The NSA’s spying on Linux Journal readers is precisely what’s wrong with NSA spying. Why? It paints with an overly broad brush.
Eric Raymond’s views on many things are on the fringes of what’s considered mainstream, but he’s not the kind of person who blows up buildings to try to get his point across.
And here’s the other problem. Does Eric Raymond even represent the typical Linux Journal reader? Odds are a sizable percentage of Linux Journal readers are system administrators making $50,000-ish a year, or aspiring system administrators who want to make $50,000-ish a year, who see knowing Linux as a means to that end.
It’s no different from targeting Popular Mechanics readers because someone could use information it publishes in ways you don’t agree with.
Here’s the other thing. The conversations that Linux Journal readers raise about copyrights are conversations we need to have. Watching a DVD on a computer system running Ubuntu is still technically illegal. If that conversation makes Washington uncomfortable, becoming a police state isn’t the answer.
Besides, the technologies that Linux Journal readers advocate have become a critical, irreplaceable part of the United States’ economic machine. I work for a Fortune 50 corporation. I won’t tell you which one, but that corporation is not primarily a technology company. We have thousands of business-critical servers running one form of Linux or another. Linux has saved us millions of dollars–savings we’ve been able to pass on to U.S. consumers. Our ability to save people money is the only reason we are a Fortune 50 company at all. I don’t speak for my employer, but it’s safe for me to say that much.
We’re just one non-obvious example. There are some tiny upstart companies like, oh, Google, Amazon, Ebay, Yahoo and Netflix–not to mention plenty of others–that probably wouldn’t exist at all if they had to rely on proprietary and expensive server software. Proprietary server software costs $1,000-ish per server, on top of the cost of the hardware. At that price, their business model doesn’t work anymore. Even if you personally dislike one or more of those companies, you probably agree we need the jobs those companies provide. (And companies we dislike do tend to grow up and reform over time–IBM got a lot more tolerable after Microsoft beat it up in the 1980s and 1990s, and Microsoft is a lot more tolerable today than it was 15 years ago.)
Whether you’re a capitalist or a communist or both, a fundamentalist or a free thinker or both, or anything in between, saving a thousand bucks per server probably has some appeal.
It’s not uncommon for disruptive people have aspects of their lives that make people or governments uncomfortable. Some 80 years ago, the political views of Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford were literally as un-American as you could get, even though their contributions to the aviation and auto industries helped shape the country as it exists today. Keeping an eye on the two of them was probably justifiable. Performing surveillance on the entire readership of, say, Popular Mechanics because they might share the views of Ford and Lindbergh, however, wasn’t the answer.
Is it ludicrous to infer that anyone who is interested in experimenting with internal combustion engines is a threat to national security? I think so. You can obsess over engines and still be a perfectly good patriot. You can name any group we haven’t liked at any point in time in the last 125 years and find someone inside those groups who like building and fixing cars and airplanes.
Just like engines, interest in how a computer works is completely independent of how someone feels about any particular political system or religion or lack thereof. The two things are no more related than they are to the food that people choose to eat or they way they choose to cut their hair.
Performing surveillance on the entire readership of Popular Mechanics in 1934 was impractical, of course, so that option probably wasn’t even considered. Just because it’s possible today doesn’t make it right, or productive.