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More OLPC uproar

Posted on | April 29, 2008 | No Comments

I think its safe to say that most ideas are great until implemented by human beings. Once again, the Free/Open source community is up in arms over Microsoft products (optionally) shipping on the one laptop per child.

The resignation of OLPC’s chief software architect Walter Bender shows a clear and broadening difference of opinion and ideals within OLPC itself. Blogs and technology sites are making quite a bit of noise, some even citing that “free software fundamentalists always whine when they don’t get their way.” This is small minded and dismissive.

The objections that open source advocates and engineers are raising are not being effectively heard. I (for one) am not complaining that Windows XP is shipping on the units, I’m concerned only about the impact of digital rights management (DRM) when it comes to learning materials that ship on the OLPC.

Every school system deploying the OLPC should have the freedom to chose their operating system, I am in no way disputing that. I will not take away someone’s freedom to choose, I’m suggesting that both their freedom to choose AND the choice is in grave danger of becoming a fallacy.

Its very simple to say “This is the way I want the world to be, and I want it to be that way this instant!” That attitude is not going to get very much accomplished. I would love a world where everyone used free software and kids could pick apart their computers to their heart’s content. However, I realize, kids aren’t the ones paying for these units. School systems are paying for these units and putting them in the hands of children. OLPC isn’t putting laptops in the hands of children, school systems are. This is a very important point.

Some school systems might not want kids to be able to tinker with their laptops. They might not want kids customizing software, broadly because each unit might be assigned to a new child every week or day. As such, the argument promoting the “four freedoms” of software should be given to school systems, not OLPC. If we want Microsoft to keep their ideals out of these computers, we must be prepared to do the same thing and consider only what is practical in the here and now.

My concern surrounds Microsoft’s history of locking all copyrighted materials via DRM and calling these materials “intellectual property”. If the learning materials that ship on each OLPC using XP are locked up in DRM, we are effectively telling children that sharing is illegal. Furthermore, the school systems give up their freedom to modify and customize the materials (or even correct them if needed).

DRM has not yet appeared on the XP OLPC, however any sensible person would agree that there is no reason to doubt that its coming. The “sweet spot” of the Microsoft OLPC is the inclusion of a massive learning library. Microsoft will, of course, defend its only edge in the market. It is possible that Microsoft will pledge all XP driven OLPCs to be DRM free, its also possible that I’ll win the lottery. Don’t be surprised if kids or teachers get sued for doing ‘illegal’ things to their learning materials when this happens. The RIAA just tried to sue a homeless man, do you think Microsoft is going to be any nicer?

I am a free software advocate, however I’m not a zealot. I’m not throwing a fit just because XP is optional on the OLPC, I’m throwing a fit because Microsoft (through their offerings) ensures that the end users right to choose (and the choice) is about to become a fallacy. Many school systems will opt for XP because it comes with `free’ learning materials. This locks them into a proprietary learning system that (at best) gives children the short end of the stick. Many won’t be aware of their mistake until its too late. “Too late” means just one kid got turned off to learning where they might not have otherwise.

If tomorrow Microsoft announces that all XP based OLPC units will be completely DRM free, and that all educational materials will be provided under the creative commons attribute, I’d shut up.

Sometimes it feels like trying to scream “FIRE” while suddenly losing the ability to speak. I’m not griping about XP, I’m not griping about OOXML, I’m griping about the potential damages that DRM will cause to education systems all over the world.

When I complain about DRM interfering with someone’s ability to make copies of their music or movies, I get a round of applause. When I predict that DRM will short change a million educations in the next 10 years, I get called a “fundie” and told to go home.

Go figure.

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