Why Free Software matters for Society (draft)

Please give me your feedback on this draft article ;) It is intended for publication on FSFE.org so for now it is All Rights reserved.


Free Software is defined by four freedoms, and intends to create ethical relationships in the digital age of society, based on trust, responsibility and freedom.

In a world where we rely increasingly upon Information Technologies such as software and networks, it is important to realize software is more than code. The effects of programs go beyond the limited scope of developers, and contribute to shape our future.

The Free Software movement aims at making this future possible for everyone by ensuring fundamental principles of freedom for all, equally.

In order to achieve this goal, Richard M. Stallman defined four freedoms. At first sight however, these criteria are only valuable to hackers and developers. It is true that for most users access to source code does not seem important, neither do the rights to modify and publish improvements. The utility of software freedom is not obvious for all because only few have the capacity to enjoy hacking.

Free Software is valuable to society since it enables the emergence of a system, in the same perspective as Democracy. Democracy leads to the transformation of political systems, especially towards more freedom for all. However, in order to achieve this the political system goes through several steps before everyone value political rights. The fact that someone cannot enjoy the freedom given by the system does not mean he cannot enjoy its effects. To illustrate this, think of the process of an election.

The Constitution gives to every citizen over a certain age the right to be candidate in a political election. But it does not mean that everyone will, because only some citizens have the capacity and want to become politicians. Would you say that Democracy does not matter because you do not want to be in politics? No, the scope of Democracy is larger than just the election system. Whether you participate directly or not, you as a citizen enjoy the effects of freedom in your political system.

Quite the same distinction occurs in Free Software. Its licences grant rights to use, share, study and improve the program. But it does not mean that everyone will. These rights are fundamental for the software system because nothing stops you if you want to learn how software works or how to read source code. It depends on your own choice.

Thus, Free Software concurs to a system in which developers and users are equal and potential hackers. It results in a system in which freedom and equality are at core. That is also why Free Software is good for business and for education. Because if your creation is better than the competition, you are allowed to start yourself.

It is also important for education because Free Software gives everyone the right to read and understand source code. And this is a very important step toward a free society in the digital age, when technology will be even more invasive. It is important that more people are able to read and modify source code, so that it is not an extreme minority of people who shape the system for us.

This is a question of social control. What freedom will we have in a society of digital illiterates? Free Software enables people to be in control in digital society and gives the possibility to learn, to read and to write.

“Free Software, Free Society”

The end of privacy on facebook

At last, privacy is becoming a hot issue, in a world where everyone is tracked by companies and by the State, and in which information is shared more easily through networks. We can now potentially share everything with the whole world in an instant. The Internet is now accessible by almost every mobile phone.

Obviously, the consequences are huge, not only technically, but also on our behaviour. Social practices evolve with technologies, so is our conception of privacy. We are now willing to show more, to publish more. For my generation, it seems like the complex of privacy or intimacy is now gone.

Or, is it?

Maybe not. Because in spite of all these practices of sharing almost everything on the Web, recently the issue of privacy has risen. Politicians in France came up with a “right to oblivion” which consists in allowing everyone a kind of absolute “property” on everything that is published by (or about) you on the Web.

But very recently, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg claimed:

“The Age of Privacy is Over”
ReadWriteWeb

This echoes the changes in privacy settings and privacy policy that Facebook has undertaken in December, for which a lot of people are complaining. They are now concerned about the respect of their privacy, after having published so much things.

It’s not that I’m particularly enjoying this trend towards less privacy and more publicity, I am myself a hardcore advocate of privacy (which is the reason why I use encryption for my emails and do not use Gmail). But however, I am really welcoming this change in the Facebook policy. Here’s why.

Let’s have a look at what happened. In the beginning of December, Facebook updated the privacy settings with new default options which were seen as less “protective with privacy.” Since a lot of people are using the default options, a lof of things published, which were intended to be accessible only to a restrictive list of people, called “friends;” suddenly went more public. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s pictures were then publicly available (and it was certainly not a mistake).

So how did we get there? What explains this strategic change at Facebook?

The first mistake was to even consider in the first place that there is such thing as privacy on Facebook.

Facebook is about sharing. The only major difference in its concept compared to other services like YouTube is that the sharing is not focused on content (YouTube is focused on videos), but it is focused on individuals. The way streams are organized is not as much on what is said, as to whom and by whom it is said.

