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”

16 thoughts on “Why Free Software matters for Society (draft)

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  3. Huh? It is true that for most users, access to source code is not important, neither are the rights to modify and share.
    Everybody can share the software and does so. By installing on a second or fifth PC without having to hassle with “Familiy Licenses” or by giving to the neighbour.

  4. It was totally misleading indeed. I was talking about the freedom to share your improvements. It is now changed to “publish your improvements”. Does it Sound better?

  5. “It is true that for most users, access to source code is not important, neither are the rights to modify and publish your improvements.”

    I’d change this to say…

    “It is true that for most users access to source code does not seem important, neither do the rights to modify and publish improvements.”

    But you’re still missing the benefit of having the source code and being able to ask for help from people who are interested and able to modify and publish improvements. When a family member complains that some software doesn’t work correctly, for example, it’s a huge benefit for them to have someone like us, who is able to improve the code on their behalf, make modifications and solve their problems.

  6. Thanks for your suggestion, I’ve modified the sentance.

    Indeed, I do not write about this benefit, because I think it is a more or less obvious benefit. What’s important is to tell the benefit of this right, even if you don’t know anyone personally who can take care of it.

    I don’t want to go in that way because it’s not the purpose of this text, whereas other texts are already much better to explain this.

  7. I don’t find the democracy metaphor very convincing. If we’re trying to educate people on the political effects of open software we shouldn’t sell them illusions on a political system that is corrupt to the core. I mean the way politics are bought and sold in Washington by the lobby groups (see for instance http://lessig.blip.tv/).
    I think the metaphor of the Commons is much more illuminating. The Commons was the communal space in the old villages (you will still find it in some Greek villages) that was kept and used not by a single owner but by the community as a whole. The Native Americans lost everything because they couldn’t grasp the notion of private property of commodities they only thought could belong to the tribe as a whole. Access and use and contribution to a common public sphere is the center of the concept of a Commons. In a world of open connections and open collaboration between people all over the world the privatization concept of Capitalism is becoming a wall, a fence that is limiting to further cultural and intellectual development.
    Copyrights and patents are limiting to possibilities to use th ecollective wealth of human kind more and more (think only of the lifes that could be saved if the patents on medicines would be more limited in time), See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commons and http://www.onthecommons.org/

  8. I was not trying to make a metaphor. Democracy and Free Software are two different things, I was just trying to bring a simple argument: “it’s important to be free of doing something, it’s doesn’t mean you have to do it, but the fact that others can do that is important even for you.” This argument is valable in a Democracy (the election system) and also in Free Software (the possibility to study, modify and publish source code).

    I do not see any incompatibility with the theory of the commons. However, I would not necessarily oppose “capitalism” to the “commons” because it is more complicated than that and capitalism is not to be confounded with private property.

    I think Amartya Sen has an interesting point about that:
    “What are the special characteristics that make a system indubitably capitalist—old or new? If the present capitalist economic system is to be reformed, what would make the end result a new capitalism, rather than something else? It seems to be generally assumed that relying on markets for economic transactions is a necessary condition for an economy to be identified as capitalist. In a similar way, dependence on the profit motive and on individual rewards based on private ownership are seen as archetypal features of capitalism. However, if these are necessary requirements, are the economic systems we currently have, for example, in Europe and America, genuinely capitalist?” See his answer (in part) here: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/22490

    Nevertheless, thanks for your comment. It is important and interesting, however I don’t think it is the purpose of this text.

  9. 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 also good for business and for education. Because if your creation is better than the competition, you are allowed to start yourself.

    I don’t think this does explain why Free Software is good for business. Consider Shane Coughlan’s talk at CeBIT 2009. Free Software is good because it allows businesses to focus on the differentiators: the parts of the product that will sell it, rather than the portions that are necessary but not immediately visible to the customer. That’s what got my last two employers to sell products containing Free Software despite being scared to death by the GPL.

    I also agree with paul that the democracy analogy isn’t useful. You could make the same analogy with Communism or even the French republic. Then consider that (a) It’s patronising to imply that these same freedoms aren’t present in alternative systems and (b) It wasn’t exactly easy for Algeria to ‘fork’ itself from France.

  10. 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.
    I do like this line :-) . That’s important for businesses too.

  11. Indeed, I think I should remove this reference to Free Software in business, it is too elusive and incomplete.

    However I don’t see the connection with communism.

