January 8, 2004

In defense of Free Software, community, and cooperation

Author: Tom Chance

A recent
article
by Richard Stallman on the subject of the direction of the Free
Software community provoked a lot of discussion, in particular on whether
he is right to push so strongly his principles of Free Software over and
above the pragmatic principles of Open Source. In this article I would like
to defend Stallman's vision of software, and its place in community rather
than as a consumer product, and re-advocate Stallman's assertion that the
right to form a community is more important than the ability to use
particular software.Open Source as a consumer product

In one of the most telling criticisms of his position, one Slashdot poster commented
that, to paraphrase, until Stallman realises that people don't expect
cooperation and community to be products of, nor aspects of, a software
industry, he won't ever succeed. Stallman, the poster implied, is talking
only to a select group of people, and will never "meet the needs of the
masses" until he accepts that their expectations of software are
significantly different than his own.

This apparently pragmatic approach to software can be found in a lot of
documents advocating the use of the term "Open Source" in place of
"Free Software" (though I am by no means implying that this applies to
all Open Source advocates). To many, the development models best described by
Eric Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar are what is most significant
about GNU/Linux, along with the technologies and associated benefits of Open
Source software, like stability, security, and speed. And it is these
development models and their benefits that we ought to preach to potential
customers and convertees. In the words of Raymond himself, the original push
for Open Source "was a sustained effort to argue for 'free software' on
pragmatic grounds of reliability, cost, and strategic business risk."

It is undoubtedly upon these grounds that Free Software has seen such huge
success in the business world, for the most part in the server market and
increasingly in the desktop market. The founders of the Open Source
Initiative were no doubt correct in thinking that the term "Open Source"
would be easier to sell to commercial entities than the term "Free
Software." But this is only half the story. Where Open Source software has
taken the business world by storm, Free Software is increasingly making a
difference in governments, developing countries, areas of cultural minority
and many others upon more grounds than "reliability, cost and strategic
business risk."

I should note, before I get indignant responses from Open Source advocates,
that the confusion of terminology does highlight the fact that we shouldn't
think of Free Software and Open Source as meaning different kinds of
software, since generally they are synonyms describing software under
licenses like the GPL. Rather, they are different philosophies, different
reasons for using and promoting the licenses and values that they share, and
their key difference lies in the omission of community in the Open Source
philosophy.

Free Software as a community tool

When announcing a move to
Open Source software, the Venezuelan government outlined "a new Internet
access program where all machines would be Linux-based and held under
community franchise." Venezuela's announcement made clear that the health of the
communities who use information technology, and of the wider community of
developers in Venezuela, depended upon their adopting Free Software.

In an infamous letter to
Microsoft Peru, a Peruvian Congressman outlined his reasons for mandating the
use of Free Software in government. In response to the question of whether the
market should decide, he said that "the state archives, handles, and transmits
information which does not belong to it, but which is entrusted to it by
citizens... the State must take extreme measures to safeguard the integrity,
confidentiality, and accessibility of this information." He makes it
clear the importance of community in Peru, distinguishing between the
conception of software as a product for consumers and the conception of
software as a tool for citizens and communities.

Though most government decisions cite economic and technical
reasons for switching to Free Software, there is almost always a mention of
the damage that proprietary software has done to communities in their
countries. By its very nature, proprietary software stops people from sharing
technology and provides no guarantee that citizens will be able to share
information through open standards. In Venezuela, the government felt that
proprietary software had subjugated its development community under the arm
of foreign developers, and had not enabled established communities to benefit
from information technology in the way that Free Software might. These
sentiments are echoed in many government statements, particularly those from
developing countries where large proportions of their citizens are further
excluded from information technology by proprietary restrictions.

These countries, we hope, will in time develop to such a
point that they will be able to nurture nascent software industries capable
of competing locally, nationally, and globally, where Free Software can make
such a difference. It is precisely because of considerations of community and
cooperation that they will be able to enjoy the apparently more "pragmatic"
considerations of reliability, cost, etc.

Central to the development of information technology in any region is the
accessibility of that software for particular cultures, with their own
languages, scripts, and approaches to software. With the proprietary software
model, consumers are dependent upon the producers to supply sufficiently
customised or internationalised products. With the Free Software model, on
the other hand, individuals and communities are free to internationalise
software, and often receive considerable support from the parent projects
in doing this. One only needs to look at the recent localisation of GNOME
into Bengali
or of KDE into
Farsi
to see how Free Software enables communities to cooperate and
better themselves and their fellow citizens.

Whether FS or OSS, community matters

In fact, it is not only in governments and developing countries that the
importance of community is apparent. Every nation is composed of communities formed around religious beliefs, shared hobbies and
interests, political necessity, and all kind of other grounds. In these
communities, the benefits of being able to share software, to
customise or have customised software for their particular needs,
and to be free as a community from the influence of any particular software
producers is a great opportunity.

Associated with Free Software is also the ability to influence, contribute to,
or join the communities that produce the software you can use. Not only can
entire communities, as in the internationalisation cases, link up with
communities that they benefit from, but individuals and companies, should
they want to, can do so too. Whilst the idea of your average Web-browsing,
document-writing computer user contributing to the Linux kernel may sound
absurd, simply providing the ability for such a person to file a feature
request or ask a community of developers and supporters for help is
enormously empowering. It humanises software, and takes the user from being a
passive consumer who must put up with what he is given to being a
potentially active user who can exercise a degree of power over what he is
given, both in terms of actually changing particular features, and in terms
of influencing the development agenda.

The freedoms ensured by Free Software also enable new communities to form, for
example locally based cooperative volunteer support groups, or Linux User
Groups (LUGs) for short. The more the public is able to share and cooperate
without destroying the software "industry" entirely, the more citizens will
gain in terms of participation in communities, increased opportunities with
information technology, and of course all of the "pragmatic" benefits. So
long as Free Software doesn't undermine the ability of the public, including
business, to make software and make it usable for everyone, it is morally
superior to proprietary software, and leaves us with no reason to keep
proprietary software. Where proprietary software is necessary, that may not
be the case, but I don't want to get into a discussion as to where it might
be necessary.

In highlighting these cases, I am not trying to suggest that Open Source as a
philosophy denies the importance of community, but that those who attack Free
Software advocates like Richard Stallman for talking about cooperation and
community are quite wrong. Community matters, more in fact than
considerations of stability and cost, because in the long term, whilst Free
Software will enable communities and deliver the quality of products
citizen-consumers require, proprietary software will further divide and
polarise communities and inhibit the potential of information technology for
the public. Considerations of cost and stability will continue for as long
as software is produced, but considerations of community are
central to the direction of information technology in society.

Whether or not you can sell this vision to the average consumer over a shop
desk, it matters. If the community behind Free Software forgets this in its
rush to spread the software, and we confuse the goal of freedom with the goal
of popularity and market share, it fails. Until those who disagree with Free
Software advocates understand that this is our position, criticisms will fall on deaf
ears.

Copyright 2004 Tom Chance

Category:

  • Open Source
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