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Software license tied to human rights by Declan McCullagh
Move over, free software. Step aside, today's open-source licenses.

Software distributed under an "enhanced source" license released this week will be legally prohibited from censoring or spying on users.

Crafted by Hacktivismo, a hacking group organized by the Cult of the Dead Cow, the Hacktivismo enhanced-source software license agreement says that anyone using code released under it must respect privacy, free expression, due process and other human rights.

HESSLA comes as concern is growing over governments using technology such as blocking software to restrict what their citizens can do or say online. In September, House Republicans released a report titled "Tear Down This Firewall," and this week, Amnesty International published a report highlighting China's crackdown on Internet use.

"The Hacktivismo enhanced-source software license agreement marks the first time technology transfer has been linked to protecting human rights," said Oxblood Ruffin, founder of Hacktivismo. "Our clients and end-users aren't building the firewalls to keep democracy out. They're locked inside trying to break free."

In July, Ruffin published a manifesto that referenced the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights and said Internet censorship is "a serious form of organized and systematic violence against citizens, is intended to generate confusion and xenophobia and is a reprehensible violation of trust." Hacktivismo's license says that any government that violates human rights is prohibited from using software released under it.

The "enhanced source" license intentionally tracks much of the language of the well-known General Public License and borrows most of the GPL's concepts, such as the one that says anyone incorporating code released under the license in their program must also make the source code of their program available. In fact, Hacktivismo recommends that programmers release their code under both licenses.

One problem Hacktivismo might encounter is that the current license is so broad it discourages developers from using it. For instance, it bans governments, individuals and corporations from any "monitoring of individuals," which might apply to popular network monitoring utilities, and bans "filtering" of any expression, which could cover routine utilities such as spam-filtering programs.

Another section of the license requires that the creator of any program that uses cryptography for authentication or confidentiality must ensure that the algorithms meet minimum security thresholds. And if any disputes arise involving another nation, the license says, foreign governments relinquish their right of sovereign immunity and agree to be sued in federal court in the United States.

The license enables both Hacktivismo and its end-users to go to court if someone tries to use the software in a malicious manner, or to introduce harmful changes into the software. It also contains more robust language than has previously been used to maximize enforcement against governments around the world. The HESSLA explicitly prohibits anybody from introducing "spyware, surveillance technology, or other undesirable code into modified versions of HESSLA-licensed programs." Additionally, the license prohibits any use of the software by any government that has any policy or practice of violating human rights.

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