It’s providential that yesterday’s Skype failure–which affects at
least all of its free users, and which continues into its second day
in most of the world–happens just as the Free Software Foundation is
final draft of the GNU Affero GPL,
and shortly after the release of the much-debated
General Public License, Version 3.
I think this massive failure in a service beloved and depended on by
millions of people around the world will sharpen discussion of these
I am one of the users who love and depend on Skype. I use the free
service to talk to authors in Australia, Brazil, England, and the
Ukraine. Yesterday we all found we could not log in. We run a
variety of operating systems: Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. So this
outage was not caused by a Windows upgrade, as some have speculated,
unless the central Skype login server was taken down by a Windows
The company is inordinately secretive about the failure; one hopes
they eventually open up a bit. All we know from their web site is that
it blames the failure on
deficiency in an algorithm within Skype networking software.”
Hence the relevance of the FSF’s licenses.
I think the record of open source software shows that it gets fixed
much more quickly than closed software. Among the millions of Skype
users are thousands that would be happy to take a look at the login
server’s source code and suggest work-arounds or a redesign. I don’t
blame Skype for keeping the source code secret as part of their
business plan, but perhaps they (and others) will start to look afresh
at this advantage of free software.
The currently discussed GNU Affero GPL pertains directly to
servers–although only servers that use free software licensed under
this license. The Affero GPL differs from the regular GPL mostly in
one simple clause that requires people deploying the software to offer
any modified copy to “users interacting with it remotely through a
computer network.” This does not mean Google would have to provide all
its algorithms to the public just because its servers run on
Linux. (For one thing, Linux will not adopt the GLPv3.) But if Google
altered a hypothetical GPLv3-licensed Linux filesystem or networking
stack to support Google’s work better, Google would have to release
If the Skype problem lay not with the server but with client software,
the value of open source software would be even more evident.
Proprietary software creates a monoculture. The free software movement
tends to create multiple tools to do the same thing, which can be
confusing for people trying to choose the best audio player, PDF
viewer, word processor, etc. But the diversity allows for a quick
switch in case a crippling bug turns up in one project.
There’s a lot of controversy over the network server clause, and
doubts over its viability (I believe) led the FSF not to include it in
the general GPL. But if the Affero GPL encourages some sites to let
the public see the code they’re running, it will benefit the software
industry and the public.