Last week there was an interesting post by Xeni Jardin on Boing-Boing concerning the Volkswagen emissions scandal. Jardin cites a New York Times article by Jim Dywer called, “Volkswagen’s Diesel Fraud Makes Critic of Secret Code a Prophet” published earlier in the week.
This is the bit that caught immediately my attention at Boing-Boing:
“Proprietary software is an unsafe building material. You can’t inspect it.”
That quote comes from a talk Columbia Law School professor Eben Moglen gave to the Scottish Society for Computers and Law about 5 years ago, “When Software is in Everything: Future Liability Nightmares Free Software Helps Avoid.” OK, so Moglen founded the Software Freedom Law Center an organization that provides “pro-bono legal services to developers of Free, Libre, and Open Source Software,” so there may be a little bias at play. But the point raised remains a good one.
“… proprietary software is an unsafe building material. We shouldn’t use it for purposes that could conceivably cause harm, like running personal computers. Let alone should we use it for things like anti-lock brakes, or throttle control in automobiles. We wouldn’t allow people to build black-box elevators, you know. They’ve got to be inspectable, and they have to be repairable by the people in whose buildings they are.”
Moglen reflects on the recent VW scandal in Dywer’s article:
“If Volkswagen knew that every customer who buys a vehicle would have a right to read the source code of all the software in the vehicle, they would never even consider the cheat, because the certainty of getting caught would terrify them.”
Well said and worth thinking about.