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Rebels who fight to free cyberspace; It started as a wild frontier ... then e-commerce fenced it off. Now the geeks are striking back.

Byline: BOB LOW

THERE'S no doubt that big business made the Internet grow in leaps and bounds, from forcing up the speed of modems to forcing down the cost of getting online.

E-commerce, then, is vital to the overall success of the Internet - but what's good for Big Business, isn't always a boon for individual Net users.

As the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted in an elegantly worded paragraph recently "there has been an increase in the development of technical architectures designed to favour particular business or government interests that conflict with the principles of free expression, privacy and openness".

In other words, corporate Internet desires can crush smaller competitors, invade your privacy and try and gag you when you complain.

IN a scenario worthy of Star Wars, though, the rebels started to fight back around the mid-Eighties, starting with the unlikeliest-looking Jedi Knight, Richard Stallman.

Stallman has more facial hair than a Maharishi and claims to have: "been built in a lab in Manhattan around 1953 and moved to the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971".

In 1983, hacked off with the Microsoft way the Net was going, he wrote a complete Unix-compatible software system, called it GNU and released it, free.

That became the basis of GNU/Linux operating system used by 20 million people in preference to MS.

Stallman's rallying cry has made him the Che Guevara of geeks: "Free software is not about price. It is about the freedom to run the program for any purpose, modify it to suit your needs, redistribute versions of it for nothing, so the community can benefit from your improvements."

THE philosophy of free Net software has since gained in popularity and the range available as a result of GNU/Linux is astounding, from Web server Apache, to browser Mozilla and even a graphics editor, GIMP.

In fact, some experts believe that the success of GNU/Linux and all the free stuff that goes with it propelled Bill Gates into an attempt to rent MS applications over the Web rather than buy them - a further blow to the shrink-wrapped, expensive software.

Don't confuse shareware with freeware, either. With shareware you are encouraged to download it, try it for 30 days, then stump up the cash for the poor, beleaguered programer, sitting somewhere like one of the homeless, with his hat on the pavement. With freeware, you aren't expected to pay anything.

Shareware made stars of PaintShop Pro and WinZip, but freeware turned Napster-style file-sharing program Gnutella into a cult, the WinAmp MP3 player into a must-have and the ZoneAlarm firewall into the best virus protection not made of rubber.


LET'S not get completely warm and tingly, though - the Dark Side has also moved in to freeware. Microsoft, for example, has a Darth Vader scheme whereby it gives you a free browser, in the hope you'll run Windows. Zonelabs, makers of the aforementioned ZoneAlarm firewall, hope you'll be impressed enough to upgrade to the pay-for - and more sophisticated - version.

But, for all the e-commerce struggling into sheep suits to profit from us, there are yet more genuine prophets of freedom out there.

Taras Young, of Snowblind, has created a mountain of freeware on his website, while both Tucows and Download offer thousands of freeware - and shareware - products, from office software to gadgets.

So how does the likes of Taras Young get his beer money?

He admits: "I enjoy seeing the download counter on my website whirl round ... it makes me feel good to think I have helped so many.

"When someone asks me to write a program for something I am not particularly interested in I charge them for it."

Unfortunately, Taras has a wide range of interests, so he is always short of cash.

THE software market might seem an obvious target for the "free Net" rebels, but e-commerce is also being attacked on other fronts.

These include sideswiping the big successes of Net business - flogging books and music.

Contrary to popular belief, the latter is less likely to be torpedoed by Napster as by the Free Music Philosophy, or even the Digital Future Coalition. They are less friendly to e-commerce's protective instincts and more concerned with the fact that the music biz is putting the boot in consumers' rights.

Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble have trumpeted their intent to sell digital versions of out-of-print books for around a fiver - and have been hailed as virtual philanthropists as a result.

Me? I will continue to get all the out-of-print books I need, digitally and for free, from Project Gutenberg.

LASTLY, there's the ongoing battle against the sheer tide of e-commerce. The iCab browser, for Mac users, is a free way - so far - of banning banner ads and cancelling cookies, those secret little programs that give e-commerce info on your likes and dislikes.

The Open Directory Project is another fightback. Fed up with e-commerce making normal web browsers almost unusable, the ODP currently indexes more than two million Web pages into a directory of some 300,000-plus categories.

Unlike normal search engines, with misleading descriptions, broken links and unscrupulous meta-tags (the Barbie links that take you to paedophile porn) the Open Directory has been classified by more than 33,000 volunteers, kicking out the bad and useless and keeping the best.

Free hall of fame

ROBERT STALLMAN: IN 1983, he established the Free Software movement.

LARRY BRILLIANT: IN 1985, together with Stewart Brand, created The Whole Earth Lectronic Link, or Well, one of the first online global villages (

TIM BERNERS-LEE: IN 1989, he began development of the World Wide Web and gave it away.

MITCH KAPOR: IN 1990, he founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation fighting for online privacy.

PHIL ZIMMERMAN: IN 1991, he invented PGP - Pretty Good Privacy - a free encryption system for individuals. The US government has hounded him ever since.

LINUS TORVALD: IN 1992, he invented the Linux system, a new kernel for operating Stallman's original GNU. It means you aren't limited to MS to make your PC work and the software is free - in fact, thousands of users add to it all the time, making it a true "peoples' software".

JUSTIN FRANKEL: IN 1997, he created the WinAmp MP3 player, which almost guaranteed that he would be on every record exec's hit list.

SHAWN FANNING: IN 1999, he designed a file-sharing system and gave it an obscure little name ... Napster.IN-SITESSOUL SEARCH NO.1: (www.jugglemania. com/soul.html) Not the biggest website in the world, but it made me laugh - instead of selling your soul to the Devil, why not lease it? In exchange you can get all the usual earthly pleasures - looks, money and an understanding of your pet. Other items on offer include "cash advances on reality checks."

WRIGGLY HIT: (www.wigglywigglers. You may think that websites selling CDs and books would have the claim to being among the Net's oldest e-commerce sites, but one website has been flogging people ... er... fertiliser for years. Established in 1996, this purveys worms as waste recyclers and compost creators. Both the Can O' Worms and the WasteJuggler have been eating kitchen waste for years.

MIR BAGATELLE: ( Unable to afford the billions to keep it up, Russia is allowing the Mir to crash down - ironically, they've to pay plenty on insurance in case chunks of it fall on inhabited areas with the same sort of results as Hiroshima. This website charts the last few days of Mir, as well as a gallery of the first space station and how it has become a bit of an icon. Oh yes ... and it will let you know if you lie on the re-entry path.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Mar 17, 2001
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