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Name: Luis Villa
Member since: 1999-11-09
Last Login: 2008-07-15 03:49:38

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Homepage: http://tieguy.org/

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A former maintainer of legOS, I'm now actively involved in GNOME as bugmaster and release team member. I haven't updated my advo page since advo was in beta; please don't expect that to change drastically. :)

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Copyleft, attribution, and data: other considerations

Public licenses for databases don’t work well. Before going into solutions to that problem, though, I wanted to talk briefly about some things that are important to consider when thinking about solutions: real-world examples of the problems; a common, but bad, solution; and a discussion of the motivations behind public licenses.

2013-bullfrog-map-unavailable
Bullfrog map unavailable“, by Peter Desmets, under CC BY 3.0 unported

Real-world concerns, not just theoretical

When looking at solutions, it is important to understand that the practical concerns I blogged about aren’t just theoretical — they matter in practice too. For example, Peter Desmet has done a great job showing how overreaching licenses make bullfrog maps (and other data combinations) illegal. Alex Barth of OpenStreetMap has also discussed how ODbL creates problems for OSM users (though he got some Wikipedia-related facts wrong). And I’ve spoken to very well-intentioned organizations (including thoughtful, impactful non-profits) scared off from OSM for similar reasons.

On the flip side, because these rules are based on such flimsy legal grounds, sophisticated corporate legal departments often feel comfortable circumventing
the requirements by exploiting loopholes. (Needless to say, they don’t blog about the problems with the licenses – they just go ahead and use the loopholes.) So overreaching attempts to create new rights are, in many ways, the worst of both worlds: they hurt well-intentioned cooperation, and don’t dissuade parties with a significant interest in exploiting the commons.

What not to do: create new “rights”

When thinking about solutions, it is unfortunately also important to say what isn’t a good idea: create new rights, or override limitations on old ones. The Free Software Foundation, to their great credit, has always consistently said that if weakening copyright also weakens the GPL, they’ll take that tradeoff; and that vice-versa, the GPL should not ask for rights that go beyond copyright law. The most recent copyleft licenses from Creative Commons, Mozilla, and the FSF all make this explicit: limitations on copyright, like fair use, are not trumped by our licenses.

Unfortunately, many people have a good-faith desire to see copyleft-like results in other domains. As a result, they’ve gone the wrong way on this point. ODbL is probably the most blatant example of this: even at the time, Science Commons correctly pointed out that ODbL’s attempt to create database rights by contract outside of the EU was a bad idea. Unfortunately, well-intentioned people (including me!) pushed it through anyway. Similarly, open hardware proponents have tried to stretch copyright to cover functional works, with predictably messy results.

This is not just practically wrong, for the reasons I’ve explained in earlier posts. It is also ethically wrong for those of us who want to see more data sharing, because any “rights” we create by fiat are going to end up being used primarily to stop sharing, not encourage it.

Remembering why we do share-alike and attribution

Consider this section a brief sketch for a future post – if I forgot something
big, please let me know, but please don’t roast me in comments for being brief
or reductive about your favorite motivation.

It is important when writing about public licenses to remember why the idea of
placing restrictions on re-use is so intuitively appealing outside of software.
If we don’t understand why people want to do less-than-public domain, it’s hard
to come up with solutions that actually work. Motivations tend to be some
combination (varying from person to person and community to community) of:

  • Recognition: Many people want to at least be recognized for their work, even when they ask for nothing else. (When Creative Commons assessed usage after their 1.0 licenses, [97-98% of people chose attribution](https://creativecommons.org/2004/05/25/announcingandexplainingournew20licenses/).) This sentiment underlies many otherwise “permissive” licenses, as well as academic norms around plagiarism and attribution.
  • Reducing free riding: Lots of people are afraid that commons can be destroyed by people who use the resource without giving back. Historically, this “tragedy of the commons” was about [rivalrous](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rivalry_(economics)) goods (like fisheries), but the same concern is often raised in the context of collaborative communities, whose labor can be rivalrous even when their goods are non-rivalrous. Some people like share-alike requirements because, pragmatically, they feel such requirements are one way to prevent (or at least reduce) this risk by encouraging people to either participate fully or not participate at all. (If you’re interested in this point, I’ve [written about it before](http://lu.is/blog/2014/12/02/free-riding-and-copyleft-in-cultural-commons-like-flickr/).)
  • “Fairness”: Many people like share-alike out of a deep moral sense that if you take, you should also give back. This often looks the same as the previous point, but with the key distinction that at least some people focused on fairness care more about process and less about outcomes: a smaller, less productive community with more sharing may, for them, be better than a larger, more productive community where not everyone shares perfectly.
  • Access to allow self-help: Another variation on the previous two points is a use of copyleft that focuses less on “is the author helping me by cooperating” and more on “did the author give me materials I can then use to help myself”. In this view, increased access to raw material (like source code, or data) can be good even the authors are non-cooperative. (To those familiar with the Linux kernel discussions, this is essentially “I got a lousy driver, and the authors hate me, but at least I got *a* driver”.)
  • Ethical: Many people simply think data/source should never be proprietary, and so will use any means possible, like copyleft, to increase the amount of non-proprietary code in the world.

