Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

Sustainable Computing

Recent discussions about the purpose and functioning of the FSFE have led me to consider the broader picture of what I would expect Free Software and its developers and advocates to seek to achieve in wider society. It was noted, as one might expect, that as a central component of its work the FSFE seeks to uphold the legal conditions for the use of Free Software by making sure that laws and regulations do not discriminate against Free Software licensing.

This indeed keeps the activities of Free Software developers and advocates viable in the face of selfish and anticompetitive resistance to the notions of collaboration and sharing we hold dear. Advocacy for these notions is also important to let people know what is possible with technology and to be familiar with our rich technological heritage. But it turns out that these things, although rather necessary, are not sufficient for Free Software to thrive.

Upholding End-User Freedoms

Much is rightfully made of the four software freedoms: to use, share, study and modify, and to propagate modified works. But it seems likely that the particular enumeration of these four freedoms was inspired (consciously or otherwise) by those famously stated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 “State of the Union” address.

Although some of Roosevelt’s freedoms are general enough to be applicable in any number of contexts (freedom of speech and freedom from want, for instance), others arguably operate on a specific level appropriate for the political discourse of the era. His freedom from fear might well be generalised to go beyond national aggression and to address the general fears and insecurities that people face in their own societies. Indeed, his freedom of worship might be incorporated into a freedom from persecution or freedom from prejudice, these latter things being specialised but logically consequent forms of a universal freedom from fear.

But what might end-users have to fear? The list is long indeed, but here we might as well make a start. They might fear surveillance, the invasion of their privacy and of being manipulated to their disadvantage, the theft of their data, their identity and their belongings, the loss of their access to technology, be that through vandalism, technological failure or obsolescence, or the needless introduction of inaccessible or unintuitive technology in the service of fad and fashion.

Using technology has always entailed encountering risks, and the four software freedoms are a way of mitigating those risks, but as technology has proliferated it would seem that additional freedoms, or additional ways of asserting these freedoms, are now required. Let us look at some areas where advocacy and policy work fail to reach all by themselves.

Cultivating Free Software Development

Advocating for decent laws and the fair treatment of Free Software is an essential part of organisations like the FSFE. But there also has to be Free Software out in the wider world to be treated fairly, and here we encounter another absent freedom. Proponents of the business-friendly interpretation of “open source” insist that Free Software happens all by itself, that somewhere someone will find the time to develop a solution that is ripe for wider application and commercialisation.

Of course, this neglects the personal experience of any person actually doing Free Software development. Even if people really are doing a lot of development work in their own time, playing out their roles precisely as cast in the “sharing economy” (which rather seems to be about wringing the last drops of productivity out of the lower tiers of the economy than anyone in the upper tiers actually participating in any “sharing”), it is rather likely that someone else is really paying their bills, maybe an employer who pays them to do something else during the day. These people squeeze their Free Software contributions in around the edges, hopefully not burning themselves out in the process.

Freedom from want, then, very much applies to Free Software development. For those who wish to do the right thing and even get paid for it, the task is to find a sympathetic employer. Some companies do indeed value Free Software enough to pay people to develop it, maybe because those companies provide such software themselves. Others may only pay people as a consequence of providing non-free software or services that neglect some of the other freedoms mentioned above. And still others may just treat Free Software as that magical resource that keeps on providing code for nothing.

Making sure that Free Software may actually be developed should be a priority for anyone seriously advocating Free Software adoption. Otherwise, it becomes a hypothetical quantity: something that could be used for serious things but might never actually be observed in such forms, easily dismissed as the work of “hobbyists” and not “professionals”, never mind that the same people can act in either capacity.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to suggest for this need. It is fair to state that with a genuine “business case”, Free Software can get funded and find its audience, but that often entails a mixture of opportunism, the right connections, and an element of good fortune, as well as the mindset needed to hustle for business that many developers either do not have or do not wish to cultivate. It also assumes that all Free Software worth funding needs to have some kind of sales value, whereas much of the real value in Free Software is not to be found in things that deliver specific solutions: it is in the mundane infrastructure code that makes such solutions possible.

Respecting the User

Those of us who have persuaded others to use Free Software have not merely been doing so out of personal conviction that it is the ethically-correct thing for us and those others to use. There are often good practical reasons for using Free Software and asserting control over computing devices, even if it might make a little more work for us when things do not work as they should.

Maybe the risks of malware or experience of such unpleasantness modifies attitudes, combined with a realisation that not much help is actually to be had with supposedly familiar and convenient (and illegally bundled) proprietary software when such malevolence strikes. The very pragmatism that Free Software advocates supposedly do not have – at least if you ask an advocate for proprietary or permissively-licensed software – is, in fact, a powerful motivation for them to embrace Free Software in the first place. They realise that control is an illusion without the four software freedoms.

But the story cannot end with the user being able to theoretically exercise those freedoms. Maybe they do not have the time, skills or resources to do so. Maybe they cannot find someone to do so on their behalf, perhaps because nobody is able to make a living performing such services. And all the while, more software is written, deployed and pushed out globally. Anyone who has seen familiar user interfaces becoming distorted, degraded, unfamiliar, frustrating as time passes, shaped by some unfathomable agenda, knows that only a very well-resourced end-user would be able to swim against such an overpowering current.

