How Would Software Freedom Have Helped With VW?
[ A version of this blog post was crossposted on Conservancy's blog. ]
Would software-related scandals, such as Volkswagen's use of proprietary software to lie to emissions inspectors, cease if software freedom were universal? Likely so, as I wrote last week. In a world where regulations mandate distribution of source code for all the software in all devices, and where no one ever cheats on that rule, VW would need means other than software to hide their treachery.
Universal software freedom is my lifelong goal, but I realized years ago that I won't live to see it. I suspect that generations of software users will need to repeatedly rediscover and face the harms of proprietary software before a groundswell of support demands universal software freedom. In the meantime, our community has invented semi-permanent strategies, such as copyleft, to maximize software freedom for users in our current mixed proprietary and Free Software world.
In the world we live in today, software freedom can impact the VW situation only if a few complex conditions are met. Let's consider the necessary hypothetical series of events, in today's real world, that would have been necessary for Open Source and Free Software to have stopped VW immediately.
First, VW would have created a combined or derivative work of software with a copylefted program. While many cars today contain Linux, which is copylefted, I am not aware of any cars that use Linux outside of the on-board entertainment and climate control systems. The VW software was not part of those systems, and VW engineers almost surely wrote the emissions testing mode code from scratch. Even if they included some non-copylefted Open Source or Free Software in it, those licenses don't require disclosure of any source code; VW's ability to conceal its bad actions with non-copylefted code is roughly identical to the situation of proprietary VW code before us. As a thought experiment, though, let's pretend, that VW based the nefarious code on Linux by writing a proprietary Linux module to trick the emissions testing systems.
In that case, VW would have violated the GPL. But that alone is far from enough to ensure anyone would catch VW. Indeed, GPL violations remain very prevalent, and only one organization enforces the GPL for Linux (full disclosure: that's Software Freedom Conservancy, where I work). That organization has such limited enforcement resources (only three people on staff, and enforcement is one of many of our programs), I suspect that years would pass before Conservancy had the resources to pursue the violation; Conservancy currently has hundreds of Linux GPL violations queued for action. Even once opened, most GPL violations take years to resolve. As an example, we are currently enforcing the GPL against one auto manufacturer who has Linux in their car. We've already spent hundreds of hours and the company to date continues to fail in their GPL compliance efforts. Admittedly, it's highly unlikely that particular violator has a GPL-violating Linux module specifically designed to circumvent automotive regulations. However, after enforcing the GPL in that case for more than two years, I still don't have enough data about their use of Linux to even know which proprietary Linux modules are present — let alone whether those modules are nefarious in any way other than as violating Linux's license.
Thus, in today's world, a “software freedom solution” to prevent the VW scandal must meet unbelievable preconditions: (a) VW would have to base all its software on copylefted Open Source and Free Software, and (b) an organization with a mission to enforce copyleft for the public good would require the resources to find the majority of GPL violators and ensure compliance in a timely fashion. This thought experiment, even with an otherwise unreal initial assumption, quickly shows how much more work remains to advance and defend software freedom. While requirements of source code disclosure, such as those in copyleft licenses, are necessary to assure the benefits of software freedom, they cannot operate unless someone exercises the offers for source and looks at the details.
We live in a world where most of the population accepts proprietary software as legitimate. Even major trade associations, such as the OpenStack Foundation and the Linux Foundation, in the Open Source community laud companies who make proprietary software, as long as they adopt and occasionally contribute to some Free Software too. Currently, it feels like software freedom is winning, because the overwhelming majority in the software industry believe Open Source and Free Software is useful and superior only in some circumstances. Furthermore, while I appreciate the aspirational ideal of voluntary Open Source, I find in my work that so many companies, just as VW did, will cheat against important social good policies unless someone watches and regulates. Mere adoption of Open Source won't work alone; we only yield the valuable results of software freedom if software is copylefted and someone upholds that copyleft.
Indeed, just as it has been since the 1980s, very few people believe that software freedom is of fundamental importance for all software users. Scandals, like VW's use of proprietary software to hide other bad acts, might slowly change opinions, but one scandal is rarely enough to permanently change public opinion. I therefore encourage those who support software freedom to take this incident as inspiration for a stronger stance, and to prepare yourselves for the long haul of software freedom advocacy.