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Ralph Nader at The Bazaar -- A Call to Action

Dec 17, 1999, 19:45 (25 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Paul Ferris)

By Paul Ferris
Editor, Linux Today

It was Wednesday night, at the Bazaar in New York City.

I finally got to meet Ralph Nader. I attended his keynote address at the Bazaar, and I was able to track him down after the speech and ask a few questions.

Ralph is one of my most admired heroes. If you listen closely to Ralph's ideas -- if you pay attention -- you will see that he is actually a man on a mission similar to Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond or Bruce Perens.

Ralph speaks his message with very little wasted verbiage, and the issues that he addresses span a range that is breath-taking. Some of this ability, I'm sure, relates to experience. His focus is upon changing the government to benefit the rights of the individual and to protect those rights across the board.

There is a common thread here with the Free Software movement if you are paying attention. Both efforts seek to empower people to control their own lives in the face of enormous corporate interest to the contrary.

I meet a lot of people that have the attitude that Microsoft should be left alone, and that Free Software will win eventually because it has a more powerful development model. This "hands-off" idea of government is idealistic, and has it's place. Unfortunately, I don't think that Microsoft is one of these places. Beyond a shadow of a doubt Microsoft has crossed the line and I'm grateful for the work of people like Ralph Nader.

Just saying that we've won, and that Microsoft will eventually fall, and that that will be enough remedy to the current situation is like an old joke I used to tell about fire safety. The joke goes like this: "Remember, if you are ever in a burning building and your clothing catches on fire, you must not panic. You must, by all means, not run. Stop, lie down -- wait. The fire will eventually burn itself out."

That's where we are today with Microsoft. There's a lot of burning of competitors going on. The damage is enormous. The DOJ was right on the money with their lawsuit. If anything, it was not comprehensive enough. I don't believe that we should just "wait" till the fire burns itself out. We should be doing whatever we can to address the fires of today and the wreckage of yesterday.

Ralph was introduced as having started his consumer rights advocacy by trying to stop a large corporation that was making products that crashed. His work was still on-going today with Microsoft in that regard.

He then took the microphone and held the audience in rapt attention for the good portion of an hour.

He began by explaining how paranoid Microsoft was about market share and that they were not just competing aggressively -- they were scaring executives so much that a good portion of them would not speak freely about what was going on.

I myself have to point out here that free speech is one of the examples that we use when talking about Free Software -- "Think Free Speech, not Free Beer". Executives of major corporations were being controlled by Microsoft all the way down to their rights to free speech. Sure, they were free to talk -- if they didn't mind seeing their livelihood go away.

One of the scariest things is that according to Ralph, Microsoft is still expanding it's sphere of influence. Given that this company is in anti-trust court, that's surprising. In the past, landing in anti-trust court has had a sobering impact on the monopolistic company in question. They change their dealings with competitors almost instantaneously.

Not so in regards to Microsoft, they seem to be still attempting business as usual. They are still acquiring new businesses and making new alliances as if things were still the same.

Microsoft's clearest competitor today is its own installed base of customers, according to Ralph. They must continually provide these customers with reasons to "re-purchase" the same technology over and over. This is an enormous market. I felt that this issue itself is often misunderstood by our media. Most people in the "us versus them" category don't realize that Microsoft views its own past customers in an adversarial light.

This is an advantage, beyond a shadow of a doubt, for our movement. Each "customer" that switches to Free Software typically stays in our court, and is often there for the long term. This in spite of the fact that we're actually doing nothing to force them into the buying decision in the first place.

We don't view anybody as an individual in this kind of an adversarial light. We're into freedom, and therefore we have no need or desire to harm consumers in this damaging way. If anything, we're attempting to provide everybody with choice. Even those that wish to purchase proprietary products will benefit from the work of the Free Software community. Indeed when they surf the web today they constantly benefit from this style of software development.

Ralph compared Microsoft to the railroad monopolies of the past, except he went on to point out how bad things would have been if those railroads had proceeded to buy out all of the companies making railroad cars, and then moved into taking over the companies that were shipping the contents in those cars.

And he said as far as Microsoft is concerned, that's where we are today.

His view of Microsoft innovation (quoted from Jamie Love, Ralph's technical partner in non-crime) was that it was "Innovation in ruthless marketing only." Microsoft does not succeed due to better products or patents -- it succeeds mainly due to its ability to engage in exclusionary tactics and bundling deals.

