Australian e-tax software unjust: Stallman

Australian e-tax software unjust: Stallman

Summary: Richard Stallman, president and founder of the Free Software Foundation, has said that the Australian Taxation Office's e-tax software is "unjust".

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Richard Stallman, president and founder of the Free Software Foundation, has said that the Australian Taxation Office's e-tax software is "unjust".

Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman
(RMS at Pitt image by Victor Powell, CC BY-SA 3.0)

E-tax is software provided by the Australian Taxation Office to conduct tax returns online. The office has been under fire for a number of years for not making a version of the software function on Linux or Apple Mac systems.

However, this wasn't the reason Stallman called the product "unjust". His reasoning for this term was that it is not "free" software.

Stallman feels strongly about freedom and wanted to be very clear on the distinction between free software and open source.

According to Stallman, free software allows the users to do four key things:

  • run the program as they wish
  • study the source code and change it to make the program do computing as desired
  • redistribute the original program to other users
  • redistribute a modified program to other users.

"The users have control of the software and that's what enables computer users to have freedom, to live in freedom," he said.

According to the Australian Taxation Office, the source code for e-tax is not available for alteration, contravening the second tenet of free software.

"This is obviously unjust practice by the government," Stallman said. "The government must never distribute non-free software to citizens or suggest that they use any non-free software."

He said that Brazil had a similar problem. However, Alexandre Oliva, board member of the Latin American Free Software Foundation, has provided a free software alternative.

"He releases a free program to do the same job and you can use that. This year he actually released his updated program before the official one came out. After all, it's based on the tax code."

It would be good for Australians to do the same thing, Stallman believed.

"There's no reason at all why the program shouldn't be free software," he said. "After all, the place where you have to check for inconsistent data is in the server. It would be utterly stupid to depend on a program running in the user's computer to check the consistency of the user's tax report.

"Once they do the obviously necessary thing, which is to check the consistency of the data in the server, there's no need to check or limit anything in the user's machine."

The Australian Taxation Office declined to comment on Stallman's premise.

People needed to protect their freedoms more vigorously, according to Stallman.

"Australians are not paying enough attention," he said.

"On a previous visit to Australia I visited the National Library and I saw a copy of the Magna Carta enshrined there, so that people could pay no attention to the principles therein in their daily lives," he said. "People should protest a whole series of unjust laws that have been established in Australia, taking away basic freedoms in the name of security."

Stallman pointed out that censorship was already alive and kicking in Australia after an incident where Electronics Frontiers Australia was faced with an $11,000 fine if it didn't remove a link on its website that took people to a political site.

The government's proposed internet filter would institute additional censorship, Stallman said.

Free software versus open source

Free software came before open source, Stallman said, with the Free Software Movement (FSM) starting in 1983. However, not all the users of the free operating system GNU, which the movement had launched, agreed with the goals of the FSM.

A group of users splintered and started campaigning under the name of open source in 1998. A lot of open-source software is free and a lot of free software is open-source software, according to Stallman. The definition, although derived from the free software definition, is much longer and looser, Stallman said, allowing software to be classified as open source, which would not be considered as free.

For example, Android, considered an open-source platform, would not be free software as such if run on the Motorola Droid X, because although users might access Android source code and be able to alter it, an altered version would not be able to be run on the phone, Stallman said.

"If you get the source code, you can edit the source code, you can compile your version of the source code, but you can't effectively run your source code," he said. "And this is an increasing problem, the problem of tivoisation, which is building products so that they recognise if the user has installed a changed version of the software and refuse to let it run at all."

He said he called it tivoisation because that was the name of the "malicious product" that had pioneered the way of making free programs non-free.

Richard Stallman is currently in Australia to attend the World Computer Congress next week, where he'll hold a keynote on Tuesday, 21 September. He'll also be speaking in Melbourne at a National ICT Australia Event tonight and a Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology event tomorrow. He encouraged those who wanted more information on free software to visit GNU.org for more information or to join the Free Software Foundation.

