The de Tocqueville Incident: Linux and the AdTI

We are all aware of those IT consultancies and research organizations that have founded their business on producing reports on the comparative virtues of one company's products over another's. The reports are disseminated through the trade press and around the Net, and are often quoted as the justification for buying one product or another.

They often form the basis of advertising campaigns supported by friendly journalists, and are touted as the truth and the proof that one or other company has the better solution or the greater product than its rivals. Later, we discover that the reports have been sponsored by one of the interested parties, and that the terms of reference have been ever-so slightly skewered in favor of the sponsors.

A more or less sophisticated form of this kind of disinformation is practiced in government. The political parties receive funding from commercial entities, and lobbying companies are used to bend the ear of our representatives. During the presidential election of 2000, the Bush campaign was in receipt of $447 million from corporate sponsorship, and these sponsors, not unreasonably, expect a return on their investment, irrespective of the democratic imperative.

We vote for our electoral representatives, but our representatives balance their partisan interests against their financial returns. Washington, like the other capitals of the Western world, is surrounded by think tanks and lobbying companies, whose raison d'etre is to influence the elected representatives and to persuade them to legislate for or against particular interests, and repay the faith of their investors. The electorate comes further down the investment tree - money buys persuasion, and persuasion buys legislative votes. The think tanks claim an academic detachment, that the sponsorship they receive is incidental to the facts they report, but the evidence tends to suggest otherwise.

A theory not a fact

David Callahan, writing in the Washington Monthly in June 1999, reported that the CATO Institute's Social Security privatization project was "underwritten by $2 million or more in corporate money, much of it from financial service companies which would directly benefit from privatization." He further observed that: "The campaign against the 1997 Kyoto global warming treaty waged by right wing think tanks is another area where corporate America has heavily invested in policy groups that advance its interest. The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) has been a particularly aggressive advocate of the notion that global warming is a 'theory not a fact.' The idea that global warming is a theory not a fact has taken deep root in the administration. Since 1991, “CEI's budget has grown from less than $1 million to over $4 million."

The Bush administration's cursory dismissal of the Kyoto treaty (and subsequent denial of the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming) worked to the short term advantage of many corporations, but displayed a breathtaking indifference to political and scientific opinion inside the United States and throughout the rest of the world, and will exact a disproportionate cost on the rest of us. The Kyoto agreement was too little, too late, but without the participation of The United States, means even less,

On September 18, 1999, at the height of the Microsoft antitrust trials, the New York Times uncovered the relationship between the Microsoft Corporation and a conservative think tank that calls itself the Independent Institute. The Independent Institute, which professes adherence to "the highest standards of independent scholarly inquiry", had published a series of full-page newspaper advertisements entitled an Open Letter to President Clinton from 240 Economists. The advertisements supported Microsoft's claim of innocence in the face of federal antitrust charges. Microsoft had been unfairly victimized by the Department of Justice and the advertisements were a disinterested assessment of the realities of the case, or so they told us.

But the New York Times revealed that Microsoft had not only paid for the advertisements, but was also the single largest donor to the Independent Institute, providing 20 per cent of its funding. Microsoft also paid for the publication of an analysis of the antitrust trial, Winners, Losers and Microsoft, which was compiled by the Institute, and sought to debunk the government's case against Microsoft.

Microsoft, like other comparable organizations, provides sponsorship to a wide range of think tanks and lobbying outfits that are influential in guiding government policy. In addition, many corporations give direct sponsorship and funding to the major political parties with the objective of influencing policy. Cumulatively, the effect is to subvert the climate of political opinion in favor of corporate interests. Whatever the reasons might be, and despite being found guilty as charged, Microsoft escaped the antitrust trials with a rap on the knuckles and a pat on the back from the incoming Bush administration.

The Tooth Fairy

Think tanks, Public Relations companies and lobbying organizations, acting on behalf of their sponsors, have been instrumental in pushing for the spread of software (and other) patents, DRM, the Fritz chip, and a proliferation of laws over the last decade that have been designed to prevent consumers from using their computers as they can be used. So we shouldn't be surprised that free software is a frequent object of their ire, representing as it does a very real threat to the continuing dominance of the current leaders of the software industry. Think tanks aim to achieve the maximum publicity for their views and to influence the decision making process. The way that they do this is by producing texts to inform politicians and change the direction of the law, and to gain visibility for the policies they advocate through the media. Politicians, like the rest of us, are susceptible to 'informed opinion', and are capable of making wrong decisions based on the wrong information. Sometimes, of course, they are complicit in feeding us misinformation.

The Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (AdTI) is an organization that claims to advocate and study the "spread and perfection of democracy around the world.” de Toccqueville was a French aristocrat who adopted radical politics and wrote a classic analysis of Democracy in America in 2 volumes between 1835 and 1840. AdTI is a right wing political organization that is financed by business corporations and conservative financial trusts. Microsoft has admitted to making contributions to AdTI, and provides funds to several other think-tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute.