My personal views of these statements is that they are right on the money. Microsoft is a dangerous enemy of the Free Software movement because they wield this kind of power. I myself have witnessed these tactics in force when I have tried to install Free Software or even proprietary Open Systems software such as HP-UX.

The proprietary aspects of Microsoft marketing and technical obfuscation are so potent that customers are reduced to making choices for all of the wrong reasons. It is almost always to the detriment of freedom, future growth and quality. It is certain to cost more with regards to the monetary aspects as well.

Ralph Nader spent a good portion of his talk addressing the fact that consumers have been harmed by Microsoft. He discussed potential remedies and finally made comments in regards to how we need to change the laws in regards to personal privacy.

Like it or not, Democrat or Republican, you would have to be fairly clue-less not to see that in terms of the new electronic frontier we must change the laws in regard to digital rights. We have none, and we didn't get here by not having rights. The U.S. Constitution gives us certain irrevocable rights and the work that Ralph Nader is doing here is nothing short of absolute necessity for the insurance of future freedom in America, much less the world itself.

He suggests many changes to the law that need to be made in keeping up with the changes brought upon by collection of data in the new digital world. I suggest that we in the Free Software movement are a group of people, if there is any, that is best mobilized and educated to understand and actually act in this direction.

Further Contemplation -- Ralph Nader and The Free Software Community

We share a lot of goals, our community and the work that Ralph is doing. What I see is that we're working within the current system (using things like the GNU Public License, for example) to change the way that software is developed, protected and extended in the future.

The work that Ralph is doing concerns changing the current set of laws to protect our rights to privacy and freedom in the future, as well as address the enormous damages of the past.

This is important because no amount of GPL'ing of code can make up for the fact that 90% of the people on the planet using computers today have been harmed. No amount of GNU/Linux progress will make up for the fact that just that percentage alone gives a big corporation an enormous amount of leverage over the person using a computer today.

If this market had been obtained in a legal fashion by actually creating superior software and unique innovations, it would be a different situation. Yet the rulings of Judge Jackson and the public outcry by people who have been damaged tell of a different situation altogether.

We're both working toward similar goals, it's just that we're using different defensive strategies and working on different battlegrounds. Ralph has the benefit of many years of experience and we should listen to him and use some techniques that have been developed in the face of staggering amounts of power and money.

I'm going to be examining this issue in the future myself. I think we, the Free Software community, are an irresistible force for change. I think we stand for individual freedom in the face of some of these large corporate interests that are often perceived as insurmountable.

The success that Ralph has accumulated to the contrary in the past proves that this is simply not the case. It proves that we as individuals can make a difference. It rings harmonious with many of the successes of the Free Software movement. Listen to Richard Stallman's message for example, and you will realize that one person did, in fact, have a staggering impact on the happenings of today.

I got some face time with Ralph after his speech. I bought a couple of his books, one for my Father as a Christmas gift -- Dad, if you're reading this, sorry about blowing the surprise. How many of your heroes do you share with your parents?

I asked Ralph and Jamie if their letters to President Clinton ever got answered. The unfortunate answer was that more often than not, they are not answered. The main one I was interested in was a letter written in regards to the "Registration Wizard" shipped with Windows 95. Back in 1995, when the issue was a small one and the data largely uncollected, Ralph and Jamie Love made a serious attempt to stop the damage before it became a reality.

Today, somewhere in Redmond, a potentially large database of consumer information about programs loaded on Windows systems exists. Microsoft swears that they would never use the information for marketing purposes.

I'll bet that most people who are familiar with large corporate morality, and especially Microsoft, would beg to differ. I know that I'm one of those people.

I spent some time talking about the common goals that we share as a community and the work that he was doing. How the Free Software movement is almost a political party and that we should be organized as such.

Ralph's question to me at this point was along the lines of why weren't we already? I believe that there are efforts under way in the form of Slashdot discussions and organization efforts -- but we could be so much more than we are today.

You know, I didn't have a good enough answer for him. It was implied that if we harnessed our efforts politically that this would be a Good Thing(tm). It was clear that he was speaking to me in the active sense -- this work needs to be done.

Ralph Nader is one of those people who, like him or not, looms largely in many dimensions. Whether or not you respect all of the dimensions, the chronological one has to be admired. He's been doing consumer advocacy for a long time. So long that it spans generations and has amazingly kept up with the changes wrought by our accelerated technological growth.


Further reading:

Essential.org -- A consumer rights web resource.

The Home Page of Consumer Project on Technology.