VOLUME 33, NUMBER 25 THURSDAY, April 18, 2002

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Open computing urged
Ringland asks Faculty Senate to support GNU/Linux system

Reporter Assistant Editor

The free flow of information and direct access to it—both of which are critical to scholarship and research, according to John Ringland, associate professor of mathematics—is being severely threatened by the entertainment, publishing and proprietary software industries.

Ringland maintains that the goal of these industries is to undermine and limit the public's access to copyrighted and non-copyrighted material by a combination of "draconian" laws and "restrictive new architectures for computer hardware and software."

A major proponent of open source computing, Ringland presented his views at the Faculty Senate meeting on April 9, lobbying senators to pass a resolution asking the university to fully support the GNU/Linux operating system and the use of open-source application software on campus wherever possible.

He also is seeking support of a preference for open formats and communication protocols wherever possible in hopes of discouraging the gratuitous use of proprietary formats.

Open source software allows any software developer to modify the software and adapt it to his or her needs.

"The information age is about to become the age of information control," Ringland told senators.

He said unfettered access to information—a basic tenet of any university's core mission—is in great jeopardy due to a variety of user controls embedded in the software and designed, in part, to lead to a pay-per-use for each occasion material is viewed or used.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) enacted in 1998 is, according to Ringland, a further vehicle to restrict, making it a criminal offense to circumvent technological use-control measures.

He cited examples of how he said license agreements governing the use of software directly infringe upon users' access to information. Microsoft's end-user license agreement for Frontpage, a Web-page design tool, states that "You may not use the software in connection with any site that disparages Microsoft, MSN, MSNBC, Expedia or their products or services, infringes on any intellectual property or other rights of these parties, violates any state, federal or international law, or promotes racism, hatred or pornography."

"How much of a step to similar restrictions on the use of (Microsoft) Word?" Ringland asked. "These terms of use constitute unacceptable restrictions on tools essential for research, teaching and communication."

Deeper-level controls may soon become law if the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA) is passed, Ringland said.

"It will become illegal to manufacture a computer that does not contain specific government-approved control measures in the hardware," he said. "Moreover, it will also be illegal to distribute any software programs that do not contain embedded control mechanisms. This would make all system-level programming potentially criminal, and would create a massive impediment to adapting computers to specific research needs."

Open source software, such as the operating system GNU/Linux, which Ringland promotes, uses open, non-proprietary document formats and comes with "zero licensing costs," he said. In addition, every application and even the basic GNU/Linux operating system can be freely adapted to specific research needs.

UB has an agreement with Microsoft to provide software for its faculty, staff and students at a cost of approximately $492,000.

"This sophisticated operating system is capable today of fulfilling all the desktop needs of most university faculty, staff and students. High-quality, open-source applications are available for all day-to-day tasks, such as word processing, creating spreadsheets and presentations, Web browsing, playing audio and video media, image editing, serving files, printing, etc.," Ringland told senators.

UB's agreement with Microsoft, on the other hand, was adopted by the University Software Licensing Committee without faculty input and is "the most expensive license of all" said Ringland, adding that Microsoft leverages the Windows operating system to make open formats and protocols incompatible with non-Microsoft systems. Another crucial difference between open source software and Microsoft is the "mandatory upgrade" syndrome—open source computing is free from these kinds of major disadvantages, he explained.

Ringland presented a resolution calling for the faculty to strongly oppose DMCA and CBDTPA, "both of which restrict academic and intellectual freedom, as well as measurably impede research and growth." He urged the faculty to call for UB President William R. Greiner and Provost Elizabeth D. Capaldi to oppose both the law and bill publicly, and to lobby within the Association of American Universities and SUNY to encourage both entities to adopt policies opposing these laws and any successor legislation that threatens academic freedom and research.

"Microsoft is an eager and active participant in freedom-abridging activities, making it troubling that this university—without faculty study or approval—has so strongly aligned itself with this anti-academic corporation," Ringland said.

In other business the senate approved a resolution calling for the administration to either fix OASIS, the Oracle data management software program that manages grants and contracts for researchers at UB, or abandon it altogether.

The senate also heard an update on the Buffalo Center for Bioinformatics from Senior Vice Provost Bruce Holm.