Who Cares About Time Zones Anyway?

If you think you have a thankless job you should think about Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert. Heck, it’s not even a paying job for them. They’re volunteers. Perhaps even masochists.

What do they do? They maintain the time zone database (“zoneinfo”) for all of the computing world. And while residents of a particular country have to put up with just the general stupidity of their own politicians, these guys have to put up with all the stupidity of all politicians, across the Earth. Every time a politician in Russia, or Cameroon, or Indiana thinks it’d be a good idea to screw with the clocks these guys update and redistribute their database[0]. Vendors pick up the update and send it out as a patch, and everything just keeps working as if nothing happened.

Their database is one of those little things that is absolutely crucial to the operation of most things on the Internet, in IT, and in the computing world. If you’ve ever expressed your time zone while installing a UNIX operating system in a format like “America/Chicago” then you’re a user of this. In fact, according to Wikipedia, this data is shipped with most Linuxes, FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD, Mac OS X, Solaris, AIX, Tru64, OpenVMS, etc. It is also shipped with PHP, Java, .NET, Python, various Perl modules, Oracle databases, and PostgreSQL. Lots of important stuff in that list, powering a lot of things, including the Mac OS-based iPhone in your pocket. Having the correct time isn’t just a cosmetic thing, either. It’s crucial to encryption. You accessing Twitter via HTTPS from Peru on your iPhone only works because the clocks are correct.[1]

So, proving again that no good deed goes unpunished, the whole project was closed down due to legal action from some snake oil-peddling bastards at the astrology company Astrolabe, Inc., as they expand their operations into copyright trolling. I learned of this yesterday as Stephen Colebourne’s post brought attention to it. In Mr. Colebourne’s words:

“The complaint is that Astrolabe produce a work, the ‘ACS Atlas,’ which is referenced by the time-zone database, claim copyright over their work and thus believe that the time-zone database should not have released their information to the public domain. The case is targeted at two private individuals – Arthur David Olson and Paul Eggert, who have hosted the website for many years.

The crux of the problem, as I see it, is that Mr. Olson and Mr. Eggert used the ACS Atlas as a source of facts about time zones in 1991 and earlier. Astrolabe is claiming that their database of facts about time zones in 1991 and earlier is copyrighted, and that it’s basically been put into the public domain by these guys as part of the time zone files. Of course, you cannot copyright a fact, but that isn’t stopping these trolls from trying.

Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed. – copyright.gov

So, in short, this is a big mess. The big fear is that with no central authority for this data everybody is going to do their own thing. That’s not good. Some groups might dump the pre-1992 data that is being contested, and that’ll hurt anybody with data from back then that wants to analyze it. Updates won’t happen uniformly, so users of Debian Linux might not get the same updates that IBM AIX users get, and there will be problems.

For the moment, some others have stepped up to provide interim copies of this data and do updates. If you’re a non-US citizen in a non-US country and have a web server or FTP server please help out. Even mirroring the work would be helpful, to help ensure the world has a copy of this if their Australian repository gets attacked.

I agree with Mr. Colebourne that perhaps this is a good opportunity for a bigger entity, with more legal clout and resources, to start maintaining this data. Similarly, I am hoping that a group like the EFF, or perhaps a consortium of leading tech companies, can assist these guys. Perhaps it can be turned into an opportunity.

There is a growing body of commentary on this, and here are some links you might check out:

Who cares about time zones? As it turns out, you do.


[0] Please note I’m not questioning Daylight Savings Time, or the existence of time zones, etc.

[1] There are other things involved in accessing Twitter, via HTTPS, on your iPhone, from Peru. Having incorrect time is usually a large hindrance.

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