopes that I might someday post a little more often in that language.  It’s also been moved to a page.