All of these motivations can be more or less valid at different points in time, in ways that (again) deserve a different post. (For example, automatic attribution may not have the same impact as “human” attribution, which may not be a surprise given the evidence on crowding out of intrinsic motivations.)

Finally, next (and final?) post: what solutions we’ve got.

Syndicated 2016-09-21 18:22:38 from Blog – Luis Villa: Open Law and Strategy

Copyleft and data: databases as poor subject

In my last post, I wrote about how database law is a poor platform to build a global public copyleft license on top of.  Of course, whether you can have copyleft in data only matters if copyleft in data is a good idea. I no longer think that is the case, because the way databases are used in the wild makes copyleft impractical even for good-faith users who want to share back. As with the last post, when we compare software (where copyleft has worked reasonably well) to databases, we’ll see that databases are different in very significant ways that impact whether or not we can expect copyleft (and to some extent other standardized public licenses) to work.

Card Puncher from the 1920 US Census.
Card Puncher from the 1920 US Census.

How works are combined

In software copyleft, the most common scenarios to evaluate are merging two large programs, or copying one small file into a much larger program. In this scenario, understanding how licenses work together is fairly straightforward: you have two licenses. If they can work together, great; if they can’t, then you don’t go forward, or, if it matters enough, you change the license on your own work to make it work.

In contrast, data is often combined in three ways that are significantly different than software:

  • Scale: Instead of a handful of projects, data is often combined from hundreds of sources, so doing a license conflicts analysis if any of those sources have conflicting obligations (like copyleft) is impractical. Peter Desmet did a great job of analyzing this in the context of an international bio-science dataset, which has 11,000+ data sources.
  • Boundaries: There are some cases where hundreds of pieces of software are combined (like operating systems and modern web services) but they have “natural” places to draw a boundary around the scope of the copyleft. Examples of this include the kernel-userspace boundary (useful when dealing with the GPL and Linux kernel), APIs (useful when dealing with the LGPL), or software-as-a-service (where no software is “distributed” in the classic sense at all). As a result, no one has to do much analysis of how those pieces fit together. In contrast, no natural “lines” have emerged around databases, so either you have copyleft that eats the entire combined dataset, or you have no copyleft. ODbL attempts to manage this with the concept of “independent” databases and produced works, but after this recent case I’m not sure even those tenuous attempts hold as a legal matter anymore.

  • Authorship: When you combine a handful of pieces of software, most of the time you also control the licensing of at least one of those pieces of software, and you can adjust the licensing of that piece as needed. (Widely-used exceptions to this rule, like OpenSSL, tend to be rare.) In other words, if you’re writing a Linux kernel driver, or a WordPress theme, you can choose the license to make sure it complies. Not necessarily the case in data combinations: if you’re making use of large public data sets, you’re often combining many other data sources where you aren’t the author. So if some of them have conflicting license obligations, you’re stuck.

How attribution is managed

Attribution in large software projects is painful enough that lawyers have written a lot on it, and open-source operating systems vendors have built somewhat elaborate systems to manage it. This isn’t just a problem for copyleft: it is also a problem for the supposedly easy case of attribution-only licenses.

Now, again, instead of dozens of authors, often employed by the same copyright-owner, imagine hundreds or thousands. And imagine that instead of combining these pieces in basically the same way each time you build the software, imagine that every time you have a different query, you have to provide different attribution data (because the relevant slices of data may have different sources or authors). That’s data!

The least-bad “solution” here is to (1) tag every field (not just data source) with licensing information, and (2) have data-reading software create new, accurate attribution information every time a new view into the data is created. (I actually know of at least one company that does this internally!) This is not impossible, but it is a big burden on data software developers, who must now include a lawyer in their product design team. Most of them will just go ahead and violate the licenses instead, pass the burden on to their users to figure out what the heck is going on, or both.

