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No One Should Have To Use Proprietary Software To Communicate With Their Government (fsf.org) 154

Donald Robertson, writing for Free Software Foundation: Proprietary JavaScript is a threat to all users on the Web. When minified, the code can hide all sorts of nasty items, like spyware and other security risks. [...] On March 1st, 2016, the Copyright Office announced a call for comments on an update to their technology infrastructure. We submitted a comment urging them to institute a policy that requires all software they develop and distribute to be free software. Further, we also urged them to not require people to run proprietary software in order to communicate or submit comments to them. Unfortunately, once again, the Copyright Office requires the use of proprietary JavaScript in order to submit the comment and they are only accepting comments online unless a person lacks computer or Internet access. [...] The most absurd part of all this is that other government agencies, while still using Regulations.gov, are perfectly capable of offering alternatives to submission.
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No One Should Have To Use Proprietary Software To Communicate With Their Government

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  • by Gregory Eschbacher ( 2878609 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @02:26PM (#52047611)
    This seems to be a case of completely misplaced priorities. The goal should be that the customer/visitor not have to install or use non-free software (such as MS Office, Edge Browser, Acrobat, etc), not the libraries used to render the government website. It might make perfect sense for the government to use non-free software to develop a site, such as their choice of database, OS, etc. Why worry about which javascript libraries are used if they work across all browsers? This seems like something that should be 34,500th on the list of priorities when it comes to the Federal Government's IT priorities.
    • by mattventura ( 1408229 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @03:14PM (#52048123) Homepage
      To be fair, from what I've seen, almost every government website I've used would have been far more usable if it had not a single bit of javascript on it. Instead, all I see are nigh-unusable monstrosities.
    • by vux984 ( 928602 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @03:20PM (#52048189)

      This seems to be a case of completely misplaced priorities.

      Yes... and... no.

      The root of the issue appears to be that its 'minified', which if it wasn't other people would rightly complain about wasted bandwidth over metered connections. Minified isn't deliberately obfuscated per se, although minification does tend to obfuscate functionality.

      That said, the FSFs request actually isn't unreasonable when you get right down to it. They suggest we establish a standard way link back to the original un-minified source.

      This is very easy to do, and honestly it is a perfectly reasonable thing to demand of a government.

      Is it my top priority? No. Is it worthy of a march in protest? Not to me.

      But I am actually in favor of this being standard practice for the government. At the end of the day they are running software on my computer, and they could easily provide the source for it. Its not a major burden, and it represents value to the people -- its a good faith demonstration of transparency. So that we can inspect for ourselves what they are running on our computers. Why not?!

      • by ZeroWaiteState ( 3804969 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @06:30PM (#52049593)
        They're called source maps. They let you see the source in the developer tools without suffering the performance penalty of downloading unminified in production. Making source maps available fixes that complaint. I think the bigger issue is that the Copyright Office doesn't actually write their own code, and the vendors often don't provide unminified versions that can be source mapped.
    • by DRJlaw ( 946416 )
      You don't have it quite right. They are indeed complaining that the customer has to use non-free software, under the FSF's peculiar definition of non-free. The problem is, the FSF can't even be bothered to follow their own philosophy [gnu.org]. Read the linked post by his holiness for how, as usual, distributing code as free-to-use is simply not good enough. Then focus on this final gem:

      In the mean time, there's one case where it is acceptable to run a nonfree JavaScript program: to send a complaint to the websit

    • by Anonymous Coward

      One should not be required to use electronic anything, ever. Pen and paper, yes, handwritten notes, ought to suffice. For everyone, on their choice, not the government's. (Should I mention that noted late computer scientist E.W. Dijkstra reverted to fountain pen when everyone else went to typewriter? His choice.)

      I'm not saying you shouldn't use electronic anything, I'm saying you shouldn't be required to use electronic anything. Beyond that, yes, when governmental agencies offer electronic whatnots, they'd

  • by Isca ( 550291 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @02:30PM (#52047649)
    The government website includes proprietary HTML. This should not be allowed. The HTML code on their website should be exactly the same as every other website. It should not include any customizations or references to anything that is not HTML, and the HTML itself should be laid out in a standard, easy to read manner that is not any different from any other site. This means everything else should match those other sites, including any use of frames, italics, bold and paragraph markup.

