Free your computer, free yourself…

The concept of ‘freedom’ has different meanings for different people. Freedom means a lot for someone behind bars; for someone tending a bar when they would rather be doing something else, it may mean slightly less. Someone caught in a dysfunctional relationship might want to be ‘free’, but it is not the same kind of freedom desired by a caged laboratory rat.

Most of us are imprisoned by our willing or unwilling participation in consumerism. Debt is a major chain. Mortgages, credit card balances, student loans – these are all things that keep us chained to consumer society and prevent open rebellion. While we struggle and desire to be free, it is hard – if not impossible – for us to break those chains.

If you are reading this online, chances are you are using some kind of computer. If it is a desktop or laptop, you will more than likely be using a Microsoft or Apple operating system. This is not going to turn into a rant against your choice of graphical user interface. I wish to point to a way in which we can all break one of the fetters that bind us: the chain that ties you to proprietary, expensive, privacy invading and insecure lines of code that mediate your experience of our connected world. The question is, “Are you running your computer or is your computer running you?”

Way back in 1983, a respected Unix programmer and computer scientist named Richard Stallman launched a project called GNU. GNU is one of those pesky recursive acronyms standing for ‘GNU is Not Unix’ and was started to provide a free alternative to the Unix operating system. Why did he do it? Stallman’s aim was to provide free software that gave people the opportunity:

“…to make a political and ethical choice asserting the right to learn, and share what we learn with others. Free software has become the foundation of a learning society where we share our knowledge in a way that others can build upon and enjoy.” ~ Free Software Foundation.

You may think that your current choice of operating system and the programs you use daily (word processing, spreadsheets, music players, email clients etc.) does not impinge upon your freedom. If you are using Windows or Mac OS X, then you are sadly wrong. Make a copy of a program or operating system and give it to a friend? You can’t, without breaking the law. Work out how a program works (reverse assembly) in order to fix bugs or make improvements? Again, this could land you with a criminal record or jail sentence. Every time you tick the ‘accept’ box on the license terms and conditions, you are in effect, putting on fetters that impinge on your liberty.

That’s not the worst of it. Both Apple and Microsoft collect information about you, your browsing and shopping habits, the emails you send, the people in your address book, the language that you use. At best this is used to tailor-make advertisements designed to entice you to further consumer spending. At worst, this information is made available to government and commercial organisations who may not have your best interests at heart. The latest Microsoft OS, Windows 10, requires you to jump through a variety of hoops in order to turn off the spy routines it installs by default. To disable the snooping, there are a whopping 13 screens you need to get through to cover every aspect of your machine. These include the applications and programs that have access to your location, contacts, messaging details and even your webcam, amongst other things.

Free software provides a way to use your computer for all the things you currently do, without such strictures. It started coming into its own in 1991 when a young Finnish computer science student called Linus Torvalds started work on an operating system kernel designed to replace the proprietary and very expensive Unix OS. In 1992 he released the new kernel, now called ‘Linux‘ under the GNU General Public License. This license allows for the free distribution, copying and installation of Linux and other free software and importantly allows for code to be modified, bug fixed and developed by anyone, anywhere, as long as the subsequent modifications are also made freely available.

Over the last 30 years, Linux has developed rapidly to become the operating system of choice that powers the servers that run the internet and is also now a powerful alternative desktop replacement.

Think Linux is just for geeks? Think again. If you have an Android phone or tablet then you are using Linux already. Google’s Android OS uses the Linux kernel and is open source (the source code is made freely available) – and while there are also issues with Google on privacy, these are easily circumvented on the Android platform.

As far as desktop alternatives to Windows and Macintosh, there are many: Linux is all about choice. There are operating systems that work in much the same way as Mac or Windows systems, but have a number of advantages. First and foremost, Linux is free of licensing restrictions. You can install Linux on any number of computers, copy the operating system and give it to your friends and family. Secondly, it is free. The operating system and the vast majority of programs that run on it will cost you nothing. I’m currently using Kubuntu (a derivative of the Ubuntu operating system that uses the KDE desktop) and LibreOffice (a fully Microsoft Office compatible office software suite) to write this article. Thirdly, there are easy ways to prevent corporate and government monitoring of your computer. Fourthly, Linux is configurable to suit your needs. Almost every aspect of the OS and desktop interface can be tweaked and altered to your very own requirements. Finally, Linux is secure. You will not need to spend money on malware scanners or anti-virus clients.

If you really need to run Windows or OS X (perhaps you have invested in software which only runs on these platforms) you can even continue to do so within Linux, using free virtualisation software like VirtualBox. Repairing computers in my spare time requires me to have some knowledge of the latest operating systems, so I can boot Windows 10 and OS X within my Linux environment and tinker to my heart’s content.

You can try Linux on your existing computer without even installing it. Boot up a DVD or USB key with a ‘live’ environment (I recommend Ubuntu or one of the Ubuntu derivatives like Kubuntu, Ubuntu Gnome or Ubuntu MATE) and you can run the OS from the DVD or USB key without affecting your existing installation. That way you can play with the OS and find out if all your hardware like wireless networking, sound and multimedia playback works under Linux. You can then choose to install it alongside your existing OS (dual boot) or take the plunge, like I did several years ago, and run Linux as your primary operating system.

Using free software and open-source operating systems is also a political choice. Corporations restrict freedom, monitor your activities and prevent the sharing of information. The Free Software Foundation is committed to giving computer users choice and freedom.

“What if there were a worldwide group of talented ethical programmers voluntarily committed to the idea of writing and sharing software with each other and with anyone else who agreed to share alike? What if anyone could be a part of and benefit from this community even without being a computer expert or knowing anything about programming?” ~ Free Software Foundation.

Why not shatter your corporate manacles and join a movement that is dedicated to respecting the freedoms of those who use computers? Your participation in the digital world need not be restricted by faceless corporations or mediated by government stooges. You have nothing to lose but those chains.

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