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Uncategorized

The Open Source Option

Open source software is a computer program that is distributed free of charge with the source code used to create it, this is done with the hope that the transparency of the process would encourage other experts in the community to use their skills to further improve the software. Open source software and free software are not necessarily the same: an open source program would let the end user modify and examine the inner workings of the program, such an example of this would be the Firefox browser, while a free closed source program, such as Internet Explorer, would not let the end user modify or view the inner workings of the program.

Open source software has grown popular over the years due to the transparency of the application and the opportunity it gives to the public to modify the program according to their own needs. The fact that the source code is open to the public also helps discover and fix bugs and glitches quicker than traditional software due to the contribution of its users. Individual and corporate users of open source software also save money as open source software is given free of charge because (its developers usually make their money off advertising, offering support services, or via alternative financing methods).

Many countries have some strategies for using and supporting open source initiative, not only to avoid paying licensing fees, but also to spur innovation and encourage the public participation in the IT industry.

I personally rely on many open source applications both at work and at home. Firefox had been my browser of choice for a number years – until Google Chrome came out and became my favourite open source browser. I am almost forced to use Microsoft Office at work, but at home, I use OpenOffice.org to work with Word documents. OpenOffice.org is fully compatible with Microsoft Office, lightweight, less cluttered and easier to use than Microsoft Word, It also lets you export to PDF out of the box, too. I also use WordPress on my blog, FreeMind for brainstorming, and FileZilla for uploading files. There is almost always a well respected open source alternative to any software you can think of: Ubuntu instead of Windows, GIMP instead of Photoshop, Thunderbird instead of Outlook, and even Android instead of the iPhone OS.

I think that it is such as a shame that not a lot of people around here give open source software a chance. You don’t need to buy, or illegally download, an expensive software without considering the open source alternative to it. I have written this article on a legally free open source office suite which I have been using as my primary word processing tool for more than four years now. The next time you need to install an application you should do a simple search to see if there is an open source application that does your task, you might just save yourself some money or avoid the headache of cleaning your computer from viruses after downloading a bunch of illegal applications.

Categories
Censorship defamation

Omani Freedom of Expression Online

The internet has enabled a lot of people from all around the world to communicate with others and has provided a platform for those without a voice to speak up and reach out for an international audience without any physical restriction, and just as much as it has brought the best of people in terms of creativity and innovation, it has also brought the worst of people as it enabled them to talk freely under the cape of anonymity.

I do not think that I am the only one who said some really strange things to people online which I will never dream of saying to their faces in real life. A visit to any public discussion board on the internet would show you how much people swear at others, make fun of them, and even maybe harass them. Many people forget that there are human beings behinds these nicknames with feelings that could get hurt.

The concept of freedom of expression is pretty new to the traditionally conservative Omani society, and the sudden explosion of opportunities opened by the web led some to assume that freedom of expression means that they have the right to say whatever they want, just because they can, without thinking about the consequences, but the truth is that there is nowhere in the world where freedom of speech is an unlimited right, because no matter what personal right a person has, it must not infringe on the rights of others.
In Oman, and many other countries, this right is restricted by some other legal principles such as defamation and breach of confidence. Defamation is generally defined as the act of spreading false information about a person which could harm that person’s reputation. This law is much stricter in Oman than in some other places like the UK or the USA as defamation is a criminal act and not merely a civil matter. In addition to this, there is no clear requirement in the law for the statement to be false for it to be offensive but merely requires it to have the consequence of damaging that person’s reputation.

Freedom of expression is further restricted by the law of the breach of confidence, if a person receives any information with a clear expectation to keep that information in confidence, that person would be under a legal duty not to disclose that information to anyone else. This is a general principle that applies to all sorts of information whether it was a private issue told between friends or a serious confidential document delivered in a professional capacity, for example, the medical records of a patient.

These two are examples of the most obvious restrictions to freedom of expression on the internet or otherwise, but are not the only ones, in Oman, the Telecommunication Law also provides for a number of other restrictions such as prohibiting the transmission of harmful and untruthful messages through any means of communication.

The perception of the internet as an unregulated medium that allows people to say anything they want is far from true, the legal system covers a wide number of instances where speech on the internet could be punishable, and with the development of new methods for tracking the visitors of a website, it becomes not too difficult to enforce these laws on the internet.

This post was originally published as a column on Muscat Daily.

