God help us... the revolution runs on Windows!

Milena Popova laments the lack of open, free-to-use software endorsed by the Occupy LSX protest movement.

Occupy LSX Protestors outside St Paul's

Image: By Loz Flowers @flickr.com on a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Last weekend, I found myself at a loose end in London for a couple of hours so thought I'd look in on Occupy LSX. I pottered about, had a few chats, helped put up some posters and headed over to the tech tent. I only had a brief chat with the guys there, but was dismayed to discover that most of their kit was running on Windows XP. The reason, they said, was that Windows was what most people were familiar with. They had one Ubuntu box which was currently not around, and were toying with the idea of maybe putting Linux Mint on a couple of the machines, but it wasn't a high priority. My jaw was on the floor.

But why should we care? A computer is a computer, regardless of what operating system it runs, and if it will get you on the Internet and enable you to do whatever it is you want to do with it - run your website, provide people with a live stream of what's going on, or update Twitter - then surely that's all that matters? Well, here are just a few good reasons why Windows and the revolution don't mix.


Possible conspiracy theories aside, security is a major point of difference between proprietary software (and the Windows ecosystem in particular) and free (as in speech, not beer) software. It takes about 2.5 hours for a freshly-installed Windows 7 machine to get infected with all sorts of malware and spyware. Admittedly this assumes users who don't know what they're doing, but given the Occupation tech guys' main argument was that those were precisely the kinds of users they were serving, this is even more of a reason to run an operating system that doesn't come with malware guaranteed. Free software also offers better protection against deliberate backdoors and other vulnerabilities because the code can be audited by anyone. While not all of us may have the skills or desire to audit the code of every single application we use, enough people do so to ensure a robust, secure code base and rapid fixes for any vulnerabilities identified.


Occupy LSX claims a "mission to create a more just society, address social and economic inequalities and fight for real democracy". In the 21st century, technology is an increasingly important driver of social change. The Occupy movement itself would not exist in the form it does without technology such as the internet. The internet enables us to reach out, speak out, participate in politics and society like never before. It can flatten the barriers of class, race, gender, sexuality, ability and any number of other diversity characteristics. Yet our access to technology is still often determined by our income. Last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that:

Cost remains a significant barrier for some and it seems likely that the limits of market-driven provision in securing increased levels of access and use has been reached: the so-called final third of the population, within which age and socio-economic status are key drivers, looks likely to remain more digitally excluded. Those with incomes of over £40,000 are more than twice as likely to be online compared with those earning less than £12,000. 65% of those who are not online are in the D and E socio-economic groups.

Between Windows XP (released 2001) and Windows 7 (released 2009), the minimum processor requirements went from 233 MHz to 1 GHz, the RAM needed rose from 64MB to 1GB, and the required space on your hard drive quadrupled from somewhere around 4GB for XP and all its Service Packs to 16GB for the 32-bit version of Windows 7. While the price of the required hardware has dropped correspondingly, so that a computer meeting the Windows 7 requirements now is probably cheaper than a machine meeting the XP spec back in 2001, hardware can still represent a significant capital outlay that poorer households cannot afford. At the same time, older hardware in perfectly good working condition is being made obsolete by bloated software.

By using software made by people whose sole motivation isn't to shift more copies by piggy-backing on Moore's Law, you can extend the useful life of a piece of hardware by at least five if not ten years. A machine struggling to run Windows will happily run Linux and meet most of your end user needs for a good three to five years more; and once it no longer does, it can still perform useful functions as a low-end server in a cupboard somewhere for a while longer.

James Wallbank, founder of Sheffield-based open digital arts space Access Space, has for years known that the Zero-Dollar Laptop is out there. "[Access Space's] technology budget is zero", he says, "but somehow we have managed to build an advanced and reliable computer network that runs the very latest software. (Why doesn't everyone do this?)" Why indeed? Free software makes computing more sustainable as hardware remains in productive use for longer, and more financially accessible, allowing us to address social and economic inequalities in a constructive way.


Finally, Occupy LSX is clearly an organisation dedicated to educating and empowering people. Tent City University runs events ranging from highly theoretical lectures on international law, to radical poetry workshops and hands-on skills sessions like knitting and crochet. So why not equip people with the skills to use and run free software? There are flavours of Linux available these days which are as usable and intuitive as Windows or MacOS. Even better, there are supportive communities out there, online and off, that will help you get started, answer any questions you might have, and help you get unstuck if you do hit a problem. Introducing people to the world of free software would give them skills for life, make them less dependent on corporations life Apple and Microsoft, and enable them to access technology at a much lower cost. There are worse legacies I could think of.

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Comments (9)

  1. twitter:
    Nov 15, 2011 at 07:37 PM

    Thanks for bringing this up. Windows itself is spyware, as Google demonstrated in their Bing Sting.


    If you are using Windows to organize protests, you are feeding everything you do to a foreign corporation with well known ties to the business you protest and foreign governments. Windows can not be secured by anyone but Microsoft and they don't have the resources or motive.