    As far as the analogy with the election system goes, here is why I’ve chosen to speak about Democracy. I think Free Software is an information system, in which information is released from barriers of the past: physical barriers and copyright barriers. Democracy is a political system, in which (among other things) power is released from some barriers of the past: kings and churches (to do it very very fast).

    The reason why I connected those systems is, as I said above, they imply basic principles of freedom: you have the right to do that, you don’t have to, but it’s important for you and for the system.

    And I thought that this very principle has 2 perfect illustrations,
    - the Free Software Licence which grants you rights to use, study, share and improve the program.
    - political elections which grant you (if you are 18) rights to be candidate and to vote.

    The actual analogy belongs in those two.
    Is it more convincing for you? Tell me what you think, it’s important to go further and be more precise so that the text really explains the idea ;)

  12. The communism analogy is at least 50 years out of date, but I’m sure it seemed pretty free to a lot of people at the time. The totalitarianism it led to certainly doesn’t resemble Free Software.

    I wouldn’t characterise the governing structure of many Free Software projects as democratic, so I tend to find such analogies confusing. The freedoms of democracy aren’t really analogous to the freedoms of Free Software.

    I see Free Software as more like a public service. Take the road system for example, usage (driving), study (mapping and road signs), sharing (bring passengers or hitchhikers, give people directions) are three obvious freedoms and if you write to the maintainers (government), you could probably even improve it. This analogy is particularly relevant in the UK, where the current road system superceded a (failed) system of toll roads which forms an interesting analogy with non-free software.

  13. I never assumed that Free Software projects’ governance is democratic and I don’t think the analogy ever pretends to do so, nor to assume that freedoms of democracy are the same as freedoms in Free Software. Of course, Free Software is not a political system. Can you quote me a part in the text that lead to such a confusion?

  14. Interesting thoughts. Although to which ‘constitution’ do you refer? Is this not for the fsfe?

    Reading between the lines it seems that you’re basically trying to suggest that free software is just as important as democracy is to our freedom – I would probably argue that it is a more basic human right than that, but it’s a fair enough idea. But I think looking for a deeper similarity beyond that doesn’t really work. For one, people just don’t understand democracy anyway – if they did how could they let the flag-bearer democratic nation turn into such a kleptocracy/corporacy? (and the rest of the west is not far behind). The free software movement certainly has a political nature to it, but I don’t think that should be associated with any given system of politics, particularly one so tainted. (call me a cynic, but to me democracy is just a circus show to distract the population from what’s really going on :-( ).

    As far as analogies go, i’m partial to a cooking analogy, although I’m not sure it would work in this particular document. It is a much more basic right and requirement for living than roads or cars or ‘mp3′ players, or even a political system (every citizen of every country is free to cook, even those without other freedoms). And it works more like software does – a list of steps to follow which produces something greater than it’s parts, i.e. it is based on similar `imaginary property’.

    Like software, cooking is consumed by everyone – and so important you cannot function without it (even in the extremely unlikely event you do not use it directly yet, something you rely on does), like software anyone can learn to cook if they want, but like software some people are better at it than others or choose not to, and like software, everything new is just the old with a bit of extra spice, or applying existing techniques in novel ways – it is *always* building on the past.

    Imagine how poor our *society* would be without the free flow of ideas and techniques about cooking. Imagine if you couldn’t see something you liked at a restaurant, and try to re-create it at home for your family and friends without the threat of being thrown in gaol. Or even make your own version to serve in your own restaurant or sell in a packet if you so desired. Or if you had to pay a license fee for every special ingredient or preparation technique you used.

    What if some businessman or woman in the USA had a patent on Chinese food and required per-instance licensing fees, with no derivations!

    Absurd? Certainly. Yet that is precisely the position we find ourselves in with patents.

    (although to be honest, that last point might make `Mexican’ food around here palatable ;-)

    … back to the article …

    I do have a problem with this particular statement:

    “The utility of software freedom is not obvious for all because only few have the capacity to enjoy hacking.”

    This puts hackers in some sort of ivory tower, and turns computers into boxes of magic. Neither is true, computers are just a machine that most people would be capable of controlling to some degree or another. I had to do a little programming in high-school … and everyone passed – we all wrote some sort of software without much problem. I don’t know if this still happens – now it seems people `train’ to use computers as an appliance, they don’t `learn’ about them. And I think it partially contradicts a later statement:

    “Thus, Free Software concurs to a system in which developers and users are equal and potential hackers. ”

    Although technically correct, I would probably avoid the use of the word ‘hacker’ as well, particularly right now with all that’s been in the news lately.