In May 2004 a press release from AdTI announced a forthcoming book with the entertaining and mildly provocative title, 'Samizdat... Origins and methods of Linux and other hybrid-source software', which would reveal that Linus Torvalds' "claim to invent Linux [was] probably false." Kenneth Brown, the president of AdTI and author of the piece, purported to have written "one of the few and extensive critical studies on the source of open source code." The study "traces the free software movement... from its romantic but questionable beginnings... [and] directly challenges Linus Torvalds' claim to be the inventor of Linux."

Brown's claims relied on a willful misunderstanding of the realities. On the one hand there is a disbelief that this stuff could be developed by a bunch of hackers and hippies across the Internet, (accompanied by libelous and unsubstantiated accusations of theft). On the other hand there is the fear that this stuff could actually work, and needs to be put down quickly, because it is "unAmerican", and "unconstitutional".

Brown's contention was that he couldn't believe that "one person could write an operating system all by himself," and the code must have been stolen from Minix. We needn't lose ourselves in arguing the point. Linux is a kernel. The basic tools of the operating system had already been developed as part of the GNU project. The early development of Linux is well documented, and the code is out there for all to see. Brown's methodology has been well dissected by his interviewees. Andy Tanenbaum, the author of Minix, gives a lucid account of his meeting with Brown, in which, in his view, Brown came looking for facts to fit the conclusions he had already made, rather than searching for conclusions to fit the facts. As usual, Torvalds reacted lightly.

"OK, I admit it", he confessed. "I was just a front-man for the real fathers of Linux, the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. Since then," he continued, "I've lived a life of subterfuge, always afraid that somebody would find out the truth. I'm actually relieved that it's over, and that the Alexis de Tocqueville Institute has finally uncovered the lie. I can now go back to my chosen profession, the exploration of the fascinating mating dance of the common newt.”

Doubting Shakespeare

Brown's book belongs to a long and proud tradition, the conspiracy theory applied to authorship. This genre of literature is typified by the many hundreds of books that have set out to prove that William Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays attributed to him. The greatest works of English Literature, King Lear, Hamlet, Othello, the sonnets and the rest, must have been written by Sir Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe, Good Queen Bess or Sheikh Zubair, Ben Jonson or Sir Walter Raleigh - anybody but "Will Shakspere".

The greatest exponents of this theory were probably Miss Delia Salter Bacon of Connecticut, and Congressman Ignatius Donnelly, the radical Minnesota politician. Bacon's obsession took her to England in 1853-58, where she ransacked the minds of the good people of London and Stratford in the hope of finding the final proof that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of the works of Shakespeare. She was well liked and was helped in her endeavors by the likes of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thomas Carlyle. In 1857 she published The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded, paid for by Hawthorne, but her attempts to open the tombs of Bacon and Shakespeare in the hope of finding hidden documents that would prove her case cost her her sanity.

As Donnelly noted, “She was persecuted into the madhouse and the grave by men who called themselves scholars and gentlemen. Their asinine hooves beat upon the great sensitive brain of the shrinking woman, and every blow was answered by a shriek. And when, at last, they had, by their onslaughts, destroyed her intellect, the braying crew wagged their prodigious ears, and in stentorian chorus clamored that her insanity was indubitable proof of the falsehood of her theory.”

Bacon and eggs

Congressman Ignatius Donnelly was the first to attempt to decipher Shakespeare's works in the hope of finding a code that would show that the plays were the work of Bacon. The effort of his calculations cost him two tons of paper, but he finally claimed to have found an arcane numerical cipher that revealed in two short passages of Henry IV, part II, the cryptic message that:

"Seas ill [Cecil] said that More low [Marlowe] or Shak'st spur {Shakspere] never writ a word of them."

Donnelly published the findings of his Baconian research in The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays, of 1888, in which he detailed his methodology and his proof that the true author of the works of William Shakespeare was Sir Francis Bacon. Unfortunately, the book became an object of ridicule. One parodist, using the same numbers and methods as Donnelly, extracted alternative messages from the same pages of Henry IV. He found the message:

"Don nill he, [Donnelly], the author, politician and mountebank, will work out the secret of this play".

And the even more brusquely dismissive:

"Master Will I am Shak'st spurre writ the play."

Bacon on toast

The search for cryptic messages in the plays of Shakespeare became an obsession for some. Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence was one of many distinguished nineteenth-century lawyers who attempted to attribute the works of Shakespeare to Bacon. Shakespeare's works, of course, proved him to have been a refined philosopher and courtier, a lawyer, a soldier, sailor, traveler, scientist, diplomat and much else besides. "Will Shakspere" was a half-educated actor from Stratford, and little is known about him, except that his name is attached to the works that were printed and performed under his name. Bacon was a lawyer. Thus, Bacon must have written the works of Shakespeare.

