Why I won’t be mirroring Wikileaks

I have a fair amount of ‘spare’ server space, and some very understanding service providers, and so it makes sense for me to mirror things in general, which I do. So when Wikileaks went down, mirroring it seemed quite a natural response. They need mirrors, and I have a mirror. I’ve been looking for something to do with my youcanstickitupyourarse.com domain for a while, and this seemed like a good bet.

Also in favour is the fact that Wikileaks is being a bit of a pain to a few institutions (well, governments) that annoy the crap out of me; I’d not mind being part of that. In addition, the huge majority of the released cables appear to be of no interest whatsoever, and the large governmental opposition to them has only served to increase the perception of their importance. I’d like as many people as possible to be able to read them such that they can judge for themselves how interesting they are. The point appears to be less what’s been found out and more that anything has at all.

But I have concernes, too. Firstly, these cables were all sent on the basis they were confidential, so they naturally contain the sort of information that neither end wants made public. I’m already livid at the apparent acceptance of just anybody being able to subject me to surveillance, and I don’t see why embassy staff should necessarily be treated differently. The argument that they work for the government is moot – millions of privately-employed people do work for the government, and they also should have a right to an expectation of privacy. I honestly have no problem at all with governments talking to each other in privacy, it seems to be quite a natural way of working and is not at all contrary to the idea of an open government.

Second, and of more concern than that, is the sort of things these people are likely to be sticking down encrypted tunnels. I don’t want to inadvertently find myself hosting a document that results in an informant being tortured or killed. I don’t really want to be party to releasing information that only serves to embarras or otherwise compromise someone. I don’t want *anyone* to do that, but I’ve only got control over my servers.

That’s all well and good, you say. Wikileaks are sifting through these and specifically redacting anything they deem not fit for release. That’s some hubris right there.

And here’s the difference. I trust the Debian project, and Canonical, the Perl foundation, Zend and the like, to not put things I disagree with on my server. I do not trust Wikileaks in this respect at all.

The whole ‘Collateral Murder‘ release is a great example of Wikileaks not releasing information for the sake of it being free, but releasing specifically compromising information, with a decidedly skewed context, in order to further some particular viewpoint. That video, or perhaps its commentary, removed the bulk of my respect for Wikileaks. Why on earth would I assume they’re not going to similarly skew the releases here also? Wikileaks does have a stated aim they’re pursuing with all the leaking; it’s not just because they feel information should be free.

So, it’s not that I’ve got some opposition to the leaking, or feel that it shouldn’t be mirrored. It’s just that I don’t feel I can trust Wikileaks to only publish what I think should be published, and picking-and-choosing which bits to host is not how a mirror works.

Joining the Canonical =~ Microsoft fray

I’ve had this knocking about for a while in various forms. Following TheOpenSourcerer‘s post, I figured I’d get it in while he’s getting the flack.

About a year ago, I remember there being some rejoicing at the prospect of Canonical open-sourcing Launchpad, their bug/issue/ticket tracking web application. I also remember being a mite confused by it. Canonical is the company behind Ubuntu Linux, the popular open source operating system. Surely they, of all people, had opened the source from the start? What does it say when the company most loudly and successfully pushing open source as an efficient means of software development to your average computer user, develops its in-house software behind closed doors? And, accepting that, why is opening the source means for rejoicing? It is surely the belated Right Thing To Do. If anything, the response should have been along the lines of “Why so long?”

More recently, I decided that a hodge-podge of scripts to keep my files in sync between PCs wasn’t a good idea, not least because it didn’t actually work, and since my home PC and my laptop were both Ubuntu, and Ubuntu One seemed easy enough to install, that’d do the trick. So I installed it and started using it. Then I decided to get my work PC in on the game. And find this message:

Requirements: Because we want to give everyone using Ubuntu One the very best experience, we require that you run Ubuntu 9.04 (Jaunty Jackalope) or higher.

Which is something I don’t think I’ve come across before – a Free Software company producing software and inventing restrictions. Why shouldn’t Ubuntu One work on my Debian desktop?
This incompatibility for the sake of it is something I remember from Windows, and it’s not a good memory. I know it’s possible to write a client for it – the client is at least open source – but the message that I am required to use Ubuntu to use it? What good does that do anyone?

Most recently came the news that on the netbook edition Canonical have decided to drop OpenOffice.org (which *is* undeniably bloated) and use Google docs in its place. Google Docs is completely proprietary. It’s about as closed source as software can get, since you can’t even study its behavior, only those interfaces you’re permitted with it.
Why wasn’t AbiWord used, with it’s online service, for example? Or a pared down OpenOffice, perhaps? Canonical has shown in the past that it has the developer hours to make fantastic, awesome, changes to software. Why not do that now?

Ubuntu is the most popular desktop Linux distro. I’m sure there are ways of counting such that Fedora wins, but if something’s packaged for Linux, it’s available in a Ubuntu-pointed deb. And so it occupies a unique position for free software – it’s an opportunity to be a fantastic demonstration of what is possible with free software. It is possible to make commercial progress without restricting user freedom, and it is possible to make a wonderfully usable operating system under these conditions.

Except Ubuntu’s not demonstrating that. It’s showing that using a billionaire benefactor and a bunch of closed source software we can turn a free operating system into a mostly-freeish wonderful one.

And I’d rather like Canonical to stop doing that, and get back to making free software look good.

