Every time I see Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer on television, spouting the Microsoft party line about the 'freedom to innovate,' I can't help but think of Inigo Montoya in the movie the Princess Bride, saying "You keep using that word... I do not think it means what you think it means." It would be extremely easy to write an article on how most of Microsoft's innovation in the software industry is actually based on licensing issues and business models instead of technology. I won't be doing that this time.
My name is Emmett Plant. I write full-time for a website called Slashdot. I post news bits to the page throughout the day, and I also write features about interesting stuff. I tend not to editorialize, and I choose to show my bias in the stories I choose to write rather than to show bias in the reporting of news. An interesting thing about Slashdot is that we've got a system where people can comment on stories that we post or write. The most important thing about this system is that anyone can post a comment, either as a logged-in user, or as a user we call 'Anonymous Coward.' Based on how interesting the comments are, they get moderated to thresholds in the systems by logged-in users on a number scale system. So, while some really intelligent comment may go to a higher threshold, and a stupid comment may go to a lower threshold, the most important thing is that none of the comments ever get erased. If you're interested in reading everything that's been posted about a story, you can do so. The very basic idea is that if we don't impede on freedom of speech, a greater number of varying viewpoints can be expressed.
The system isn't perfect. We get trolls and miscreants tearing through the comments with comments about nude teenage movie stars, breakfast foods, and the scientific process of petrification. Based on the story, time of day, phase of the moon and the cost of tea in China, the signal-to-noise ratio in the comments fluctuates wildly. Still, we've created a system where intelligent people can say intelligent things in a free forum that tends to bring the cream to the top of the chaos.
Slashdot is viewed in the media as the place where the Open Source and Free Software communities meet and voice their opinions. This may be true, it may not. Nevertheless, we get a staggering amount of pageviews every day, and we're read by people all over the world at all hours of the day. Everyone who works on Slashdot is an Open Source enthusiast, so that bias is shown in the news we post and write everyday, but it doesn't stop there. If you go to a Star Trek convention, you'll find that most of the people there are Star Trek fans, but are also fans of The X-Files, Japanese animation, and computers in general. In the same vein, Slashdot readers are also interested in cutting-edge technology, digital content delivery, and the preservation of constitutional rights. In other words, we've got a lot to talk about, and we talk about it twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Some of our readers also meet online in IRC channels devoted to talking about Slashdot content on a number of different IRC networks.
Linux users are painted as the 'enemy' of Microsoft, although that's not necessarily the case. In my own experience, Linux users value freedom over bandwidth. For many people, Linux is an alternative to Microsoft's products not because of any vast performance difference, but because using Linux enables them to work in a world where their common system environment isn't controlled by a proprietary interest. While many Linux users take a vitriolic stance on Microsoft's monopolistic machinations in the industry, the argument really isn't a Microsoft vs. Linux issue. It's an issue of being able to choose a free and available development and operating platform over a closed-source, proprietary platform, and that means that Microsoft isn't the enemy. The biggest problem that Free Software enthusiasts need to overcome is the ideology and the processes behind the proprietary business model. Despite motions in the direction of the Open Source model, Sun Microsystems and Apple Computer are just as guilty as Microsoft in establishing a closed proprietary environment. Microsoft is just the most widespread 800-pound gorilla.
The problem with the proprietary software model is that it puts users and applications at odds with the interest that controls the common system environment, whether that platform is MacOS, Solaris, or Windows. This means that it will always be in the owner's best interest not to share it's best knowledge and research with the people writing software for the platform; Why should we let someone else make the money? We can do it ourselves. This is why Microsoft's 'Freedom to Innovate' campaign is hypocrisy at best, and the source of endless amusement in the Free Software community. Microsoft's finest innovations to date have been in their ruthless business dealings and monopolistic tendencies. Freedom to Innovate more money into their coffers, that is. The word 'innovation' used to have a pleasant, exciting connotation. It meant people were building things to make life better on this planet. Electricity. Running water. Solar-powered cars. Nanotechnology. Bulletin board systems that gave equal and free opportunity to everyone who wants to post, and a threshold system to bring the best posts to the top. You know, innovation. When smart people do smart things so everyone can benefit. That's 'innovation' in my book.
Yesterday, Andover.Net Editor-in-Chief Robin Miller posted a news bit to the front of Slashdot titled 'Microsoft Asks Slashdot To Remove Reader Comments.' Sit back and look at that title again. It makes Free Software champions and Open Source enthuasiasts see red, and it made this Slashdot Author seethe with intense anger. We offer an opportunity to give everyone in the world a chance to speak, and Microsoft wants us to pull reader comments off of our site, after Linux users and Open Source enthusiasts have been talking trash about Microsoft in our reader comments for that past two-and-a-half years. You bet. Microsoft is hoping to use a statement in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (which is now law) to stab back at Slashdot for a small number of postings about their Kerberos specification. You've got to be kidding me. Robin received the E-mail from the Microsoft attorney, and it was posted in its entirety, as well as Robin's response letter to Microsoft. When I left the the house yesterday morning, the story appeared to being well on its way to becoming the most popular Slashdot story of all time.
Where will we go from here? We'll wait. We've issued a letter back to Microsoft, and we're looking for ideas on how to deal with this in the best way possible. We're talking to lawyers, software gurus, business people, and Slashdot comment posters. We're talking to everyone. Please let us know what you think we should do.
People come to Slashdot and post on Slashdot because they know that Slashdot's comment system is the epitomy of the 'equal time' concept. They know we're Open Source zealots, and that we will never, ever back down. We're too smart for that. I'm hoping that Andover.Net takes this to court. Jeff 'Hemos' Bates told me that I would be flown to wherever the court case would take place. If I'm given the chance, I'll be on the stand, defending the rights of every Slashdot reader comment that has ever been moderated down, moderated up, stayed on topic, asked that I be fired, talked about my wife, or posted whatever was in their head at the time. It's a principle thing. Congress shall make no law.