  2. Ale Fernandez:
    Nov 16, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    In these spontaneous camps, a lot of things come together via goodwill and via people just feeling they have something to contribute. Here in Barcelona, when we camped back in May, the local squat based hackerspaces and LUGs descended on the camp and provided wifi, a computer recycling centre and a media tent - where translations were run, pictures were edited, blogs published etc. It was all quite a tight shop - until the eviction on the 27th May. It was a bit like yesterday's OWS eviction: on a pretense of cleaning the square, hundreds were injured, and the square was completely cleared for a couple of hours, until police left and people swamped the square again. The new people who populated the media tent from there were windows users - they did the same work as before, and brought in their stuff, but the police's "cleaning" meant all tech equipment was removed and much of it destroyed or just stolen, their owners arrested, injured or just stressed so much that they had to leave, so a complete change happened. Also from then the square grew less important, as the movement worked on it's intent to decentralise and move to the barrios. By the end, the media tent seemed full of freeloaders, and no linux computers were left. So bringing FOSS to a square, based on this experience, has to be a constant and organised effort. To add to this, in Barcelona for some reason LUGs and hackerspaces are usually based in squats, and people were at the protests and camping from day one. In the UK that connection is a lot less strong, and you'd find a lot more opposing opinions to this type of protest in those spaces than in Spain. As people who support the protests *and* FOSS, we are in a key position to help in this area.

    1. Milena Popova:
      Nov 18, 2011 at 08:46 PM

      Ale, thanks a lot, that's a really interesting perspective.

  3. Martin:
    Nov 16, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    Its easy to slate the protesters for using windows, and i agree, there needs to be better education. But Milena, did you actually try to educate people or did u just do a survey of all the windows machines, and decide the camp was in the grips of microsoft.

    A lot of the people at the camp just want a computer to use to get email and check some web sites, some probably don't know linux exists. There needs to be a lot more education in lots of areas, free software is certainly one of those, and there will be more education, for starters there is talk of an install fest and other educational activites over free software this weekend, we would really appreciate any help from activists in this area if they could bring something to install on or just hang around and help out.

    The way to solve this problem is education and this will come, but we have to see that the immediate priorities of the occupy movement are different to that of the free software movement, its only once those immediate priorities such as food and shelter are solves, that we can work on getting everyone using linux

    1. Milena Popova:
      Nov 18, 2011 at 09:10 PM


      Thanks for your comment. You are, of course right about education. I did try to have a chat with the tech guys about this - and they are not the people who "don't know that Linux exists". I made suggestions about maybe having one or two Windows machines for people who really struggle to change, but also having Linux machines available and helping people to learn how to use them. Plus if all you want to do is browse the internet and check email, your main user interface for that is the browser, not the operating system, which is even more of an argument to just move to Linux.

      I only had a couple of hours to spend at the camp but I would have very happily have spent them installing Linux. There just didn't seem to be the interest. If there is talk of an installfest that would be brilliant.

      I would also disagree that this is anything to do with Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If it was, then OccupyLSX would only have the sleeping tents and the kitchen - but they have the Tent City University, they have the Tech Tent, they have all sorts of things going on that aren't about food and shelter. Running free software on at least some of their kit in no way gets in the way of running the camp and it fits a lot better with the values of the organisation as well as giving people the opportunity to acquire valuable skills.

  4. Sean:
    Nov 21, 2011 at 05:33 PM

    Um, quick factual point, given that I'm on OccupyLSX's tech working group, most of the machines in that tent that we use for the technical running of the occupation are running some form of Unbunto - 10.10 on most of them because I painstakingly installed it on 10 laptops myself.
    Don't know when you went in, but bare in mind that the tent is often full of people who are sitting there to use the internet and shelter in the warm, rather than actually running our accounts and uplinks...

  5. Sean:
    Nov 21, 2011 at 05:38 PM

    Though, having said that, it does of course depend which OS's people boot to on partitioned machines. We were given a few machines which we installed ubunto on and wiped of windows, but we obviously can't dictate what people already use on their own machines. That'd be a tad fascist. (Even if they are stupid enough to run XP ;) )

    1. Milena Popova:
      Nov 21, 2011 at 05:45 PM


      The person I was pointed at as "knows what he's doing" and whom I had the conversation with had just finished the refurb on a laptop which was running XP. Mind you, it's good news that you *are* running Ubuntu on some of the kit.


  6. Don Canard:
    Nov 22, 2011 at 04:24 PM

    let's also remember that the internet in turn wouldn't exist without being funded by public, not private, monies. The technologies were all developed using tax dollars, particularly via US defence funding to universities (which educated the current technical leadership of the computer industry in the process). The telecomms industry got public property handed to it and has as a first obligation stewardship of that. They've invested (too little, opportunistically, i.e. in the wrong places) in infrastructure buildout, but the innovation was produced in a non-market environment. And still is. In fact, competition sucks at producing technical innovation, at least in platform software, since margins and hence business motivation are too low.

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By Milena Popova on Nov 15, 2011

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