ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Fight for Digital Sovereignty

It is time to incorporate free software principles to address the issue of privacy.

Thanks to the revelations of Edward Snowden, a former contractor to the United States (US) National Security Agency (NSA) who leaked secrets about the agency’s surveillance programmes, a 24-year-old movement aimed at protecting the rights of software users and developers has got some fresh attention from policymakers. The free and open source software movement (often collectively labelled as FOSS or sometimes FLOSS, with the “l” standing for “libre”) guarantees four freedoms through a copyright licence – the freedom to use for any purpose, the freedom to study the code, the freedom to modify it and the freedom to distribute the modified code gratis or for a fee. Free software principles have permeated the world in the form of movements around open standards, open content, open access and open data. The second freedom is the most critical in an open society. Privacy, security and integrity are best achieved through the transparency guaranteed by free software rather than the opacity of proprietary software.

Free software is directly useful in deciding on the software required for your device operating system and applications. NSA’s surveillance programme covered operating system vendors like Microsoft and Apple, and application vendors like Skype. The concerns raised by such surveillance programmes are best addressed by shifting to free software. Increasingly, this is possible on mobile devices because of the availability of Android derivatives that keep Google’s nose out of your business and on other personal computing devices through GNU/Linux distributions such as Ubuntu. Ideally, this should be accomplished by a mandate for government and public infrastructure in specific areas where free software alternatives are on par with proprietary competitors. Two other policy options remain outside procurement policies for hardware – code escrow and independent audits. Firms that are willing to share code with the government should be preferred over those that do not, thereby encouraging proprietary software companies to provide for the second freedom in free software within a limited context. Code escrow could improve the quality of the independent audit.

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