October 2, 2001

Ignore SSSCA, risk becoming a 'federal felon, overnight'

Author: JT Smith

- by Tina Gasperson -
The anti-SSSCA movement is building steam rapidly this week as an online petition directed at lawmakers garners over 7,000 signatures in a little over three weeks. "I'm hoping Congress will understand that the average person thinks the government forcing policeware on their computers is un-American and downright wrong, and that supporting the SSSCA will hurt them when they run for re-election," says Don Pavlish, the mastermind behind the petition and a new Web site called StopPoliceWare.org.The potential SSSCA (Security Systems Standards and Certification Act) legislation is a serious threat to Open Source operating systems. As reported by NewsForge last week, it could outlaw Linux because it calls for proprietary copy-protection standards that wouldn't fly with the GPL.

"Millions of Linux users would be turned into federal felons overnight," Pavlish says. "The devastating impact on the Open Source community cannot be overstated. Thousands of administrators, programmers, developers and others would lose their jobs." And since Open Source software runs most of the Internet, outlawing it would "turn the 'Net into just another playground for big corporations that could afford the license fees."

Don Marti wrote an editorial entitled Open Letter to Michael Eisner, Chairman and CEO, Walt Disney Company that was published at LinuxJournal.com last month, in which he poignantly reminds us why the Web needs Open Source:

... You and your bill should stay out of Washington, DC, and let our elected representatives do their jobs.

Here's why.

On the morning of September 11th, I was wondering about one thing. Nothing the mass media could spare the time to answer, though. My question was "What happened to Jim and Ari?" They work in a
building facing the World Trade Center, and often use the subway station underneath.

In mid-morning, an internet server still chugging along on lower Broadway passed along the answer. "I just talked to Ari. He and Jim are OK."

That was it. A few words, passed along by a freely available mail program on an old Pentium system in the corner of an office. Words that ended up copied many times and passed along to internet places
where Jim and Ari's friends gather. Low-budget Internet hosts you've never heard of, with names like zork.crackmonkey.org and barley.nylug.org, running software you've never heard of, with names like Postfix
and GNU Mailman.

This isn't the flashy Internet of IPOs and Herman Miller chairs. It's the Internet where a regular person with a couple books and a used computer can start up a meeting, an argument, a conversation about anything. No venture capitalists, no advertisers, no licenses, no chat room monitors -- just independent know-how, Linux Documentation Project style.

And lest you think this is just another case of Open Source against the world, be aware that the SSSCA is bad news for anybody who owns a computer, including the vast majority who use Windows. "You don't have to be an uber-geek to be frightened of the SSSCA," says Pavlish. "Government policeware would affect everyone" who enjoys multimedia entertainment on their computers, because it would severely limit the freedoms we now have to listen to CDs, play DVDs, read e-books, or even record TV programs for later viewing. "It's for the soccer mom whose 18-year-old son is about to become a federal felon for deleting a DLL file on his Windows box in the privacy of his own bedroom."

The entertainment industry, says Pavlish, envisions a future where micropayments come to them every time we listen, or play, or read, or record. "They know consumers will never voluntarily agree to this garbage, so they bribe Congress to make sure all Americans submit to these controls or face federal felony charges and five years in the slammer."

The proposed legislation is particularly dangerous because the general public is typically in favor of anything that purports to stop "piracy." Thanks to extremely effective marketing by Microsoft, shored up by the mantra of copyright protection being repeated by the entertainment industry, the country appears ready to blithely stand by while Congress waves this one through. It may be up to the geeks to sound the alarm, letting Joe Q. Clueless, who thinks being able to figure out what a site is running on is tantamount to hacking, know that he's about to be lumped in with "the bad guys," just because he wants to play his favorite CD on his new Gateway.

The current American attitude that says, "I'll give up all my freedoms if you'll just protect me" isn't helping either. While Pavlish thinks that the September 11th attacks have take some of the focus off this bill and onto things like banning encryption and Web traffic monitoring, he says he wouldn't be surprised if Congress were to "try and tack it onto a bill that otherwise is concerned with security-related issues. We need to be on the alert for this."

Pavlish, a Libertarian, created the StopPoliceware.org site because of his strong personal opposition to the SSSCA bill. "I cannot imagine a future where the government has its policeware on my computer, and where Open Source software would be illegal. I've been online since the early days of BBSs and 1200-baud modems, and I've grown up very much in love with and benefiting from the open, free nature of the Web.

The petition and the Web site are just the beginning of what promises to be an explosion of public awareness of the nefarities of SSSCA. The StopPoliceware.org site has sample letters and phone scripts for people who want to confront their elected officials via other communications channels. Several people are helping Pavlish with this effort. One is his friend Nate Craddock, who in 2000 was the youngest candidate for Congress -- also a Libertarian. Craddock authored a flash animation at the site called "Rip, Mix, Burn, Go to Jail."

Julian Cook has donated millions of free ad impressions to StopPoliceware, through his WebTicker news feed service. "I decided it would be a good cause to push. Don has done a fine job and I will support him with all of WebTicker's resources. I don't want big brother in my computer or in my life." Cook says that by allowing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to pass, we've opened the door for even more restrictive legislation, like the SSSCA. "Microsoft must be loving this," says Cook, "because it effectively outlaws Open Source."

Cook's been running WebTicker since June 1998, originally with the intention of making money. When that didn't pan out, he decided to keep it going and simply offer the ad space for free to worthy charities. Basically, it's a free news feed that is updated every 15 minutes using a Perl script Cook wrote, and the ads run inline. "So far we've been able to give out over 180 million ads," he says.

Steve Litt, the editor and publisher of Troubleshooters Magazine, wrote to Pavlish after signing the petition to find out how he could help. Now he's working on getting word about the petition to LUGs across the country. He sent a email out to his Linux contacts, asking them to spread the word about the petition. "When forwarding to a LUG," he writes, "please suggest writing to congress and suggest any other creative means to stop this law (I've heard one suggestion that we contact government agencies who depend on GNU/Linux, such as NASA, NERSC, NIH, NIST, NOAA, USGS, Fermilab," and others. The email's only been circulating for one day but Litt already has the support of one of the largest LUGs in the United States, the Suncoast LUG in Tampa Bay, Florida.

Litt's found another creative way to contribute to the movement: He's asked his musician friend Artie Kegler to write and record an anti-SSSCA song. "Lyrics wise, it will be happy and sarcastic and
lampoon the stupidity, laziness and greed of the SSSCA supporters, and the
gross unworkability of the SSSCA idea," says Litt. "It will very much have a Linux twist,
as the first audience will be Linux people. However, it would be nice if it
were somewhat understandable by a larger audience."

True to the nature of all Open Source projects, Litt is looking for contributions from the community to help with the lyrics and make the song a reality. Send your SSSCA jokes, limericks, or rhymes to Litt at slitt@troubleshooters.com.

Pavlish urges us to take action to prevent the SSSCA from becoming law. There are three things we can do immediately to help stop the pending legislation, he says. "Contact your congressperson. Tell 'em you vote, and if they pass the SSSCA you won't vote for them. It's that important, and that simple. Sign the petition. Spread the word!

"My computer and the Internet mean too much to me to allow this to happen. My computer is not a television; it's truly an extension of myself, and there's no way I'm going to allow Washington and Hollywood to force their policeware onto it so I can be networked into their cash machine.

"This is what the Web is all about -- grass roots efforts, viral awareness."


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