In Praise of Whingeing


One of the central lessons to be learned from free software is that individuals can make a difference. Not many would have given Richard Stallman much chance of succeeding when he launched the GNU project, and Linus's efforts to hack his simple terminal program into an operating system kernel would not have struck a dispassionate observer at the time as likely to go very far.

And yet, together, they have changed computing, and indirectly the world, as the ideas of freedom, openness and collaboration they helped to pioneer spread to other domains.

So where does that leave people like me, whose last programming consisted of the world's worst Fortran code (don't ask)? I often pose myself that question, and have gradually come to the view that the best thing I can hope to do is to indulge in a little constructive whingeing. Some recent events have strengthened me in this resolve.

As exhibit "A", I offer the BBC iPlayer. As you may recall, this was original released with a DRM system that tied it to Windows systems only - the argument being that most people used Windows, and anyone who didn't probably didn't really count. This culminated in the wonderfully bonkers claim from the BBC's Ashley Highfield that:

"We have 17.1 million users of in the UK and, as far as our server logs can make out, 5 per cent of those [use Macs] and around 400 to 600 are Linux users."

Naturally, this provoked something of a reaction from the free software community, to put it mildly. A number of us went into rant mode, and Mr Highfield was forced to backtrack on his plainly silly numbers.

More significantly, I think this episode communicated the fact that the BBC's actions were being scrutinised carefully by people who knew what they were talking about, and that its life would be pretty miserable unless it started to act more reasonably towards the GNU/Linux user community.

And now what do we see?

When we launched BBC iPlayer back in Dec 2007, it has been available for streaming on Window, Mac and Linux computers. But if you wanted to download our TV programmes, well, that was PC only. Obviously that wasn't a satisfactory arrangement, and making our downloads available on Mac and Linux has been a major priority for us.

Today, we're really pleased to announce that BBC iPlayer downloads are now available for Mac and Linux as well, thanks to our new Adobe AIR-powered download manager, which we've named BBC iPlayer Desktop.

OK, kudos to the BBC and Erik Huggers for delivering, and to Adobe for developing the cross-platform technology that made all this possible. But kudos, too, I think, to the serried banks of whingers that cared enough to moan - again and again and again.

Exhibit "B" is similar, in that it is a tale of whingeing - this time on a global scale - but also different in important respects. It concerns the dreaded Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), which I've written about several times in these pages.

One of the central issues is the veil of secrecy that has been drawn over these important negotiations. That may have been the way things were done in the old days, but in the current era of openness, we expect things to be rather different. And so there has been a chorus of disapproval from around the world about the way the rest of us were being kept in the dark about even the most basic details.

The standard reply has been: "well, we can't possibly tell you what's going on until after it's all finished, because it might prejudice the debates" - which conveniently ignores the fact that by then it will be too late to do anything about it.

But the collective whingeing has had its effect. For example, the EU brought a "factsheet" about ACTA, recently revised. This is mostly useless, and seeks to fob us off with platitudes. But what is most interesting about it is that the EU felt compelled to produce it at all. More recently, the European Parliament has become involved:

As negotiations on the proposed Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) continued in Paris this week with again no public details the European Parliament Thursday sent a strong signal by requesting transparency in the negotiations.

Parliament meeting in Strasbourg on 18 December passed a resolution on the impact of counterfeiting in international trade “calls on the [European] Commission and the member states to negotiate ACTA under conditions of the utmost transparency towards the EU citizen.” Parliament also demanded clear limits to the scope of ACTA in various aspects.

Again, I think this is a clear sign of the effectiveness of whingeing. What before was a secret squirrel club of absolutely top people, with no intention of taking any account whatsoever of what proles like us thought, has become a matter of international debate and scrutiny.

It will not be so easy for cosy deals to be made behind closed doors (although a full and thorough discussion about what should and should not appear in ACTA is probably asking too much).

Finally, I'd like to point to further evidence that it is worth taking the time and trouble to make your views known. A few months ago I posted here a copy of my response to an EU request for comments on the draft version of the European Interoperability Framework v2. Apparently, 53 comments were received in total, mostly from the usual suspects - ACT, BSA, Microsoft etc. - but also including a dozen from individuals. I'm not naive enough to think that my/our contributions will exactly sway the European Commission, but I do believe that being one of those dozen voices means that my views will at least be noted rather more than they would otherwise.

So here's a suggestion. If you're wondering what to make your New Year's Resolution, you could do worse than vowing to whinge in public forums a little more - in the nicest possible way, of course.

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