May 3, 2006

Free software, you've been framed

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has always been concerned about the power of language. Most famously, it is known for insisting on the term "GNU/Linux" and giving "free software" equal billing with "open source" in order to receive its due credit. Now, as the FSF prepares a campaign to inform the general public about the dangers of digital rights management (DRM) technologies, it's struggling with the question of how to enter a debate that the opposition has defined in such a way that opposing views are discredited automatically.

According to Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF, explaining this tactic and trying to replace loaded terms with more truthful ones will play a large role in the campaign's preparation and likely in the campaign itself. Brown is concerned with what George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics and cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, calls "framing." Essentially, framing is the definition of a debate in favor of one side. For example, by encouraging taxation issues to be discussed in terms of "tax relief," the American Republican party has ensured that any discussion is heavily weighted toward its own views. Not only does the term imply that taxes are too high, but the use of an emotionally charged word like "relief" suggests that those who support it are standing up against oppressors -- and that those who question them are supporting those same anonymous oppressors. Lakoff suggests that the American right wing understands the importance of framing and spends considerable time, effort, and money on it. By contrast, he sees the left as largely unaware of how framing shapes public debate, tending to naively assume that simply telling the truth is enough to gain support for its viewpoint.

The FSF sees framing as a concern in several technology issues. In fact, Brown sees the opponents of the FSF's stances as being the same type who help frame the American public political debates. "They spend a lot of money on marketing," he says. "They have experts, they have access to research, and they know that if you can frame the debate, then you are much more likely to push your installation or consumer project past the eyes of the people."

Richard Stallman, founder of the FSF, says one example of framing is the phrase "intellectual property," which he describes as "a seductive mirage," condemning it for creating a false analogy in people's minds between creative and intellectual works and physical objects, and for misleadingly conflating separate issues about copyrights, patents, and trademarks into a single issue. Similarly, Brown says the automatic use of "piracy" to describe file sharing attempts "to turn legitimate uses into a high crime, into something like genocide," and the term "trusted computing" describes technologies that make the hardware on which they are installed untrustworthy from the viewpoint of security.

Brown dissects the phrase "digital rights management" in this way:

"Rights" are equated with something like the Bill of Rights -- something that is inalienable, something that everyone has a stake in. Telling the users of these products that they have the management of rights in them suggests that the users should be very pleased about it, that it's something that's good for them. And, indeed, if you speak to someone from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) or the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), that's the way they talk about it. They talk about it as if it helps consumers understand their rights. [But] it's taking rights away from them.

He says that "management" suggests that the technologies are "helping users with their rights, telling them what their rights are. What they should say is that they're helping them understand their restrictions, but they confuse rights with their [own] interests. They want us to believe that it's in the interest of the consumer to be restricted."

The difficulties of responding to framed language

Besides developing the analyses of framed phrases, the FSF is also trying to invent alternatives to them. Some phrases may have no alternative, because they are too misleading. Stallman, for instance, suggests that "intellectual property" is so misleading that the only way to deal with the term is to divide it into the individual issues it implies. However, the FSF has had more success with other terms. For example, it suggests "treacherous computing" for "trusted computing," a replacement that not only sounds similar to the original, but makes its point more strongly because of its humor.

In the same spirit, the FSF has suggested replacing "digital rights management" with "digital restrictions management" or "digital restrictions malware." However, neither of these terms is completely satisfactory. "We want to come up with a phrase or a piece of terminology that explains to people why they should feel revolted at DRM," Brown says. "We are actually at the moment trying to come up with a term, and it's very difficult."

Part of the difficulty is that, to break out of the limits imposed by framed language, opponents have to spend considerable time reacting to the frame and explaining it, rather than promoting their own views. "It's very hard to argue or bring your points across when the whole set of language you're using is opposed to your beliefs," Brown says.

Opponents of framed language also run the risk of being dismissed as "politically correct" -- a phrase that is, itself, an attempt to frame opposition as trivial and irrelevant.

Another part of the difficulty is that framing is an expert marketing technique. "I can see why you need to put millions of dollars into the right institutions in order to come up with the right phrases that can have a powerful impact," Brown says. "We have to struggle amongst ourselves to come up with that sort of effort. Hopefully, among our supporters, we may find a suitable phrase."

Even more importantly, the idea of manipulating language is one that typical FSF supporters, like many of the leftists described by Lakoff, find repellent. Possibly, the reaction has something to do with the fact that many FSF supporters come from programming backgrounds, making them more prone than the average person to believing in observable truth and the power of logical argument. Brown recalls this issue arising during the planning for the current revision of the GNU General Public License (GPL):

We started talking [about] how we could reach out to people and contact them. And immediately Richard [Stallman] was very suspicious of using any language that could be conceived to be marketeering language. The reason was that he wanted to be honest with people. After all, the free software movement is based on the idea of having to share your work with other people, not trying to hide your work or treat them in a disrespectful way. So there at the heart of this [issue] is the problem that we don't want to lock them down with false concepts or misused memes or misused words.

Brown admits that other activist groups, such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have mounted effective mainstream advertising campaigns. He is also aware of activists of the past, such as Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, who advocated that "you do whatever it takes" to promote your cause. "That's probably good advice," Brown says, "but that's difficult. We're aware that marketing language works, we know our message could be more effective, but that's just not ethically the way this organization is going to conduct itself. And we know that that may make us less effective, but, overall, we think we can't give up those principles, even for more success."

Yet, despite the difficulties, the need to respond to framed language remains. Brown compares the need to the experience that FSF employees go through as they learn to work with Richard Stallman. He describes this experience as "a debugging process":

People have come from the world where trusted computing or DRM makes sense ... and he slowly debugs people, and it helps them think a little more clearly about the issue. What he wants is for people to have a clear understanding of the situation, and if they have a clear understanding of the situation, he hopes that they will be more likely to agree with him.

In the same way, Brown explains, when you're "facing people whose terminology is mistaken, it's very hard to argue or bring your points across [because] the whole set of language you're using is opposed to your beliefs."

The upcoming campaign

Language isn't the only issue in the anti-DRM campaign that the FSF is developing. Although the campaign is still being planned, and Brown prefers not to speak on the record about some aspects of it, it appears that, for the first time, the FSF is looking outside the free and open source communities for allies. "This is a big issue for a civil society," Brown says. "Free software should be something that every parent should be asking about when they go into a parent-teacher meeting -- not just recycling, but is the school using free software? Is my child being taught to use free software?" He hopes for an alliance of activists and perhaps an international day of protest or direct action.

The campaign also promises to be one of the largest that the FSF has contemplated. In taking on the MPAA and the RIAA, Brown says, "We're up against two of the most powerful organizations in politics. It's not surprising that we're talking about this topic in reference to the people who are the most adept at creating illusions, and they have an amazing power in Washington." At the same time, as a nonprofit organization, the FSF is prohibited from lobbying in the US, so its actions must be carefully planned and frequently indirect -- possibly, targeting the hardware manufacturers directly.

However, it is precisely because of the novelty and scope of the planned campaign that a consideration of language is part of it. "It's about breaking into the average person's world," Brown says. "We need to get publicity outside of our world, outside of NewsForge, outside of Slashdot, which is something that we have never, ever been able to do. It's a big problem."

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.

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