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Platform Independent Why Human Rights Requires Free Software

by Andy Oram

Human rights is the global currency of modern politics. Whenever the United States attacks a country, diplomatically or physically, it cites human rights claims. And by a not-so-surprising irony, the critics of the United States and its allies complain of human rights violations as well.

So human rights workers should be universally feted and supported. Instead, however, they are chronically underfunded, goaded to justify every detail of their work, and threatened with dire harm.

For these reasons, human rights work requires free software.

I heard this unusual call for free software (and I think it's obvious in this context that the proper term to use is "free" and not "open source") in a speech on October 5th by Dr. Patrick Ball, the spirited and plain-spoken deputy director of the Science and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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Patrick is best known for the eight hours of testimony he gave before an international criminal tribunal at The Hague to show that Serbian atrocities, and not NATO bombing or Kosovo Liberation Army aggression, were responsible for the mass deaths and displacement of Kosovo Albanians. His evidence was drawn from a statistical correlation of many sources, including thousands of interviews made by three human rights organizations of fleeing Albanians, sometimes within hours of the killings and destruction they witnessed.

Patrick's venues have ranged from Haiti to Sri Lanka; at his talk, he discussed recent visits to Guatemala and Sierra Leone. His gruesome specialty lies in accumulating many individual stories of death, torture, and terror; correlating them to determine their degree of consistency and reliability; and running statistics that show patterns over time and geography.

One is struck by the incongruity between this horrific material and Patrick's affable, down-home manner, but his dedication to ripping away the masks of the world's evil and vindicating the memories of the victims comes through clearly. As for his believability, an audience member with a doctorate in statistics told me later, "This talk was one of the most compact, yet clearest, presentations that I have ever heard on what statistics can and cannot do."

There is a good deal of overlap between Patrick's work and the mission of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, which has recently started a project called Privaterra, which provides software support to human rights workers. The creator of Privaterra, Robert Guerra, knows Patrick and invited him to speak at the 2002 CPSR annual meeting. I recently wrote a Weblog on the conference.

So I was familiar with the subject of Patrick's work when he started his lunchtime keynote, and was too busy stuffing my face at the start to even bother taking notes. But my thoughts really started churning when he unexpectedly started giving accolades to free software. They brought a new urgency to old debates. Here are his observations.

Accountability and Verification

Human rights workers, who hold powerful forces accountable for their behavior, need to be accountable themselves for all of the data and opinions they offer. This accountability extends to the software they use. And only free software can meet that requirement.

Imagine an American scientist bringing a closed, proprietary encryption program or statistical package to political activists in a foreign country and saying, "Just use this; take my word that it works right." That's a non-starter. If the software is open source, even though the human rights staff might not be able to personally verify that it's accurate and free of bias, they can take the source to a university or other expert and have it vetted.

The same challenges arise when a human rights organization publicly presents its results. The politicians, generals, and other power-holders will dispute every step in reasoning. A lot of an organization's credibility lies in its process for collecting data and its use of statistics, but the software has to be certified to be trustworthy, as well. An open package whose source can be checked by any technically qualified person removes a potential area of dispute.

(As an aside, this consideration shows why it's a good idea to use free software for any public or governmental functions -- most of all for elections, where the reliability of any software solution is questionable in the first place.)

Conformance to Scientific Requirements

In addition to the cost of proprietary software, this type of software presents barriers to adoption, including cumbersome licensing that often encroaches on the user's privacy. Scientists have a culture of sharing, which requires the free and easy exchange of both tools and data. Free software's lack of licensing and dependence on open data formats provides the kind of convenience they need. It's also easy for scientists to try out new tools.

Philosophically, scientists also trust free software more than proprietary software. Free software represents the values of community and peer review that scientists depend on.

On the other hand, Patrick does not anticipate that XML will make a big difference to the human rights community. This is because very few traits of their data are standardized, while the strength of XML lies in its facilitating the exchange of standardized data. Most of the time, the individual statistician imposes his or her own structure on the data gathered, and another statistician who starts another project will structure the data differently.


Having systems that don't crash and applications that hold up under heavy loads are necessities for every scientist, including a scientist in the human rights field. Off-the-shelf commercial software, while it may seem stable enough for home and small business needs, tends to buckle and break in the face of number-crunching like Patrick's. Free software gives him the robust environment he needs without exhausting his budget. Furthermore, systems have to stay running for human rights workers taking notes in mountains and rain forests, far from any source of technical support.

Fitness for Users

Patrick finds the costs of proprietary software offensive. "It widens the imbalance between the rich and poor regions of the world," he says. Even worse, "It concentrates power in the hands of software owners." The organizations that can afford the tools to collect and process data get to set the agenda.

One nightmare for movements of the disenfranchised is the possibility that, under pressure from developed countries with large copyright holders, repressive nations will pass harsh laws criminalizing the possession of unlicensed software. This would be ridiculously hypocritical, of course, because throughout the developing world, nearly everybody has unlicensed software -- even governments.

But a crackdown on "software piracy" would give governments carte blanche to raid any person or organization they don't like and arrest them for possession of illegal software copies. It would be hard for Amnesty International to protest the arrest of human rights workers for copyright violations, and even harder if those protests came from governments that had vigorously pushed for the adoption of World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) rules.

The risk cannot be alleviated by donating licenses to human rights organizations and other nonprofits, because companies change their licenses regularly. Large and regular infusions of cash are the only way to stay current with licensing. But free software eliminates the very root of all of this risk.

Free software is not an ideal solution, not yet. Patrick appeals to free software developers to make the software just as easy to use as commercial software. Patrick also recognizes that urgent social needs can't wait for the whims of volunteer programmers. (Free software doesn't have to mean "free as in time.") His organization actually pays people to develop free software.

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"Thank God for Apache," he said, "because it provides so many tools for us to create easy-to-view interfaces to all this complex data." Brian Behlendorf, a coordinator of the Apache project and CPSR member, was present in the audience and expressed happiness at having played a role in the project that helped this human rights work. Patrick also admires MySQL, PostgreSQL, Java (despite a license that is not formally open), and Python. He welcomed the appearance of Mozilla, OpenOffice, and Evolution, calling them "essential pieces" of a free desktop.

Patrick, CPSR, and other attendees at the annual meeting are expanding their efforts to get help for human rights workers and other non-governmental organizations in underdeveloped countries. Too many aid agencies and well-meaning donors foist technologies on these organizations that are inappropriate for the physical and social conditions under which they are working; such technologies include proprietary software. Computer administrators and programmers can help by visiting the countries to do training or by writing software in the comfort of their offices back at home. You can join a mailing list on these topics by writing to Warigia Bowman at . You can donate computers to the World Computer Exchange or help install Linux on them by contacting Daryl Martyris at .

Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.

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