Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programmers

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Thursday, April 1, 2021

Whoever “wins”, software freedom loses

I’d like to start by recapping the three distinct categories of interest in software freedom. This is definitely my categorisation, though only the third is novel and the first two have long histories of common recognition so this is hardly Humpty-Dumptyism on my part.

Free Software
The extension of freedoms of expression and engagement into the digital space. Free Software, sometimes “Libre Software” because of the confusion over the word “Free”‘s multiple definitions, is based on the ideas that a computer is property like any other artefact and that working with, playing with, and socialising via computers are personal pursuits like any other pursuits, and that the freedom from external interference with those enjoyments should be the same as in non-computer interests.
Open Source
The rephrasing of the ideas of Free Software to improve acceptance in (particularly American) business circles. Open Source as described is almost identical to the Debian project’s ideas of Free Software, but with the words “Open Source” instead of “Free Software” and the words “Debian software component” removed. The first reason for the rename is that Freedom implies either zero cost, which mid-1990s American business didn’t like, or social good, same. The second reason is that mid-1990s American businesses had come around to ideas of interoperability under the banner Open Systems, and Open Source sounds sort of like that a bit.
Open Sores
The co-opting of the technical aspects of Open Source (or, nearly equivalently, Free Software) without any of the freedom benefits, typically with the goal of providing zero-cost software development and associated professional services to for-profit companies. When a company CTO says “we love open source”, they typically mean that they love open sores: that they love how skilled developers from across the world will gladly sign CLAs transferring rights to exploit their creations to the company in return for a lighter green square on the proprietary software-as-a-service platform Github.

This is all pre-amble to a discussion of #uninstallman, the internet pressure mob removing the leadership of the Free Software Foundation over objectionable statements made by its founder, former president, and recently-surprise-reinstated board member, Richard M. Stallman (rms).

Let’s start with the obvious: the Free Software Foundation has not demonstrated good leadership over this matter. Clearly rms’s statements have distracted the conversation away from software freedom, and the FSF have not taken enough steps with enough publicity to resolve this issue and to get people talking about software freedom again[*]. The FSF has not even given clear enough separation between their policy and rms’s personal views for it to be obvious that anyone else on their board has any views, or control over policy.

It is right that the FSF take a critical look at their management, and ask whether the people who are leading the Foundation are the best people to promote the idea of software freedom.

Unfortunately, we are now at the point where whatever the outcome, software freedom has lost and Open Sores will fill the ideological vacuum. Because if software freedom is about the extension of existing freedoms into the online space, and the baying mob are calling for the blood of someone who said a thing questioning the definitions of words related to the actions of someone who was associated with someone who did known bad things, and for the blood of any other people who are associated with that person, it is easy to argue that the whole software freedom movement is hypocritical. You claim to support freedom of expression, and yet you actually deny the right for anyone to express views that disagree with your own? Where’s the unity of purpose?

Bradley Kuhn, policy fellow at the Software Freedom Conservancy, has talked about the damaging impact of rms’s personal views on the software freedom movement back in 2019, when this controversy was fresh; and in 2018 which is arguably where it started (to become public). He has also talked about the need to maintain a big tent; that being principled on your core issue gives you the legitimacy to take principled stands on other issues.

Taking an authoritarian, only-say-what-I-permit line on expression doesn’t leave any legitimacy to support freedom of expression in the software field. Unfortunately, if the FSF and more generally the software freedom community is unable to maintain principle on this argument, it will lose the right to be taken seriously on matters of software freedom. And then, the organisations who take the Open Sores line on software licensing will step up to fill the leadership vacuum. The business interest “Foundations” who think that software freedom means the freedom for big businesses to control the revenue stream while everybody gets to build their products for free. And then it may be decades before there is another software freedom movement with any legitimacy, and they may have to start from scratch.

[*] Arguably the software freedom movement was already in a difficult state, because the freedoms proposed were only really adopted by a small community with a technical interest in the details relating to those freedoms: a few tens of thousands of technologists, some intellectual property lawyers, and a small number of others. But that’s more about the difficulty of developing a mass movement and of translating the theory into activism, and doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on the characters or actions of any of the leaders in the movement.

posted by Graham at 22:43  

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