Who creates data

Most software is either under a very standard and well-understood open source license, or is produced by a single entity (or often even a single person!) that retains copyright and can adjust that license based on their needs. So if you find a piece of software that you’d like to use, you can either (1) just read their standard FOSS license, or (2) call them up and ask them to change it. (They might not change it, but at least they can if they want to.) This helps make copyleft problems manageable: if you find a true incompatibility, you can often ask the source of the problem to fix it, or fix it yourself (by changing the license on your software).

Data sources typically can’t solve problems by relicensing, because many of the most important data sources have different structures. In particular:

  • Governments: Lots of data is produced by governments, where licensing changes can literally require an act of the legislature. So if you do anything that goes against their license, or two different governments release data under conflicting licenses, you can’t just call up their lawyers and ask for a change.
  • Community collaborations: The biggest open software relicensing that’s ever been done (Mozilla) required getting permission from a few thousand people. Successful online collaboration projects can have 1-2 orders of magnitude more contributors than that, making relicensing is hard. Wikidata solved this the right way: by going with CC0.

So what to do?

So if data is legally hard to build a license for, and the nature of data makes copyleft (or even attribution!) hard, what to do? I’ll go into that in my next post.

Syndicated 2016-09-14 13:00:42 from Blog – Luis Villa: Open Law and Strategy

Copyleft and data: database law as (poor) platform

tl;dr: Databases are a very poor fit for any licensing scheme, like copyleft, that (1) is intended to encourage use by the entire world but also (2) wants to place requirements on that use. This is because of broken legal systems and the way data is used. Projects considering copyleft, or even mere attribution, for data, should consider other approaches instead.

Hollerith Census Machine Dials, by Marcin Wichary, under CC BY 2.0
The original database: Hollerith Census Machine Dials, by Marcin Wichary, under CC BY 2.0.

I’ve been a user of copyleft/share-alike licenses for a long time, and even helped draft several of them, but I’ve come around to the point of view that copyleft is a poor fit for data. Unfortunately, I’ve been explaining this a lot lately, so I want to explain why in writing. This first post will focus on how the legal system around databases is broken. Later posts will focus on how databases are hard to license, and what we might do about it.

FOSS licensing, and particularly copyleft, relies on legal features database rights lack

Defenders of copyleft often have to point out that copyleft isn’t necessarily anti-copyright, because copyleft depends on copyright. This is true, of course, but the more I think about databases and open licensing, the more I think “copyleft depends on copyright” almost understates the case – global copyleft depends not just on “copyright”, but on very specific features of the international copyright system which database law lacks.

To put it in software terms, the underlying legal platform lacks the features necessary to reliably implement copyleft.

Consider some differences between the copyright system and database law:

  • Maturity: Copyright has had 100 or so years as an international system to work out kinks like “what is a work” or “how do joint authors share rights?” Even software copyright law has existed for about 40 years. In contrast, database law in practice has existed for less  than 20 years, pretty much all of that in Europe, and I can count all the high court rulings on it on my fingers and toes. So key terms, like “substantial”, are pretty hard to define-courts and legislatures simply haven’t defined, or refined, the key concepts. This makes it very hard to write a general-purpose public license whose outcomes are predictable.
  • Stability: Related to the previous point, copyright tends to change incrementally, as long-standing concepts are slowly adapted to new circumstances. (The gradual broadening of fair use in the Google era is a good example of this.) In contrast, since there are so few decisions, basically every decision about database law leads to upheaval. Open Source licenses tend to have a shelf-life of about ten years; good luck writing a database license that means the same thing in ten years as it does today!

  • Global nature: Want to share copyrighted works with the entire world? Copyright (through the Berne Convention) has you covered. Want to share a database? Well, you can easily give it away to the whole world (probably!), but want to reliably put any conditions on that sharing? Good luck! You’ve now got to write a single contract that is enforceable in every jurisdiction, plus a license that works in the EU, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. As an example again, “substantial” – used in both ODbL and CC 4.0 – is a term from the EU’s Database Directive, so good luck figuring out what it means in a contract in the US or within the context of Japan’s database law.

