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”

Free Software, Free Society: Of Democracy and Hacking

When explaining why Free Software is important, one question that often comes up is: “do I really need the software freedom?”

The utility of software freedom is indeed not obvious for all. Not everyone can understand the source code of a program, and less modify it. It appears that the capacity to enjoy the four freedoms is only valuable to hackers and programmers. It’s hard to convince people to give up on proprietary software only for freedom’s sake, as long as they don’t understand the utility of that freedom.

It’s important to think of this issue not only as a singular commitment to freedom, but more as an issue of systems.

First, the fact that one cannot enjoy the freedom of something does not mean he does not enjoy its effects. The most obvious analogy here, are political systems. The Constitution is to sovereignty what a Free Software licence is to copyright. The Constitution that defines our political system gives to every citizen freedoms and rights, such as the right to run for an election.

Anyone can run for an election, but it does not mean that everyone will. Because not everyone has the capacity or the will to become a politician. This being said, would you say that Democracy does not matter because you do not want to be in politics? I guess most people would not say that.

It’s the same thing with Free Software. Anyone can use, share, study and improve the program. But the fact that you will not do that, does not mean that it’s not important to you. It’s important for the whole system. And the more important the system becomes, the more valuable is that freedom.

So unless you assume that software is not important, Software freedom is not important. But then, I suggest you shut down your computer and stop reading, take a flight and spend the rest of your days on a desert island.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the utility of software freedom. As more and more software is used in our society for important matters, more and more people should be able to understand the software. Otherwise complete control is given to others over yourself. Others will shape the system for you in order to get more control and more weight in the system.

That is why we need democratization of hacking. This will come naturally if Free Software is broadly used, because when one has the capacity to explore something, one will explore it, by curiosity at least. Just as Printing gave people the will to be able to read and then to write, computing will give people the will to be able to read and then to write. This is a long process of course. But this can be a far longer process if we use proprietary software: software you can’t read, nor modify, nor share.

Do we want a society of digital illiterates or a Free Society?