    Oh yeah, and brink back the BLINK Tag as well!

  • For goodness sake. It's government and of course will be absurd. But knowing that they are currently requiring a particular format etc for commentary, no matter how idiotic, you should use that format if you want your (and my) opinion to get recognized. This is the kind of stubbornness that makes certain that advocates for open software etc. will not get a hearing. I'm a fan of free and open software so I want this sort of issue aired.

    But effectively.

  • No One Should Have To Use Proprietary Software To Communicate With Their Government

    You mean TurboTax?

    • by godrik ( 1287354 )

      No One Should Have To Use Proprietary Software To Communicate With Their Government

      You mean TurboTax?

      I'd argue it is not normal either. Though in that case, you still can file manually.

      I am not too happy about them making the case that the javascript library is proprietary. There are bigger fight to pick about software freedom without picking the ones that look borderline to many people.

  • by david.emery ( 127135 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @02:33PM (#52047687)

    Last year (2014), I had to download Adobe Acrobat to submit a form to the US Treasury dept. The only way you could do this was Acrobat, it used PDF and Adobe proprietary form submission. (I couldn't use Apple Preview.app to fill out the form.)

    This year (2015), Treasury added the obvious alternative, a fully on-line Web form. I guess that's progress.

    • by mspring ( 126862 )
      I convert the PDF form to PNG using ImageMagick, then I draw my content into the PNG using Gimp, finally converting the PNG back to PDF via Gimp's print to file.
    • by advocate_one ( 662832 ) on Thursday May 05, 2016 @01:56AM (#52050995)
      I used LibreOffice to open a .pdf file, make edits to the text and then printed it to pdf...
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Propriety JavaScript... REALLY?!

    Runs completely in the browser, you download and interpret the plain source code. But because it's minified it's suddenly proprietary? ("we could call Obfuscript because it has no comments and hardly any whitespace, and the method names are one letter long")? I think I can find hundreds of 'free' programs that are not commented and are equally readable as a minified javascript file.

    Thanks to JavaScript we actually do download the source code. I don't know what the web would l

    • Minifying is like compiling... taking the longer source code variable names and turning them into cryptic symbols.

      • I used to work with a guy who would cut out the middle man and write everything pre-minified.

        • How'd you work with him? He keeps everything to himself.

          We at one company had a face-off between French and Spanish immigrants. The Spanish guy worked well with me, the French guy kept to himself. then tried to claim credit for my work which nobody believed and then he was out.

        • Then there was the guy who used to write in p-code instead of C, and created a wonderfully fast SpinRite as a result. He was Steve Gibson.

    • Even if it weren't minified, is the script licensed in a way that permits you to make and share your improvements?

    • Source code available != free. On top of that fact that free != open source, there is plenty of commercial, paid software where you have access to the source code (because it only runs in an interpreted environment, such as PHP *shudder*) but whose license does not permit you to redistribute the software.
    • by unrtst ( 777550 )

      I find this summary difficult to reply to.
      On one hand, everyone is right in that this is not completely closed source.
      On the other hand, this doesn't follow any open source rules/guidelines.

      For example, the GPL requires source code that is made available to be, "The source code for a work means the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it." That would not permit distribution of just the minified / obfuscated version, though they could simply include a comment pointing to the original versio

    • Minified is close to compiled code...

      • And yet it is not compiled code. But to the layman, is any javascript, minified or not, any less "proprietary"? No, neither is the fact that there is server side code handling the assimilation of the information submitted. What exactly would be the dumbass approved alternative? Because dumbasses are the only people who could possibly make the argument the article made.
        • But to the layman, is any javascript, minified or not, any less "proprietary"?

          If the source code for a minified JavaScript program is available under a free software license, a layman can in theory learn JavaScript and then make and share improvements to the program. If not, the layman will instead die waiting for the copyright to expire.

          What exactly would be the [...] approved alternative?

          A minified script with a comment at the top linking to the source code and stating which free software license applies.

          • Who says the link at the top of the code is what produced the minified code?
            Who says the minifier used didn't add "all sorts of nasty items, like spyware and other security risks" to the code?

            The problem Donald Robertson described has nothing to do with copyright.
            What good does being able to legally share and modify the code that runs a government website?
            The problem is a regular human can't understand the intent of obfuscated code, proprietary or not.