  • Default rights: Eben Moglen has often pointed out that anyone who attacks the GPL is at a disadvantage, because if they somehow show that the license is legally invalid, then they get copyright’s “default”: which is to say, they don’t get anything. So they are forced to fight about the specific terms, rather than the validity of the license as a whole. In contrast, in much of the world (and certainly in the US), if you show that a database license is legally invalid, then you get database’s default: which is to say, you get everything. So someone who doesn’t want to follow the copyleft has very, very strong incentives to demolish your license altogether. (Unless, of course, the entire system shifts from underneath you to create a stronger default – like it may have in the EU with the Ryanair case.)

With all these differences, what starts off as hard (“write a general-purpose, public-facing license that requires sharing”) becomes insanely difficult in the database context. Key goals of a general-purpose, public license – global, predictable, reliable – are very hard to do.

In  upcoming posts, I’ll try to explain why, even if it were possible to write such a license from a legal perspective, it might not be a good idea because of how databases are used.

Syndicated 2016-09-12 17:22:31 from Blog – Luis Villa: Open Law and Strategy

Free as in … ? My LibrePlanet 2016 talk

Below is the talk I gave at LibrePlanet 2016. The tl;dr version:

  • Learning how political philosophy has evolved since the 1670s shows that the FSF’s four freedoms are good, but not sufficient.
  • In particular, the “capability approach” pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum is applicable to software, and shows us how to think about improving the capability of people.
  • There are a bunch of ways that free software, as a movement, could refocus on liberating people, not code.

I did not talk about it in the talk (given the audience), but I think this approach is broadly applicable to every software developer who wants to make the world a better place (including usability-inclined developers, open web/standards folks, etc.), not just FSF members.

I was not able to use my speaker notes during the talk itself, so these may not match terribly well with what I actually said on Saturday – hopefully they’re a bit more coherent. Video will be posted here when I have it.

image from talk

Most of you will recognize this phrase as borrowed from the Wikimedia Foundation. Think on it for a few seconds, and how it differs from the Four Freedoms.

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I’d like to talk today about code freedom, and what it can learn from modern political philosophy.

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Last time I was at Libre Planet, I was talking with someone in a hallway, and I mentioned that Libre Office had crashed several times while I was on the plane, losing some data and making me redo some slides. He insisted that it was better to have code freedom, even when things crashed in a program that I could not fix without reading C++ comments in German. I pointed out, somewhat successfully, that software that was actually reliable freed me to work on my actual slides.

We were both talking about “freedom” but we clearly had different meanings for the word. This was obviously unsatisfying for both of us – out common language/vocabulary failed us.

This is sadly not a rare thing: probably many of us have had the same conversation with parents, friends, co-workers, etc.

So today I wanted to dig into “freedom” – what does it mean and what frameworks do we hang around it.

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So why do we need to talk about Freedom and what it means? Ultimately, freedom is confusing. When card-carrying FSF members use it, we mean a very specific thing – the four freedoms. When lots of other people use it, they mean… well, other things. We’ll get into it in more detail soon, but suffice to say that many people find Apple and Google freeing. And if that’s how they feel, then we’ve got a very big communication gap.

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I’m not a political philosopher anymore; to the extent I ever was one, it ended when I graduated from my polisci program and… immediately went to work at Ximian, here in Boston.

My goal here today is to show you that when political philosophers talk about freedom, they also have some of the same challenges we do, stemming from some of the same historical reasons. They’ve also gotten, in recent years, to some decent solutions – and we’ll discuss how those might apply to us.

Apologies if any of you are actually political philosophers: in trying to cram this into 30 minutes, we’re going to take some very, very serious shortcuts!

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Let’s start with a very brief introduction to political philosophy.

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Philosophers of all stripes tend to end up arguing about what is “good”; political philosophers, in particular, tend to argue about what is “just”. It turns out that this is a very slippery concept that has evolved over time. I’ll use it somewhat interchangeably with “freedom” in this talk, which is not accurate, but will do for our purposes.

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Ultimately, what makes a philosopher a political philosopher is that once they’ve figured out what justice might be, they then argue about what human systems are the best ways to get us to justice.

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In some sense, this is very much an engineering problem: given the state of the world we’ve got, what does a better world look like, and how do we get there? Unlike our engineering problems, of course, it deals with the messy aspects of human nature: we have no compilers, no test-driven-development, etc.

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So before Richard Stallman, who were the modern political philosophers?

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Your basic “intro to political philosophy” class can have a few starting points. You can do Plato, or you can do Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger), but today we’ll start with John Locke. He worked in the late 1600s.