Topics: Open Source, Software

Suzanne Tindal

About Suzanne Tindal

Suzanne Tindal cut her teeth at ZDNet.com.au as the site's telecommunications reporter, a role that saw her break some of the biggest stories associated with the National Broadband Network process. She then turned her attention to all matters in government and corporate ICT circles. Now she's taking on the whole gamut as news editor for the site.

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Talkback

6 comments
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  • Go back to using Taxpack. I am sick of whingers like this bloke, they make me sick. Why the hell would someone need to modify E-Tax? It does its job and you get your money - that's all I care about.
    Mel Sommersberg
  • You're missing the point, Mel. Just because that's all you care about (or the fact that you don't actually care) doesn't mean so many non-microsoft citizens should be disadvantaged. Even just converting the tax app into a website would allow ALL the various users to access it if done correctly. Only providing a tax app for users of a single corporation's software essentially means the government is sending their stock points higher. That's not what I want my tax dollars spent on, nor do many other Australian citizens want the government pushing up market share for a single company.
    like268@...
  • In his rant Stallman is missing the point of the software. ATO provides the software free for end users. (Point here : END USERS). People who use these software are mainly SMES who can't afford the crap like MYOB/ Quickbooks etc. ATO is pretty much just doing a community service.

    They however are not required to ensure that they provide the source code to their IP. They wrote it, they maintain it and they alone are responsible for it.

    Open source in this instance while will happily take the free code, they will not be able to be responsible for it like ATO can.

    Free here is freedom to use or not use the software. Free means the end user doesn't have to pay to use it.

    So Stallman, shove it and stop chucking a tanty just because ATO doesn't do things the way you want to. The world doesn't revolve around open source.
    Azizi Khan
  • You are right Outlander, I don't care, not one bit. This is no different to a boy racer in his chosen car, Ferrari, Lambo, Porsche, etc arriving at a service station in the outback and expecting them to sell him 98 octane petrol. Of course most of them won't be able to give it to him because they cannot justify selling it to one customer per month. Whose problem is it - the service station owner or the bloke with the fancy car?

    I agree with you that scrapping E-Tax in favour of a website would mean better customer satisfaction however I do not subscribe to your assumption that the Commonwealth favours Windows for the reasons you specify. I work in an industry where a lot of industrial software is in use and it is all written only for the Windows platform. It's not because the vendors bow and scrape to Microsoft but because more people use it, or more to the point, catering for more people for the lowest price possible.

    I don't object to cross platform support, just the whingers who want everything their own way.
    Mel Sommersberg
  • Stallman's attack on the Tax Office is irrelevant and quite ridiculous.
    If the ATO let me modify the source code I could modify it to fudge my tax return and rip the ATO off. So, any suggestion of releasing the source code is completely absurd.

    If we are talking about freedom and liberty, the Tax Office software is not the right example, to illustrate the point.
    He should have used the internet filter, which is a far more sinister threat to our freedom and liberty.
    Yoda7
  • I have to disagree with Stallman also. Like Yoda7 says modifying the source of the e-tax software is not a good idea. For general purpose software fine, but this software is for one specific purpose and this introduces risk when it comes to TAX, I'd not accept a compiled version by anyone but the ATO and I'm sure that would be the case with anyone so the arguments of modification and redistribution are moot.

    I would however like the software to be cross platform, as a linux and mac user it is a pain having the fork out good money for windows. That said I understand the software is pretty old code written when windows was the only operating system most people thought about and apple didn't have its current market share. I'd like them to redo the code so it can be cross platform but I understand that takes time and money and the ATO perhaps doesn't have the resources.

    Hell every year I use e-tax I submit feedback and on the face of it very little changes with the software. For example using the calculator link on the software brings up windows calculator which is pretty poor for financial software. I suggested examples of programs to look into implementing similar functionality like a calculator with a ticket type display so you can see what sums are typed in and results, you need as much feedback when doing calculations to avoid mistakes (it is after all tax) but I suspect implementing a decent calculator tool would take time and resources which the ATO doesn't have.

    I suspect in 5 more years we will still be having the same debate and I'll still have a copy of windows to run tax software. Yes Mel Sommersberg you could use the tax pack, but it takes a lot longer to get a return, shame you can't claim windows as a tax deduction.
    deonast