Categories
Uncategorized

Overwhelmingly Google

I was greatly pleased when I finally successfully managed to have my phone address book synced with my Gmail contact list earlier this month, my life is so much easier now that I do not need to worry about maintaining multiple address books and I can easily update my phone address live by just editing the one on Gmail. I am amazed at how Google constantly launches excellent products that help solve daily problems in our lives totally free of charge.

Yet as much as I love Google, I am starting to get worried about my attachment to all the various products it runs. Like the majority of people around the world I use Google to search for things on the internet and I use Gmail as my primary email account, but I also use Google Reader to read news and updates from websites I follow, Google Calendar to organize my schedule, Google Docs to track my work files, Google Analytics to review the performance of my blogs, and did I mention that I use Google Chrome browser whenever I can?

While many people think of Microsoft as a company that carries a lot of activities with monopolistic attributes, it no longer seems to be of as big of an impact in a new reality where most applications are web-based and almost completely platform agnostic when it comes to the “desktop” side of things. At this stage dominance of the internet is what really matters, and for me personally, at any moment while I am online, at least three tabs would have a different Google product opened.

Some are worried about the scope of data collected by Google through all its various products and all problems related to the potential retention and abuse of that data for all sorts of things, but what I am worried about is that this expansion of Google into so many different fields could have anti-competitive effects on the industry.

Google has always been good with its data policies and allows you in most of its applications to export your data to another service or completely delete it from their servers, but while it is nice for us to have a company as big and powerful as Google to offer excellent services free of charge (as it can pay for everything from the advertisements revenues it makes), it becomes very difficult for other smaller companies to compete against it because they cannot match the resources of Google. This could lead to a reduction in innovation and consumer choice, and the biggest fear is that one day we will not use Google’s products because they are the best, but because there is nobody else who can offer an alternative. Some might say that this is not necessarily a bad thing as most of Google’s services are excellent, but when all the competition is wiped out, will Google still have an incentive to innovate?

The solution cannot be to boycott Google just because it is doing a great job at satisfying our needs, but we have to maintain an open mind when it comes to alternatives and give other products a chance in order to ensure that there will always be a chance for another option to existing for our own sake.

Categories
Privacy

Facebook Privacy Concerns

Facebook officially launched its new controversial privacy settings which will have a significant instant impact on the extent to which private information is shared on it. Facebook claims that these new changes will help make it easier for users to decide what to share and with whom, but the reality is that the amount of information that can be set to private has been reduced and the default privacy settings are now configured to have most content shared with the everyone on Facebook and beyond.

The original success of Facebook over other social networks such as MySpace is believed to be attributed to the high levels of privacy it allowed its users to have. Previously, users had the option to share some of their personal data, such as their profile picture, with certain groups of users, such as friends only, however, profile picture, gender, current city, networks, the pages the user is a fan of, and some other personal information, are all now treated as publicly available information which cannot be hidden from anyone if the user chooses to put them on Facebook.
Another major change in the new privacy scheme is that default settings for writing new status updates and sharing pictures and other content, are set to be shared with everyone instead of friends only. This means that when you make a new status update this update will be visible to everyone whether or not you have them as friends, and as a lot of content on Facebook can be indexed by search engines such as Google, this means that even people not on Facebook may find your status updates if they make a relevant search. While privacy settings for such a feature could be configured to a more private option, the majority of users do not check their settings and very few people would realize that their old default settings were changed to the new default settings for sharing everything with everyone without them taking any action!

The new changes in privacy settings do have some new options that could allow users to have better privacy. For example, users now have the option to have per-status update privacy restrictions so that you post an item that you share only with your close friends or only with your work colleagues without affecting the rest of your updates.

It is widely believed that the new changes in Facebook privacy settings were made to push people to share more information with everyone, while this might not be in the interest of the majority of the users, Facebook hopes that this would enable it to compete with services such as Twitter – which by default makes users share their micro status updates openly. However, the purpose of Facebook is totally different from that of Twitter and Facebook’s attempt to expand into Twitter might be faced with a backlash.

If you are on Facebook and you regularly share private pictures of your family and friends, you might want to make sure you check the new privacy settings of Facebook and set your content to be viewable only by the groups of people you desire. If you would not like everyone to know that you are a fan of a certain page, you have no option but to unsubscribe from that page. The same goes for your profile picture, and other information classified as publicly available information, which you will have to remove completely from Facebook if you do not want everyone to see it.

The nature of Facebook is changing and this might be a reflection of the increased willingness of people to share more things online, but I doubt that the majority of people appreciate the impact this information could have on their social and professional life. It is still very unwise to share private information without any restrictions as it would be very hard, if not impossible, to get them off the internet afterwards.