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Locke is perhaps most famous in the US for having been gloriously plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. Before that, though, he argued that to understand what justice is, you have to look at what people are missing when they don’t have government. Borrowing from earlier British philosophers (mostly Hobbes), he said (in essence) that when people have no government, everyone steals from – and kills – everyone else. So what is justice? Well, it’s not stealing and killing!

This is not just a source for Jefferson to steal from; it is perhaps the first articulation of the idea that every human being (at least, every white man) is entitled to certain inalienable rights – what are often called the natural rights.

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This introduces the idea that individual freedom (to live, to have health, etc.) is a key part of justice.

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Locke was forward-thinking enough that he was exiled to the Netherlands at one point. But he was also a creature of his time, and concluded that monarchy could be part of a just system of government, as long as the people “consented” by, well, not immigrating.

This is in some sense pretty backwards, since in 1600s Europe, emigration isn’t exactly easy. But it is also pretty forward looking – his most immediate British predecessor, Hobbes, basically argued that Kings were great. So Locke is one of the first to argue that what the people want (another aspect of what we now think of as individual freedom) is important.

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It is important to point out that Locke’s approach is what we’d now call a negative approach to rights: the system (the state, in this case) is obligated to protect you, but it isn’t obliged to give you anything.

Coming from the late 1600s, this is not a crazy perspective – most governments don’t even do these things. For Locke to say “the King should not take your stuff” is pretty radical; to have said “and it should also give you health care” would have also made him the inventor of science fiction. And the landed aristocracy are typically fans!

(Also, apologies to my typographically-sensitive friends; kerning of italicized fonts in Libre Office is poor and I got lazy around here about manually fixing it.)

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But this is where Locke starts to fall down to modern ears: if you’re not one of the landed aristocracy; if you’ve got no stuff for the King to take, Locke isn’t doing much for you. And it turns out there are a whole lot of people in 1600s England without much stuff to take.
So let’s fast forward 150+ years.

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You all know who Marx is; probably many of you have even been called Marxists at one point or another!

Marx is complicated, and his historical legacy even more so. Let’s put most of that aside for today, and focus on one particular idea we’ve inherited from Marx.

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For our purposes, out of all of Marx, we can focus on the key insight that people other than the propertied class can have needs.(This is not really his insight; but he popularizes it.) I

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Having recognized that humans have needs, Marx then goes on to propose that, in a just society, the individual might not be the only one who has a responsibility to provide those needs – the state, at least when we reach a “higher phase” of economic and moral development, should also provide.

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This sounds pretty great on paper, but it is important to grok that Marx argues that his perfect system will happen only when we’ve reached such a high level of economic development that no one will need to work, so everyone will work only on what they love. In other words, he ignores the scarcity we face in the real world. He also ignores inequality – since the revolution will have washed away all starting differences. Obviously, taken to this extreme, this has led to a lot of bad outcomes in the world – which is what gives “marxism” its bad name.

But it is also important to realize that this is better than Locke (who isn’t particularly concerned with inequality), and in practice the idea (properly moderated!) has led to the modern social welfare state. So it is a useful tool in the modern philosophical toolkit.

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Fast forward again, another 100 years. Our scene moves down the street, to Harvard. Perhaps the two most important works of political philosophy of the 20th century are written and published within four years of each other, further up Mass Avenue from MIT.

John Rawls publishes his Theory of Justice in 1971; Robert Nozick follows up with his Anarchy, the State, and Utopia in 1974.

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Rawls and Nozick, and their most famous books, differ radically in what they think of as justice, and what systems they think lead to the greatest justice. (Nozick is the libertarian’s libertarian; Rawls more of a welfare-state type.) Their systems, and the differences between them, are out of our scope today (though both are fascinating!).

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However, both agree, in their ways, that any theory of a just world must grapple with the core fact that modern societies have a variety of different people, with different skills, interests, backgrounds, etc. (This shouldn’t be surprising, given that both were writing in the aftermath of the 60s, which had made so clear to many that our societies were pretty deeply unjust to a lot of people.)

This marks the beginning of the modern age of political philosophy: Locke didn’t care much about differences between people; Marx assumed it away. Nozick and Rawls can be said, effectively, to mark the point when political philosophy starts taking difference seriously.

But that was 40 years ago – what has happened since then?

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So that brings us to the 1990s, and also to 2016. (If you haven’t already figured it out, political philosophy tends to move pretty slowly.)

The new-ish hotness in political philosophy is something called capability theory. The first work is put forward by Amartya Sen, an Indian economist working with (among others) the United Nations on how to focus their development work. Martha Nussbaum then picked up the ball, putting in a great deal of work to systematize it.

