September 6, 2003

Politics in Free Software

Author: Tom Chance

When he added a line crediting the United States Army to four of his applications, Neil
Stevens created a small storm in
the KDE community; politics, people said, was not to interfere with KDE,
and his credit was removed. However, when the KDE Web site took part in the
online protest
against software patents in Europe, people said politics was important to
KDE. So what role does politics play in KDE, and in Free Software in general?

Denying that politics can play any part in Free Software is of course
absurd. Politics is not confined to a few officials in suits, it is part of
the fabric of life. When I consume goods, I tacitly accept that the companies
involved in the production of those goods are acceptable to me, or rather
that their practices are acceptable; when I use Free Software, I make a
political statement about my thoughts on copyright law, software development
methods, and perhaps a little of my ethics.

Moreover, software development is directly and indirectly affected by
political decisions that are external to the development community. If it
were illegal to distribute software with restrictive licences, proprietary
software would not exist; if everybody had to pay royalties to the holder of
the patent for the progress bar, very little software would use the progress
bar. In an extreme example, if my country were invaded and the occupying
power banned me from using Free Software, I would no longer be able to use
KDE.

Free Software communities must therefore take political considerations
seriously, just as they take technical considerations seriously. Some
communities take political matters to heart, and define their community as
much by their politics as by their technical achievements; other communities,
meanwhile, have an unhealthy attitude, burying their heads in the sand and
hoping the wind blows in a friendly way.

When thousands of Web sites took part in the online protest against software
patents in Europe, they proclaimed their opposition to a political decision
that could potentially destroy the Free Software community; it was a
defencive action en masse to support the efforts of lobbyists and
demonstrators in Brussels, and to raise awareness among Web site visitors.
There was a consensus amongst the majority of hackers that software patents
are bad, and Webmasters responded to this consensus.

In the case of KDE, there was criticism, with many questioning the
effectiveness of the action, and some questioning the motivation. But
certainly a majority of KDE developers and users were in agreement that
software patents were bad for KDE, and so KDE acted.

So what about Neil Stevens? He believes that if it weren't for the US Army, he
wouldn't be able to develop Free Software. His case raises two questions: is he
correct, and regardless, should his credits be allowed?

The statement itself is questionable. If the US were invaded by almost any
other nation in the world, he would still be able to write his software,
since there are no governments that I know of that crack down on the
development of media players and games like Megami. His
statement also implies support for the actions of the US Army, and in
particular its recent actions, and that certainly don't have anything to do
with his ability to write code.
However, regardless of whether or not it is correct, he is free to hold that
opinion, and so is free to put the credit into his software if he wants.

But
can his software then be included in KDE? As is apparent from the discussions
amongst KDE developers and users, the majority find his credit disagreeable,
either because they disagree with the statement itself, or don't think it
should be included in a KDE application because it would imply KDE as a whole
agrees with his credit. It is therefore proper that the credits be removed
in KDE.

That KDE's action caused Stevens to remove his applications from KDE is
unfortunate, but both parties are acting within their rights. However
absurd the decision seems, however much you'd rather they didn't act in the
way they did, one cannot say that they cannot act as they have.

This controversy highlights another political consideration often glossed over in the
wider hacker community: internal political and social relations. Communities
must address issues like that of Neil Stevens's credit and software patents
with a consistent ethical approach, or they will run
into trouble and controversy every time something like these cases comes
along. Some organisations, like Debian, have put a lot of effort into defining exactly how
the community handles political and social relations, so that responsibility
and authority is clearly and justly assigned, and decision-making processes
are clearly and justly defined. Others, like Gentoo and KDE, have few
relations clearly codified, and so whenever important decisions confront the
community, big debates flare up. These debates are no bad thing, so long as
the community doesn't become disenfranchised, and individuals don't feel
hostile towards the community and those in charge. But too often, it seems,
the debates result in a lot of bad feelings and a lot of lost talent.

It is time that Free Software communities took political and social
considerations more seriously; we simply cannot go on with large numbers of
people believing that politics has no place in Free Software, or that burying
one's head in the sand is a wise way to work. Every community should, once in
a while, step back and question it works; it seems that many communities are
long overdue for this political audit.

Tom Chance is a student reading Philosophy and Politics who uses and develops Free
Software. He is involved in several political campaigning
organisations, including the UK Campaign for
Digital Rights
and the Foundation for a
Free Information Infrastructure UK
.

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