Durning-Lawrence's special contribution to the study of Shakespeare is revealed in his definitive work, Bacon is Shake-speare. He gives as his main proof an anagram of the famous long word, honorificabilitudinitatibus, which occurs in Love's Labour's Lost. Durning-Lawrence's rearrangement of the letters produced the Latin sentence:

"Hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi"

which translates as:

"These plays, F. Bacon's offspring, are preserved for the world.”

In his Eccentric Lives & Peculiar Notions John Michell notes that “This was by no means the first Baconian anagram which the long word had been made to yield: it is a favorite toy of heretical decoders. But Durning-Lawrence claimed his interpretation was uniquely correct, because in the First Folio edition of Love's Labour's Lost the word is the 151st (not counting italicized words), on page 136 and occurs in the 27th line, while the sum of the numerical values of the first and last letters in each of his Latin words (if a=1, b=2 etc.) is 136, the rest of the letters add up to 151 and there are 27 letters in honorificabilitudinitatibus. It 'surpasses the wit of man', declared Durning-Lawrence, to construct any other anagram with the same qualities,” and offered one hundred guineas to anyone who could.

He was made to pay, because a Mr. Beevor of St. Albans, the city in which Bacon is buried, discovered the alternative Latin anagram:

"Abi inivit F. Bacon histrio ludit"

which he translated as

"Be off, F. Bacon, the actor has entered and is playing!"

You Couldn't Make It Up

The point of this diversion is to illustrate the breadth of Brown's delusion. If we are to believe Brown's own assertions, he doesn't believe that Linus Torvalds could have written the original Linux 0.01 kernel released in September 1991, because he doesn't believe that anybody could write an operating system in such a short time, especially not a Swedish speaking Finnish student from Helsinki who had no known history as a programmer.

Aside from the fact that most elements of the operating system (in the shape of the GNU tools) were already in existence, and Linux 0.01 had very few features, Brown's assertions simply illustrate the truth that he is not a programmer, and doesn't know how talented programmers work. The original Linux kernel was far from perfect, but within a very short time, its existence had given birth to a small community of hackers, programmers and engineers, who led by Torvalds, teased the fledgling kernel into shape.

To understand Brown's motivation, we can turn to his response to his critics. The purpose of the document, he tells us "is to provide US leadership with a researched presentation on attribution and intellectual property problems with the hybrid source code model, particularly Linux. It is our hope that leadership would find this document helpful with public policy decisions regarding its future investment in Linux and other hybrid source products."

"Hybrid source" is a term of Brown's own invention, which "refers to any product with a license that attempts to mix free and proprietary source code at the same time." As we know, Linux does not attempt to mix free and proprietary source code, and nor does the GPL. Brown's intention (and the intention of AdTI's sponsors?) was to dissuade the US government from deploying Linux in government departments, because it is dangerous, because it defies convention, and because it is written by criminals who have stolen the code, because they must have, because they couldn't have written an operating system from scratch using only free software, because major corporations can't write software of this quality, so how could it possibly be?

The basis for the assertion that Linux is "hybrid source code" was Brown's non-existent evidence that Torvalds stole the code for the Linux kernel from somewhere else. "What I'm against is hybrid code, which is what is causing this criminal activity," Brown told LinuxInsider. "That hybrid genesis is causing people who work for major corporations to borrow and steal code ... and to have to contribute to open-source code," he said. "It started out academically and evolved to something commercial. That's what's caused the problem."

The search for Atlantis

The most telling testimony of this whole sorry saga comes from Alexey Toptygin, who was asked by a friend "if I wanted to do some code analysis on a consultancy basis for his boss, Ken Brown. I ended up doing about 10 hours of work, comparing early versions of Linux and Minix, looking for copied code... To summarize, my analysis found no evidence whatsoever that any code was copied one way or the other... While I was working on this in my spare time, Ken kept pestering me to hurry up and finish. He told me he had a paper awaiting publication, and that my analysis was the last bit of data he needed. I sent the final results to him on May 17th."

"When I called him to ask if he had any questions about the analysis methods or results, and to ask if he would like to have it repeated with other source comparison tools, I was in for a bit of a shock. Apparently, Ken was expecting me to find gobs of copied source code. He spent most of the conversation trying to convince me that I must have made a mistake, since it was clearly impossible for one person to write an OS and 'code theft' had to have occurred." One can only assume that the facts did not fit the required conclusions.

And in case we assume that our politicians are above the influence of think tanks or others coming with strange and unsubstantiated notions, it is worth remembering another aspect of the weird and wonderful life of Ignatius Donnelly, the Congressman from Minnesota, who proved that Sir Francis Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. Michell tells us that Donnelly was also responsible for the revival of the myth of Atlantis. His book, Atlantis, the Antediluvian World, so impressed the British Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone, that the PM proposed to the British cabinet that a task force of the Royal Navy be sent deep into the Atlantic to probe for signs of the lost continent. Michell observes that the scheme was vetoed by the Treasury on the unromantic, unshakable and very contemporary grounds that “it would cost too much.”


Richard Hillesley



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