Nevertheless that does not change the fact that whatever is shared, is public. It maybe to a restrictive audience in the first place, but it is public, especially when you have more than 50 “friends” (which is the case for almost everybody). So from there, I find it’s particularly incoherent to concern about privacy, because such a privacy is illusion and in contradiction with Facebook’s utility.

The argument that there was a kind of implicit agreement between Facebook and its users that what is published should be kept private is pure nonsense. It is true that in the beginning Facebook was only for students and so it was a restrictive enough network. But it is a long time since Facebook is not a Harvard community anymore. It’s now a worldwide company.

And like every company of this size, you do not control it, you do not own it. Behind, there are commercial incentives, and certainly not poeple without ulterior motives… People who used to think Facebook was compatible with privacy were wrong.

Because technically privacy needs certain rules and practices to be protected. Think of the issue of private communication (snail mails, emails, instant messaging). Why do you use an envelop when you send a letter? This is a technical measure you take in order to protect your own privacy.

On the Internet, we also have laws to protect privacy (or at least we try). The problem is that everyone forgot to take care of their own privacy. Why is almost nobody using encryption when sending an email?

On Facebook, such precautions cannot exist because you would not control them. And even when you think you are in control of your data, you are not. Because all your data are in their databases. You cannot trust them on that. You have no means to make sure that your privacy is respected. Moreover, it is nonsense to give up the respect of your privacy to others, even more to a business that is based on advertisement and marketing your data.

If you go on with trying to keep things private on Facebook, you will end up with problems every single time they change something. And since they don’t have a very strong business model right now, it is likely to change again. My feeling on this is that Facebook needs to be more open and tends to look like Twitter: more public, more audience, more information, more sharing… more advertisement.

My advice is that you should always keep in mind: everything you publish on the Internet will be public, especially when you don’t control your publication with your own trusted server. And whatever concerns your intimacy should not be on the public Web. You don’t need the Web to share your photos with true friends, you have emails or instant messaging (e.g. jabber).

Finally, if you want to enjoy social networks you have to accept the way it works. Like everything social, it can be the subject of social studies, or economic interests, or marketing. And what is social on the Web belongs to the public sphere. Your privacy does not belong to the public sphere. Accept that, and publish whatever you want with maximum openness and you will see how much you will enjoy websites like Facebook without being worried for your privacy.


This was previously published in French on my personal weblog.

Fellows: getting started with Blogging!

You just joined the Fellowship and you are thinking about publishing some thoughts you’d like to share about Free Software. Then, I hope this little guide will ease your blogging and help you enjoy at most your experience inside the FSFE Fellowship.

Create your own blog

Once you have successfully completed your Fellow subscription, just go to http://blogs.fsfe.org/YOURNICKNAME/wp-admin and enter your password (the same as in the other Fellowship services like Jabber). You have now accessed the WordPress administration, from which you will be able to write new articles, organize your content, customize your blog, etc. If you are not familiar with the blog application, there are several documentations on the Web.

If you already have a blog and that you don’t want to use blogs.fsfe.org ; keep reading to know how to integrate your blog into the Fellowship planet.

Tags, Categories and Language

Organizing the content of your blog is important if you want people to find easily what they’re interested in. Tags also give your audience a clear idea of what you’re talking about precisely. However, you might be confused between tags and categories. Well, you’re not the only one in that case.

Moreover, we aren’t all English speakers, and most of us want to blog both in English and in our mother tongue.

So we came up with a quite simple solution. Tags are used to carry content, subjects, whereas Categories are used for languages (and if you want you can also use categories for classification).

This blog post is categorized as English, and tagged as Fellowship, FSFE, Howto.

Get your blog in the Planet

The Fellowship Planet is an aggregation tool that publish blog posts from our fellows. There is a planet for different languages: English, German, French, Spanish, etc.

If you want to get into this planet, please send an email to fellowship-hackers at fsfeurope dot org with the following information,

  • RSS feed for the language; so, if you’ve created an English category you should have an RSS feed for that category, e.g. see Matthias’ English category, http://blogs.fsfe.org/mk/?feed=rss2&cat=708. Note that you can play with the options to have a little more explicit RSS URL.
  • The name under which you would like your blog to be published.
  • Your Hackergotchi, in 80×80 px and PNG format

Pimp your blog

We have several plugins like Sociable, Identi.ca Tools, or Spam Karma (though some don’t advise to use this tool). To be continued. Tell us, how did you pimp your blog? What do you advise?