Freedom

I got my first computer in the spring of 1978. It was a TRS-80 Model 1. In those days, an ordinary individual owning a computer was a revolutionary event. While many of you may be too young to remember, there was a time when only two groups could afford computers - big business and big government. There was a phrase that was used in the old days that you don't hear anymore: "do not fold, spindle, or mutilate." This phrase was printed on punch cards that would be sent with your phone bill and such. The problem was that while you weren't allowed to mistreat the punch card, the same could not be said of the way the large institutions with computers treated everybody else.

In the early days of personal computing, there was tremendous excitement about the potential for personal empowerment that the computer could provide. One example that I remember was this: suppose you wanted to write to your congressman about some law you wanted changed. Before personal computers, you would sit down at the typewriter and compose a letter to your congressman and then mail it. With a computer and a mailing list, you could do the same thing, but you didn't have to settle with writing a letter to just your congressman, you could write to all of them!

It was an amazing thing to have control over your own computer. To have the freedom to learn how it worked, to create new ways of using it based on this newfound understanding. Today, we take computers for granted. They are everywhere. And more and more we take our freedom for granted, too. We seem to accept the idea that we are not smart enough to really understand our computers, that software is supposed to crash all the time and that we have to pay someone else for the right to use our own computers.

With the coming of the Internet we have once again been put into revolutionary times. There is another wave of personal empowerment as well. Now everyone can be a publisher. But once again our freedom is in danger. Recent attempts to censor Internet content, prohibitions on reverse engineering, and the rise of digital access controls create the beginnings of a diminished future, like the one portrayed by Richard Stallman in his essay "The Right To Read".

I urge all of you to think long and hard about the freedoms you take for granted.

See also, The Freedom to Read Statement from the American Library Association and Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's Findings of Fact in the Microsoft antitrust trial.