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When Sen starts working on what became capability theory, he’s a development economist trying to help understand how to help improve the lives of his fellow Indian citizens. And he’s worried that a huge focus on GDP is not leading to very good outcomes. He turns to political theory, and it doesn’t help him: it is focused on very abstract systems. John Locke saying “life, liberty, property” and “sometimes monarchs are OK” doesn’t help him target the UN’s investment dollars.

So his question becomes: how do I create a theory of What is Just that actually helps guide decisions in the real world? Capability theory, in other words, is ultimately pragmatic.

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To put it another way, you can think of the capability approach as an attempt to figure out what effective freedom is: how do we take freedom out of textbooks and into something that really empowers people?

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One of the key flaws for Sen of existing theories was that they talked about giving people at worst, negative rights (protecting their rights to retain property they didn’t have) and at best, giving them resources (giving them things or training they couldn’t take advantage of). He found this unconvincing, because in his experience India’s constitution gave all citizens those formal rights, but often denied them those rights in practice, through poverty, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc.

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And so from this observation we have the name of the approach: it focuses on what, pragmatically, people need to be capable of acting freely.

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Some examples may be helpful here to explain what Sen and Nussbaum are getting at.

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For example, if all men and women have the same formal access to education, but women get fewer job callbacks after college than men with identical resumes, or men refuse to care for children and aging parents, then it seems unlikely that we can really claim to have a just society.

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Somalia, circa 1995-2000, was, on the face of it, a libertarian paradise: it gave you a lot of freedom to start businesses! No minimum wage, no EPA.

But it turns out you need more than “freedom from government interference” to run a business: you have to have a lot of other infrastructure as well. (Remember, here, Locke’s “negative” rights: government not stopping you, v. government supporting you.)

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These examples suggest that answering political philosopher question #1 (“what is justice?”) requires more than just measuring access to resources. What you want to know to understand whether a system is just, you have to measure whether all people have the opportunity to get to the important goals.

In other words, do they have the capability to act?

This is the core insight that the capabilities approach is grounded in: it is helpful, but not enough, to say “someone has the natural rights” (Locke) or “some time in the future everyone will have the same opportunity” (Marx).

(Is any of this starting to ring a bell?)

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Capability approach is, again, very pragmatic, and comes from a background of trying to allocate scarce development resources in the real world, rather than a philosopher’s cozy university office. So if you’re trying to answer the political philosopher’s question (“what system”), you need to pick and choose a few capabilities to focus on, and figure out what system will support those capabilities.

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Again, an example might be helpful here to show how picking the right things to focus on can be important when you’re aiming to build a system that supports human capability.

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If you focus on only one dimension, you’re going to get things confused. When Sen was beginning his work, the development community tended to focus exclusively on GDP. Comparing the Phillippines and South Africa by this number would have told you to focus your efforts on the Philippines.

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But  one of the most basic requirements to effective freedom – to supporting people’s capability to act – is being alive! When we look at it through that lens, we pretty quickly see that South Africa is worth more energy. It’s critical to look through that broader lens to figure out whether your work is actually building human freedom.

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This is, perhaps, the most contentious area of capability theory – it’s where writing is being done across a variety of disciplines, including economics, political philosophy, sociology, and development. This writing has split into two main areas: the pragmatists, who just want to figure out useful tools that help them improve the world, and the theorists, who want to ground the theory in philosophy (sometimes as far back as Aristotle).

This is a great place to raise Martha Nussbaum again: she’s done the most to bring theoretical rigor to the capability approach. (Some people call Sen’s work the “capability approach”, to show that it is just a way of thinking about the problem; and Nussbaum’s work “capability theory”, to show that it is a more rigorous approach.)

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I have bad news: there is no one way of doing this. Some approaches can include:

  • Local nuance: What is valued and important in one culture may not be in another; or different obstacles may exist in different places and times. Nussbaum’s work particularly focuses on this, interviewing people both to find criteria that are particularly relevant to them, but also to attempt to identify global values.
  • Democracy: Some of Sen’s early research showed that democracies were better at getting people food than non-democracies of similar levels of economic development, leading to avoidance of famines. So “what people prioritize based on their votes” is a legitimate way to understand the right capabilities to focus on.
  • Data: you’ll almost never see a table like the one I just showed you in most political philosophy! The capability approach embraces the use of data to supplement our intuitions and research.
  • Old-fashioned philosophizing: it can be perfectly appropriate to sit down, as Richard did, and noodle over our problems. I tend to think that this is particularly important when we’re identifying future capabilities – which is of course our focus here.