            • Who says the minifier used didn't add "all sorts of nasty items, like spyware and other security risks" to the code?

              Someone paranoid about that could choose to download and execute the source file instead of the minified file, just as someone paranoid about a particular GNU/Linux distribution's binary packaging could bootstrap everything from source. (And if you name drop Ken Thompson, I'll name drop David A. Wheeler.)

              What good does being able to legally share and modify the code that runs a government website?

              The point is that you can modify the copy of the code that runs on your computer while retaining compatibility with the server-side back-end, and then you can can share the improvement with other users of t

              • Sounds like a great idea, share modified code to run with the access rights of the victim, I mean, user.

                • by tepples ( 727027 )

                  The user would choose to run the modified source code. Or do you claim that a user cannot be trusted to evaluate source code that will run on his machine?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    That's not a stretch. Informational sites can do without it fine. Prove me otherwise.

  • "The Copyright Office requires the use of proprietary JavaScript in order to submit the comment and they are only accepting comments online unless a person lacks computer or Internet access."

    I'm sorry, but that collection of words makes no sense. If I lack "computer or Internet access" how the hell am I supposed to send comments online?

    • You mail an angry letter. I guess they type it in and submit it as if you had typed it into the web form. Can you imagine how youtube comments would be if people had to pay a stamp to make them and wait 6 weeks?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      It makes perfect sense. Did you miss the word UNLESS?

      You can ONLY do it online, UNLESS you don't own a computer. In which case, if you don't own a computer, then you do NOT have to do it online.

      It seems perfectly clear to me.

    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      rule: they are only accepting comments online
      exception: unless a person lacks computer or Internet access

      What part of that is in any way unclear?

  • Tax forms used to be found at every post office and library in the 80s... now with TurboTax so cheap (and free to some users) there isn't much need for that anymore. Obscure forms exist, and are downloaded by TurboTax when you indicate you're in that kind of situation.

    Yep, you need Windows or Mac to run TurboTax's download... how does a Linux-only user fill out their taxes?

    • by PCM2 ( 4486 )

      I did my taxes on the web this year. The online app had everything I needed, and TaxAct charged me less than if I had downloaded the application.

    • I used the online fillable-forms from linux again this year, no problem. Still exists, still works.

      Forms are still available at my public library. If yours doesn't carry them, complain to the library, don't blame the IRS.

      You can also go to your local IRS office and collect the forms. Rural folks should really have an in-person conversation with their librarian before complaining that it is a hassle to drive to the nearest office; the forms might simply not be on the shelves, they might have them in the back

    • Been using the online version of Turbo Tax for 6 or 7 years from my Linux machines, first with Firefox and then the past 2 years with Chromium. No issues at all, even though TT alerts me to the fact that they haven't tested my particular OS/Browser combination

  • What is really annoying is that the US patent and trademark office (USPTO) still requires many of its users to use browsers running Java (not Javascript) for many applications. These days, that means running either Firefox or IE (classic). Persons using iOS or Android are out of luck.
  • Sure, minimized JavaScript is hard to decipher, but it's still easier to read than your average Perl program!
  • There's a reasonable level of expectation of technology that people are gradually pushed to use, whether it's proprietary or not. When something becomes so common that everyone has relatively barrier-free and low-cost access to it, you've got to give in even if you're the government or providing a public service.

    We might as well take the truly principled stand and object that interacting with the government requires having telephone service (!), paying for postage stamps (!), or paying for the bus to get to city hall (!).
    • When something becomes so common that everyone has relatively barrier-free and low-cost access to it, you've got to give in...

      When jumping off a bridge becomes so common that everyone has relatively barrier-free and low-cost access to it, you've got to give in...

      FSF would argue that lacking the right to make and share improvements is a "barrier", and thus a minified script with no suitable license isn't "relatively barrier-free".

      We might as well take the truly principled stand and object that interacting with the government requires having telephone service

      This is part of why the United States subsidizes telephone service for low-income citizens in a program officially called Lifeline and nicknamed Reaganphone.

    • At least the first two, telephone service and postage, have cost/rates set by a government entity. And for at least one of those, phone service, some can get free (to you) access.

      When the government sets the cost and license terms for the proprietary software necessary to interact with them, then I will accept the analogy.

