Is the DNC 'Disenfranchising' Free Software Users?


Technology is everywhere. I barely go a day without hearing someone ask, "What did we do before cell phones?" or make the comment, "I'd be lost without my PDA. My whole life is in that thing." And as IT Business Edge's Kachina Dunn wrote last week, technology even plays a role in our politics -- maybe a bigger role in this election year than in past ones.


Unfortunately, not everyone is pleased when politics and their technology clash. In fact, some people get downright angry -- and sometimes I wonder about those people.


Case in point? Free Software Magazine features an open letter to Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee. Writing on Aug. 27, Anthony Taylor chastises their decision to use Microsoft technology to offer streaming video from the convention. More precisely, Taylor is upset that accessing the video stream from the Denver festivities with a free software operating system (he mentions GNU/Linux and BSD variants but isn't specific about which he uses) requires a Microsoft Silverlight plug-in.


He says, in part:

More accurately, video streams are available as long as you are running an approved operating system. When I attempt to view the streams, I receive this message:
For the best Democratic Convention video experience, you'll need the Microsoft Silverlight plug-in and the Move Networks media player. We're sorry, but the Democratic Convention video web site isn't compatible with your operating system and/or browser. Please try again on a computer with the following: Compatible operating systems: Windows XP SP2, Windows Vista, or a Mac with Tiger (OS 10.4) or Leopard (OS 10.5). Compatible browsers: Internet Explorer (version 6 or later), Firefox (version 2), or, if you are on a Mac, Safari (version 3.1) also works.

By limiting the number of operating systems with which one can access the video, Taylor says, the DNC is restricting his freedom of choice. I can almost see that argument, but not quite -- because he does have a choice. He can choose to use his free software operating system, or he can choose to watch the live video stream from a different computer.


Then Taylor goes a step further.


He indicates that by not offering free software users a means by which to access the video stream, the DNC is disenfranchising those who use free software, not to mention undermining Obama's promises of a government of freedom, openness and choice. Forgive me, but I can't make that logical leap. Disenfranchisement is typically defined as deprivation of the legal right to vote. Watching streaming video is certainly not tantamount to voting. Besides, there are plenty of other avenues by which to gather information about the convention -- in newspaper or broadcast reports, from a variety of bloggers covering the convention, or even by reading transcripts of speeches if necessary.


What's more, I don't think that the DNC is undermining Obama's campaign platform simply by its choice of technology. By Taylor's own admission, 3 percent of the population chooses to use free software operating systems. That means 97 percent of the population use operating systems that are compatible with the technology being used. And of the 3 percent who use free software, I'd imagine the number who actually care whether they get to watch live streaming (given the other avenues of information mentioned above) is actually miniscule.


Microsoft is sponsoring the convention; it's like a weeklong Microsoft commercial. I don't know for sure, but I'd guess the DNC is using the Microsoft technology for free or at a pretty significant discount. So it stands to reason the committee made the technology choices it did in an effort to reach as many people as it could with the resources on hand.