Each of these can be seen as overlapping ways of identifying the best issues to identify – all of them will be useful and valid in different domains.

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Shared theme of that last slide? Thinking primarily about people. Things are always a means to an end in the capability approach – you might still want to measure them as an important stepping stone to helping people (like GDP!) but they’re never why you do something.

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There is no one right way to pick which capabilities to focus on, which drives lots of philosophers mad. We’ll get into this in more detail soon – when I talk about applying this to software.

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Probably the bottom line: if you want to know how to get to a more just system, you want to ask about the capabilitiesof the humans who are participating in that system. Freedom is likely to be one of the top things people want – but it’s a means, not the end.

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So now we’ve come to the end of the philosophy lecture. What does this mean for those of us who care about software?

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So, again, what do political philosophers care about?

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The FSF’s four freedoms try to do the right thing and help build a more just world.

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If you don’t have some combination of time, money, or programming skills, it isn’t entirely clear the four freedoms do a lot for you.free-as-in-what- - 48

The four freedoms are negative rights: things no one can take away from you. And that has been terrific for our elites: Locke’s landed aristocracy is our Software as a Service provider, glad the King can’t take away his right to run MySQL. But maybe not so much for most human beings.
free-as-in-what- - 49This brings us to our second question – what system?

Inspired by the capability approach, what I would argue that we need is a focus on effective freedom. And that will need not just a change to our focus, but to our systems as well – we need to be pragmatic and inclusive.

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So let me offer four suggestions for free software inspired by the capability approach.

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We need to start by having empathy for all our users, since our goal should be software that liberates all people.

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Like the bureaucrat who increases GDP while his people die young, if we write billions of lines of code, but people are not empowered, we’ve failed. Empathy for others will help us remember that.

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Sen, Nussbaum, and the capability approach also remind us that to effectively provide freedom to people we need to draw opinions and information from the broadest possible number of people. That can simply take the form of going and listening regularly to why your friends like the proprietary software they use, or ideally listening to people who aren’t like you about why they don’t use free software. Or it can take the form of surveys or even data-driven research. But it must start with listening to others. Scratching our own itch is not enough if we want to claim we’re providing freedom.

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Or to put it another way: our communities need to be as empowering as our licenses. There are lots of great talks this weekend on how to do that – you should go to them, and we should treat that as philosophically as important as our licenses.

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I think it is important to point out that I think the FSF is doing a lot of great work in this area – this is the most diversity I’ve seen at Libre Planet, and the new priorities list covers a lot of great ground here.

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But it is also a bad sign that at the new “Open Source and Feelings” conference, which is specifically aimed at building a more diverse FOSS movement, they chose to use the apolitical “open” rather than “free”. That suggests the FSF and free software more generally still have a lot of work to do to shed their reputation as being dogmatic and unwelcoming.

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Which brings me to #2: just as we have to listen to others, we have to be self-critical about our own shortcomings, in order to grapple with the broad range of interests those users might have.

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At the begining of this talk, I talked about my last visit to Libre Planet, and how hard it was to have a conversation about the disempowerment I felt when Libre Office crashed. The assumption of the very well-intentioned young man I was talking to was that of course I was more free when I had access to code. And in a very real way, that wasn’t actually true – proprietary software that didn’t crash was actually more empowering to me than libre software that did crash. And this isn’t just about crashing/not-crashing.

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Ed Snowden reminded us this morning that Android is freely-licensed, but that doesn’t mean it gives them the capability to live a secure life.

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Again, here, FSF has always done some of the right thing! You all recognize this quote: it’s from freedom zero. We often take pride in this, and we should!

But we also often say “we care about users” but only test what the license is. I’ve never seen someone say “this is not free, because it is impossible to use” – it is too easy, and too frequent, to say “well, the license says you can run the program as you wish, so it passes freedom zero”. We should treat that as a failure to be humble about.

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Humility means admitting our current. unidimensional systems aren’t great at empowering people. The sooner we admit that freedom is complex, and goes beyond licensing, the quicker we can build better systems.

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The third theme of advice I’d give is to think about impact. Again, this stems from the fundamental pragmatism of the capability approach. A philosophy that is internally consistent, but doesn’t make a difference for people, is not a useful philosophy. We need to take that message to heart.