Why I use Linux

This is one of those things that’s always difficult to explain. The bits of Linux that I miss on other platforms are not things that you immediately see as being of particular importance. The best example of this is the freedom – why would I care that I’m free to do as I please with this software? I’ve no idea, if I’m perfectly honest. But what follows is a list of the things I miss the most when I find myself on something else (most often WinXP):

With very little in the way of limitations, I can make it look and behave how I want it to. Most obviously, I can customise the taskbars and notification areas, add monitoring icons, change colours, configure keyboard shortcuts and the like. But I can also tear out bits of the system that I don’t particularly want, optionally replacing them with options I prefer. Or just use daft keyboard mappings where every key acts as if it was three to the left or something.
The important bit is that my Linux PC works in the way I want it to. When I’m on a Windows box, I must work in the way it wants me to.

Two Clipboards
In xorg, the most prolific window server on Linux, you have two clipboards. One is the ‘normal’ one which you manually insert stuff into through <ctrl>+<c> or <ctrl>+<shift>+<del> and pasted with <ctrl>+<v> or <ctrl>+<shift>+<ins>. The other is automatically populated by highlighting text with the mouse cursor and pasted with the middle mouse click. It’s a fantastically quick way of copying and pasting.

Multiple Workspaces
If you’ve used them, you’re probably nodding in agreement, if you haven’t, it’s difficult to explain. The best way I can think of is to imagine a KVM switch, but where all the monitors you switch between are those on a multi-monitor display. If anyone’s got any better ways of explaining it, please let me know so I can stick it here.

Always On Top
I know Windows Task Manager can do it, but that’s about the only window I’ve never wanted to keep on top of the others.

Text Based
Linux is mostly text-based in its configuration, and is generally blessed with at least three sets of wonderfully powerful text processing tools (the shell, Perl and Python). This means that batch changes to configurations are really easy, as is exporting particular bits of configuration and importing them to somewhere else. Also, the fact that the shell is as powerful as the clicky interface means that pretty much anything you might want to do can be automated. Which brings me on to:

Windows in particular seems to have a bit of an aversion to automating things. I don’t know if it’s just the Windows environments I’ve found myself in, the fact that most tasks are substantially easier (if more time consuming) with a mouse than on the command line, or because the batch file setup is crap, but there seems to be something about a Windows environment that lends itself very well to the pointless replication of manual work.
Linux practically forces you to automate things. Typing commands into a shell, while easy and quick, isn’t particularly fun. And it’s so obviously easily automatable that, well, you might as well.

If I want a gopher client, I open up my repository client, search for ‘gopher client’, read the descriptions of what it shows up, download what looks best and start using it.
This software has come from the same place as the operating system, so I can trust that it is not malware, that the description is accurate and that it will be compatible with my system. It will also be upgraded when I update the system.
It’s easier, more secure, faster and more convenient than the Windows way of trawling the net and trying to work out on what basis to judge the trustworthiness of a particular application. Though if I’m that way inclined, the repository system doesn’t stop me doing that.

Hardware Compatability
Maybe I’m just unlucky, but most times I’ve installed Windows, I’ve then spent a couple of hours visiting manufacturer’s websites trying to find drivers for my hardware so I can get anything at all working. Sometimes on a fresh install I have a working network, but generally I’ve needed to find graphics, wifi, usb, audio and various chipset drivers at the very least, quite often ethernet ones, too. It’s not helped by the fact that Windows is apparently completely unaware of what hardware’s in the box until you’ve installed the correct driver for it, which makes working out which driver you need more a game of chance than a methodical process.

Modular and integrated
The unix philosophy is for software to be small, simple and have a single well-served purpose. This is generally adhered to in the free software world, mostly because it’s a pretty good approach.
For example, I have aspell installed. It’s a spellchecker and it checks spelling. It does so in my web browser, mail client, IM client and office suite. If i typed in anything else, it’d probably work there, too. This means I only ever need to add words to the dictionary once, and it’ll be considered valid everywhere. It also means that the people who develop my web browser and mail client can concentrate on developing good web browsers and mail clients, and leave the spell checking up to the people who develop spell checkers.

The Community and its support
It’s massive. Or, perhaps rather, they’re massive. And useful. I’m on a number of mailing lists and forums dedicated to sharing tips and helping people with free software. If I’m having trouble with anything Linux based, there’re three or four pools of several thousand enthusiasts who are not only likely to know or be able to find an answer, but will probably enjoy doing it. And they run across the spectra of difficulty, use cases and user stupidity.
I’ve spent a long time trying to find similar for Windows, but there appears to be a jump from free home user level support to pay-for business use support.

No Marketing Department
One fantastically huge advantage of free software is that there’s no incentive to make it popular. In contrast to commercial software where the aim to sell as many licenses as possible, the only possible aim of free software is to produce the best software possible. Any large free software project has this aim, since there is no other way to be popular.
This is brilliant, for several reasons. Firstly, the software tends to turn out pretty good. Secondly, marketing teams don’t get anywhere near it, so design and feature decisions tend to be founded in reality. There’s no 3d accelerated solitaire (to my knowledge), but there’s the above list of features. Thirdly, upgrades are non-compulsory. You’ll never have version 1.4 stop working because 1.5 is out. You might well find that security updates are no longer released and so you’re advised to upgrade, but if you *really* like 1.4 you can hire a developer to patch the security holes and develop it in the direction you want it developed.