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FCC forces Ham radio operators to use Windows

Applying for or renewing an amateur radio license? If you ain't using Microsoft Windows, fugetaboutit.

Early in January, I sent e-mail to each of the four FCC commissioners: Michael Powell, Kathleen Abernathy, Michael Copps, and Kevin Martin. Their names are displayed prominently on the FCC homepage (see Resources for the URL) so it seemed completely natural and fitting that I contact them about a problem on the FCC Web site. My complaint was that certain functionality on the site is not available to me because I use Linux instead of Windows. I never received a response from any commissioner.

I first became aware of the problem last year when a friend of mine, a lawyer and Linux aficionado, sent me a copy of a letter he had mailed to FCC Chairman Michael Powell. The letter asked that the FCC stop the "wholly unnecessary and entirely unconscionable" practice of providing online license renewals for amateur radio licenses only to users of Windows. Like me, my friend never received a reply.

Then I pretty much forgot about the issue. After all, it did not affect my daily life. Recently I began studying for a ham license. I mentioned that to another friend who happens to be a licensed amateur radio operator. That reminded her that she needed to report a recent change of address to the FCC. When she tried to do so from my desktop computer, the following pop-up window appeared in the browser:

Windows NT/95

Ugly, isn't it? Not just the popup. Not just the message. I mean the fact that the FCC is helping Microsoft in its illegal practices to maintain its monopoly. Intentional or not, that's the result here. Moreover, it appears to have been in place since the ULS first went online. I found a newsgroup post from August of 1999 that said "I did notice one of the other FCC Web page popped up with a window saying 'This plug-in is only available for Windows 95/98'. I have no clue what the plug-in did."

Whoever wrote the ULS applications, and thus far, I haven't been able to learn where it came from, or who currently maintains it, used JavaScript for the task. There is huge irony in this because JavaScript, like Java itself, was designed to provide interoperability across different platforms. To fashion a Windows-only JavaScript application requires either deliberate intent or myopic programmers. I asked some JavaScript experts how to create Windows-only code. Most opined it is the result of using Microsoft's ActiveX. If they are right, it means this site's functionality not only flies in the face of interoperability and open access to all, it's fundamentally insecure as well.

In my e-mail to the commissioners I wrote, "The problem as reported to me -- and as confirmed by a friend this past weekend -- is that certain functionality on the FCC Web site is available only to Windows users. Specifically, the JavaScript or CGI used to allow Ham radio operators to update their licensing information online. This leaves Hams using Macintosh, Linux, OS/2, FreeBSD, OpenBSD and other operating systems out in the cold."

I also asked the obvious question, "As the Internet, HTML, and Java are all about the interoperability of different types of computers and software platforms, how does it come about that a governmental agency implements a solution available only to a single platform?" I noted that since JavaScript works on many different platforms, making a JavaScript application "Windows only" seems to require deliberate intent.

More Stories By Joe Barr

Joe Barr is a freelance journalist covering Linux, open source and network security. His 'Version Control' column has been a regular feature of since its inception. As far as we know, he is the only living journalist whose works have appeared both in phrack, the legendary underground zine, and IBM Personal Systems Magazine.

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