Is Freedom Zero such a hot idea?

I’ve been thinking lately that if we don’t want to work on the databases that extremist governments use to detain immigrants they have separated from their children, or on the operating systems that well-equipped militaries used to rain autonomous death from above, or the image processing tools used by mass surveillance networks, then we need to stop dishing out the freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.

That also means discriminating against fields of endeavour, so such software would not only not be Free Software but not even Open Source. I’m OK with that, if it also means that it’s not used for purposes I don’t want to support. I still think Free Software is better than closed proprietary software, but have come to believe that Free Software is the amoral option where what our field needs is morality.

I don’t know what this would look like. I do not believe it would look like The JSON Licence, which is open to misinterpretation (intentional or otherwise). I think it would have to be a licence that enabled studying, sharing and modification of the software, but that explicitly forbade any use for any purpose that isn’t studying, modifying or sharing. With a “contact me or my agent, tell us what you’re doing, and we’ll decide whether to grant you an additional licence for use” suffix. This is more open than closed proprietary software, but no more available for deployment to bad actors.

Yes, that can be abused, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.

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5 Responses to Is Freedom Zero such a hot idea?

  1. John Carter says:

    In The Very Bad Old Days I worked for a government that did Bad, but in a department that did a Lot of Good.

    Various sanctions made it very hard to use technology to do Good, and imposed all kinds of hoops to jump through.

    I knew people in The department that did A Lot Of Very Bad.

    They had no trouble getting and using tech.

    They were Bad People who paid Bad People money to lie / cheat / steal.

    They paid less for their tech and had to navigate fewer obstacles.

    I ended up using a lot of open source software to do good, because that was all I could get.

    The nasties pirated a lot of proprietary software to do bad, because basically they didn’t give a shit about anything.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Why programs must not limit the freedom to run them

    by Richard Stallman


    A condition against torture would not work, because enforcement of any
    free software license is done through the state. A state that wants to
    carry out torture will ignore the license. When victims of US torture
    try suing the US government, courts dismiss the cases on the grounds
    that their treatment is a national security secret. If a software
    developer tried to sue the US government for using a program for
    torture against the conditions of its license, that suit would be
    dismissed too. In general, states are clever at making legal excuses
    for whatever terrible things they want to do. Businesses with powerful
    lobbies can do it too.


    What if the condition were against some specialized private activity?
    For instance, PETA proposed a license that would forbid use of the
    software to cause pain to animals with a spinal column. Or there might
    be a condition against using a certain program to make or publish
    drawings of Mohammad. Or against its use in experiments with embryonic
    stem cells. Or against using it to make unauthorized copies of musical


    It is not clear these would be enforcible. Free software licenses are
    based on copyright law, and trying to impose usage conditions that way
    is stretching what copyright law permits, stretching it in a dangerous
    way. Would you like books to carry license conditions about how you
    can use the information in them?

    What if such conditions are legally enforcible—would that be good?


    The fact is, people have very different ethical ideas about the
    activities that might be done using software. […] If we accepted
    programs with usage restrictions as part of a free operating system
    such as GNU, people would come up with lots of different usage
    restrictions. There would be programs banned for use in meat
    processing, programs banned only for pigs, programs banned only for
    cows, and programs limited to kosher foods. Someone who hates spinach
    might write a program allowing use for processing any vegetable except
    spinach, while a Popeye fan might allow use only for spinach. There
    would be music programs allowed only for rap music, and others allowed
    only for classical music.


    The result would be a system that you could not count on for any
    purpose. For each task you wish to do, you’d have to check lots of
    licenses to see which parts of your system are off limits for that


    The conclusion is clear: a program must not restrict what jobs its
    users do with it. Freedom 0 must be complete. We need to stop torture,
    but we can’t do it through software licenses. The proper job of
    software licenses is to establish and protect users’ freedom.

  3. Pingback: On study-only licences – Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

  4. Graham says:

    This is a slippery-slope argument. In practice you could easily build a system out of bits that people are willing to licence to you and that nonetheless are not Free: look at all the people using proprietary software on Windows for example.

  5. Pingback: More on freedom and licensing – Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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