When I explain the importance of free software, I often use some variation of the following example:
Suppose I see a beautiful sunset and I want to describe it to a loved one on the other side of the world. Today’s communication technology makes this possible. In the process, however, the technology in question puts constraints on message communicated. For example, if I pick up my cellphone, my description of the sunset will be limited to words and sounds that can be transmitted by phone. If I happen to have a camera phone and the ability to send a picture message, I will be able to communicate a very different type of description. If I’m limited to 150 characters in an SMS message, my message will be constrained differently again.
The point of the example is this: the technology I use to communicate puts limits and constraints on my communication. Technology defines what I can say, how I can say it, when I can say it, and even who I can say it to.
This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the nature of technology. But it means that those who control our technology control us, to some degree. As information technology becomes increasingly central to our lives, the way we experience, understand, and act in the world is increasingly controlled by technology and, by extension, by those who control technology.
I believe that the single most important struggle for freedom in the twenty first century is over the question of who will set these terms. Who will control the technology that controls our lives?
Free software can be understood as an answer to this question: An answer in the form of an unambiguous statement that technology must be under the control of its users. When free software triumphs, we will live in a world where users control their technological destiny. We simply cannot afford to fail.
The Free Software Foundation is the most important organization fighting for the rights of users in this struggle. Here are some of the ways that I plan to direct the FSF to support software freedom in the coming year:
Last year, the FSF organized a meeting on software freedom and network services that lead to the creation of the Autonomo.us group and the release of the Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services. As network services — like those built by Facebook, Google, and others — continue rise in popularity, progress in this conversation is of increasing importance.
This year, I will direct the FSF to build on the work of Autonomo.us to launch the first of what I hope will be several FSF position statements on software freedom and network services. More importantly, the FSF will begin to provide support and planning for solutions — technologies, social campaigns, and legal steps — that will protect computer users whose freedom is currently threatened by network services.
Enforcing free software licenses
Early on, people who decided to work on free software did so because they agreed with — or, at the very least, were willing to abide by — the principles and rules laid out in our licenses. In our push for software freedom, we have created software of immense value and attracted companies and individuals to our community who are less willing, or simply less interested, in protecting users’ freedom.
In December 2008, the FSF went to court for the first time in the organization’s history to force Cisco to uphold the freedom of the users of FSF copyrighted software. This lawsuit asks Cisco to live up to its obligations under the GPL and to ensure that it does so in the future. The FSF needs the support of its community in this and in future enforcement actions.
The FSF has operated a compliance lab for several years and has ensured software freedom for countless users. As free software becomes more successful in the next year, the FSF will be playing an increased role in protecting software freedom from those who do not share its principles.
Continuing the fight against software patents
As I said last year, one cannot write non-trivial software today without running a serious risk of infringing patents. The software patent minefield we’ve found ourselves in is a very fundamental threat to the success of free software and we’ve already begun to see the first casualties and costs. We must eliminate software patents. Now. The FSF will continue its work toward this end.
The FSF’s End Software Patents project’s major contribution this year was a brief submitted in the In Re Bilski case at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Recently, an opinion was issued which seems to mark an important shift away from broad protection for software patents. With this victory, now is the time to keep up this momentum. The FSF is drawing up a strategy to do just this and will be announcing the relaunch of its campaign on February 9,2009 led by Ciaran O’Riordan.
Every recent fundraising appeal seems to mention the difficult economic climate and it seems to cliche to do so here. That said, the effect of a bad economy is, in fact, felt most strongly in non-profits dependent on donations. The FSF is not immune.
The FSF’s work is essential for success on the issues I’ve described here and on all of its other campaigns and projects. Although the cost of a membership or donation may be less easy to afford this year for many of you, the free software movement cannot afford a weakened FSF at this important moment.
If you are not an FSF associate member, now is the time to become one. If you are already a member, please join me in giving generously through a tax-deductible donation. The FSF is a very lean, very humble organization of passionate and dedicated individuals working tirelessly for software freedom. Every single gift makes a difference.