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Mako Hill’s quantitative research has shown us that libre code doesn’t necessarily mean quality code, or sucessful projects. If we want to impact users, we have to understand why our core development tools are no longer best-in-class, and fix them, or develop new models to replace them.

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We built CVS, SVN, and git, and we used those tools to build some of the most widely-used pieces of software on earth. But it took the ease of use of github to make this accessible to millions of developers.

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Netsplit.de is a search engine for IRC services. Even if both of these numbers are off by a factor of two (say, because of private networks missing from the IRC count, and if Slack is inflating user counts), it still suggests Slack will have more users than IRC this year. We need to think about why that is, and why free software like IRC hasn’t had the impact we’d like it to.

If we’re serious about spreading freedom, this sort of “post-mortem” of our successes and failures is not optional – it is a mandatory part of our commitment to freedom.

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I’ve mentioned that democracy is one way of choosing what capabilities to focus on, and is typically presumed in serious analyses of the capability approach – the mix of human empowerment and (in Sen’s analysis) better pragmatic impact make it a no-brainer.

A free software focused on impact could make free licensing a similar no-brainer in the software world.

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Dan Gillmor told us this morning that “I came for the technical excellence and stayed for the freedom”: as both he and Edward Snowden said this morning, we have to have broaden our definition of technical excellence to include usability and pragmatic empowerment. When we do that, our system – the underlying technology of freedom – can lead to real change.

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This is the last, and hardest, takeaway I’ll have for the day.

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We’ve learned from the capability approach that freedom is nuanced, complex, and human-focused. The four freedoms, while are brief, straightforward, and easy to apply, but those may not be virtues if our goal is to increase user freedom.

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As I’ve said a few times, the four freedoms are like telling you the king can’t take your property: it’s not a bad thing, but it also isn’t very helpful if you don’t have any property.

We need to re-interpret “run the program as you wish” in a more positive light, expanding our definitions to speak to the concerns about usability and security that users have.

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The capability approach provides us with questions – where do we focus? – but not answers. So it suggests we need to go past licensing, but doesn’t say where those other areas of focus might be. Here are some suggestions for what directions we might evolve free software in.

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Learning from Martha Nussbaum and usability researchers, we could work with the next generation of software users to understand what they want, need, and deserve from effective software freedom.

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We could learn from other organizations, like UNICEF, who have built design and development principles. The graphic here is from UNICEF’s design principles, where they talk about how they will build software that improves freedom for their audience.

It includes talk about source code – as part of a coherent whole of ten principles, not an end in and of itself.

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Many parts of our community (including FSF!) have adopted codes of conduct or similar policies. We could draw on the consistent themes in these documents to identify key values that should take their place alongside the four freedoms.

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Finally, we can vote with our code: we should be contributing where we feel we can have the most impact on user freedom, not just code freedom. That is a way of giving our impact: we can give our time only to projects that empower all users. In my ideal world, you come away determined to focus on projects that empower all people, not just programmers.

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Ultimately, this is my vision, and why I remain involved in free software – I want to see people who are liberated. I hope after this talk you all understand why, and are motivated to help it happen.
Thanks for listening.

Further reading:

Image sources and licenses (deck itself is CC BY-SA 4.0):

 

 

Syndicated 2016-03-23 19:12:26 from Blog – Luis Villa

The All Writs Act on Wikipedia v. legal academic reach

Legal friends! The world needs you. Here’s the graph of readership of All Writs Act on Wikipedia:

Pageviews Analysis-All Writs ActThat’s 45,035 reads yesterday (by humans, not bots).((Big thanks to the tech team for figuring out how to differentiate – not something we could do until fairly recently, at least for public stats!)) That would put it 5th on SSRN’s all-time legal download list, right between William Landes and Cass Sunstein. Not bad company! Or in other words: anything you fix in this article in the next day or two is likely to be the most-read thing you ever write.

The article has been edited 39 times since the Apple letter was published. So it is a lot better than two days ago. But it could still use a lot of love – history, applicability outside of the Apple situation, etc. Contribute!

Since lawyers are particularly concerned about citation, it is worth mentioning that the editing experience especially when adding citations has become vastly better in the past year – in most cases for articles on SSRN, simply dropping the link into our citation editor will get you a fully-fleshed out and formatted citation (with thanks to our friends at Zotero!)

 

Syndicated 2016-02-18 19:09:09 from Blog – Luis Villa

709 older entries...

 

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