  • Do you still need to go through commercial services to get text of legal decisions?

    Here's another: I have a handgun, and would like to practice without going and dropping $50 at a range. I live in a rural county (where it's perfectly legal to shoot guns on your own property as long as you're outside a town limit), but in a town. I am 90% sure that shooting in the public river bottoms WCA is legal, so I called my county sheriff's office to confirm. I was passed to a "Sergeant (something or other)" and lef

    • Check your local National Forrest. The two closest to me - Osceola and Ocala - both have open to the public no use fee ranges. The Osceola one (Lake City, Fl - Lewis D Whittaker Range) is nicer and has a higher class of user. I've seen and heard of some rather scary situations at the Ocala range ... these ranges are funded in part by the Pittman Robertson Act, which is an excise tax on guns, ammo, some archery and camping equipment.

    • - law officers won't even answer a direct question about "is this legal or no?"

      If they could answer those kinds of questions, wouldn't they have become lawyers instead? Seems like it would pay a lot more and keep them a lot safer.

  • by kuzb ( 724081 )

    "Proprietary JavaScript is a threat to all users on the Web."

    This is just sensationalist bullshit of the highest order. Trashdot strikes again.

    Minification is just striping out everything that isn't strictly needed to make the code run and shrinking it so it takes less time to transport. The only way this is a threat is if you have a fear of text editors.

  • Do Donald Robertson is saying we should ban JS minification from government websites?

    The problem he says exists has nothing to do with proprietary code, it's the obfuscation that is the problem.

  • You had me at "no one should have to use proprietary software".

  • by aussersterne ( 212916 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2016 @10:03PM (#52050333) Homepage

    I find this use of the term "proprietary" to be significantly different from the usual intended meaning of the term.

    Usually, "proprietary" means intellectual property belonging to a private organization, with a harsh hand taken to prevent reverse engineering and the stated assertion (either in EULAs or otherwise) that no use can be made in any way of reverse engineered output without being subject to legal action.

    Here, "proprietary" apparently means "hard to understand" since everything else does not apply—not a private organization, no need to reverse engineer since it's an interpreted language, etc. By this standard, all of the perl and assembly code in the universe is "proprietary" since it's not written with forty character variable names.

    Seems a stretch.

    • FSF has some wishy washy definition that code is proprietary if you can't easily modify it. (so most first year CS student code?)

      Seems like my old hand assembled Z80 code is "proprietary", I lost the note book with the source a long time ago. It's not a big loss though because assembler "source" wasn't terribly accurate as the binary has been patched a few times.

  • by rklrkl ( 554527 ) on Thursday May 05, 2016 @01:47AM (#52050977) Homepage

    JavaScript is loaded client-side and can be downloaded and viewed as plain text, so it's certainly not closed source. Minified JavaScript is just JS code that's harder to understand due to function/variable substitution and whitespace stripping and again it's not closed source.

    I don't know if you can actually buy commercial JavaScript libraries, but if you did, all the source code would be sent to the public every time a page was loaded with the JS loaded from it, so again it isn't closed source, but technically could be proprietary (i.e. it can only be used on authorised sites and anyone putting it on another unauthorised site is breaking the licence terms).

    What's the difference, though, between custom HTML/CSS and custom JS in terms of licencing? All of them could be developed in-house and have the same "proprietary" licencing (i.e. can't be copied and used on other sites) - after all it's illegal to clone someone's site and host it elsewhere without permission surely?

    I think the FSF have got this one wrong - if there was a way to make JS closed source, then they might have a point, but claiming JS can be "proprietary" just because it's minified or developed in-house (and not usable on other sites - after all, a lot of money could have been spent developing - or purchasing - the JS) is barking up the wrong tree. As long as the JS works cross-platform on the major browsers, I see no issue myself.

  • Proprietary JavaScript is a threat to all users on the Web.

    That's unfair. Why single out the proprietary stuff?

  • The Copyright Office is part of the Library of Congress and as such is part of the legislative branch of the US Government and ultimately reports to Congress. The federal agencies that most people think of and interact with, such as the Patent and Trademark Office or the Veterans Administration, are part of the executive branch which ultimately reports to the President. The PTO specifically is an office within the Department of Commerce. I suspect the inability to use is due to this separation.

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