To respect the user must involve going beyond acknowledging their software freedoms and also acknowledge their needs: for secure computing environments that remain familiar (even if that seems “boring”), that do not change abruptly (because someone had a brainwave in an airport lounge waiting to go to some “developer summit” or other), that allow sensible customisation that can be reconciled with upstream improvements (as opposed to imposing a “my way or the highway”, “delete your settings” ultimatum). It involves recognising their investment in the right thing, not telling them that they have to work harder, or to buy newer hardware, just to keep up.

And this also means that the Free Software movement has to provide answers beyond those concerning the nature of the software. Free Software licensing does not have enough to say about privacy and security, let alone how those things might be upheld in the real world. Yet such concerns do impact Free Software developers, meaning that some kinds of solutions do exist that might benefit a wider audience. Is it not time to deliver things like properly secure communications where people can trust the medium, verify who it is that sends them messages, ignore the time-wasters, opportunists and criminals, and instead focus on the interactions that are meaningful and important?

And is it not time that those with the knowledge and influence in the Free Software realm offered a more coherent path to achieving this, instead of all the many calls for people to “use encryption” only to be presented with a baffling array of options and a summary that combines “it’s complicated” with “you’re on your own”? To bring the users freedom from the kind of fear they experience through a lack of privacy and security? It requires the application of technical knowledge, certainly, but it also requires us to influence the way in which technology is being driven by forces in wider society.

Doing the Right Thing

Free Software, especially when labelled as “open source”, often has little to say about how the realm of technology should evolve. Indeed, Free Software has typically reacted to technological evolution, responding to the demands of various industries, but not making demands of its own. Of course, software in itself is generally but a mere instrument to achieve other things, and there are some who advocate a form of distinction between the specific ethics of software freedom and ethics applying elsewhere. For them, it seems to be acceptable to promote “open source” while undermining the rights and freedoms of others.

Our standards should be far higher than that! Although there is a logical argument to not combine other considerations with the clearly-stated four software freedoms, it should not stop us from complementing those freedoms with statements of our own values. Those who use or are subject to our software should be respected and their needs safeguarded. And we should seek to influence the development of technology to uphold our ideals.

Let us consider a mundane but useful example. The World Wide Web has had an enormous impact on society, providing people with access to information, knowledge, communication, services on a scale and with a convenience that would have been almost unimaginable only a few decades ago. In the beginning, it was slow (due to bandwidth limitations, even on academic networks), it was fairly primitive (compared to some kinds of desktop applications), and it lacked support for encryption and sophisticated interactions. More functionality was needed to make it more broadly useful for the kinds of things people wanted to see using it.

In the intervening years, a kind of “functional escalation” has turned it into something that is indeed powerful, with sophisticated document rendering and interaction mechanisms, perhaps achieving some of the ambitions of those who were there when the Web first gathered momentum. But it has caused a proliferation of needless complexity, as sites lazily call out to pull down megabytes of data to dress up significantly smaller amounts of content, as “trackers” and “analytics” are added to spy on the user, as absurd visual effects are employed (background videos, animated form fields), with the user’s computer now finding it difficult to bear the weight of all this bloat, and with that user struggling to minimise their exposure to privacy invasions and potential exploitation.

For many years it was a given that people would, even should, upgrade their computers regularly. It was almost phrased as a public duty by those who profited from driving technological progress in such a selfish fashion. As is frequently the case with technology, it is only after people have realised what can be made possible that they start to consider whether it should have been made possible at all. Do we really want to run something resembling an operating system in a Web browser? Is it likely that this will be efficient or secure? Can we trust the people who bring us these things, their visions, their competence?

The unquestioning proliferation of technology poses serious challenges to the well-being of individuals and the ecology of our planet. As people who have some control over the way technology is shaped and deployed, is it not our responsibility to make sure that its use is not damaging to its users, that it does not mandate destructive consumer practices, that people can enjoy the benefits – modest as they often are when the background videos and animated widgets are stripped away – without being under continuous threat of being left behind, isolated, excluded because their phone or computer is not this season’s model?

Strengthening Freedoms

In rather too many words, I have described some of the challenges that need to be confronted by Free Software advocates. We need to augment the four software freedoms with some freedoms or statements of our own. They might say that the software and the solutions we want to develop and to encourage should be…

  • Sustainable to make: developers and their collaborators should be respected, their contributions fairly rewarded, their work acknowledged and sustained by those who use it
  • Sustainable to choose and to use: adopters should have their role recognised, with their choices validated and rewarded through respectful maintenance and evolution of the software on which they have come to depend
  • Encouraging of sustainable outcomes: the sustainability of the production and adoption of the software should encourage sustainability in other ways, promoting longevity, guarding against obsolescence, preventing needless and frivolous consumption, strengthening society and making it fairer and more resilient

It might be said that in order to have a fairer, kinder world there are no shortage of battles to be fought. With such sentiments, the discussion about what more might be done is usually brought to a swift conclusion. In this article, I hope to have made a case that what we can be doing is often not so different from what we are already doing.

And, of course, this brings us back to the awkward matter of why we, or the organisations we support, are not always so enthusiastic about these neglected areas of concern. Wouldn’t we all be better off by adding a dimension of sustainability to the freedoms we already recognise and enjoy?

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