Principles, Software and Freedom

Apologies to anyone that finds this preachy or holier-than-thou. I don’t consider myself immune to this criticism: my mobile phone still runs non-free software. I realize that what I describe here is a process for everyone. I’m just trying to make sure nobody gets too comfortable with the status quo.

It’s been interesting to see non-hackers finding inspiration in the free/open source software movement. In particular, I’ve been watching this phenomena for a couple years in the the non-profit and NGO sector. Folks in these groups are often very philosophically aligned with the freedom movement behind free software and there are a number of organizations that are involved in promoting free software and the ideas behind it to NGOs and beyond.

What’s amazing to me is that in many situations, major advocates of free and open source software in these areas — people who are advocating the software because of the freedom and not only for the pragmatic benefits — don’t actually use free software on their desktops or in other places they could.

Sure, everyone uses Firefox. Sure, everyone uses Apache and GNU/Linux for their web servers. Sure, everyone uses Drupal, Mambo, Plone, or another free CMS. But one can’t help but notice that Firefox, Apache, and free CMSs are higher quality, more featureful, and easier to use than the proprietary alternatives.

People arguing for free software from a principled position need to remember that principled positions are sometimes inconvenient. Free software is no exception. It’s frequently different, sometimes incompatible and a bit more work. In some situations (dare I say it?), it’s not as good as the proprietary alternatives.

We all need to remember that living a principled life is not always the easiest path. If you take a principled position against GMO foods or in favor of organic produce, you’ll probably spend more and shop farther from your house. Your favorite fruit may not be in season year-round. If you only buy fair-trade clothing, your garment choices will be cut down in ways that will sometimes be inconvenient.

It’s nice when taking a principled position also means you get to do what is most convenient. But there’s little principle in taking a principled position only when it’s convenient.

Yes. There are problems — often major — with free software: usability, documentation and otherwise. There are also ways to address these problems. Few of them require that you be or become hacker but almost all of them involve using the software first. I don’t have to think hard to recall all of the times I’ve received contributions (e.g., documentation, suggestions, translations, patches, etc.) from people who don’t use my software.

If you don’t think that spreading free software is an ethical act, you can happily ignore me. If you agree that it’s the right thing, think hard about your principles and challenge yourself to take the next step — whatever that is.

8 Replies to “Principles, Software and Freedom”

  1. Great post, in the other community I run in, church theology and praxis there is real discussion about understanding the principals of the free software world and applying them to how we do church.

    It is interesting because in that circle the most common OS is OS X. They know and embrace ideas like the creative commons, but applying those same ideals to software seems to be a leap they struggle with.

    How do you explain the basic ethos of the free software gang to people who don’t give a lick about computers?

  2. Great post!

    However, what about the cellphone problem? if you can’t find a software libre alternative, do you advocate using a non-free one? If using a cell phone with non-free software because there’s no alternative, why would be wrong to use, say, an (unexistant) Linux version of Google Earth?


  3. Yeah this practice is pretty prevelant in certain places that are supposed to be about freedom, for example Creative Commons itself is a mac shop. Infact I think the entire kapor complex is pretty maccy. Also its pretty bad when we ourselves are doing it, that is the ubuntu community, I am not refering to launchpad because I am pretty certain it will be released, what I am talking about is the ubuntu forums; guess what software they run, its certainly not one of the many free and exteremly versatile bb apps.

  4. I know that the OSI, ESR, and ink hate these sorts of argumens, but it is the ethical stance of free software which has always excited me, rather than the pragmatic technical reasons.  I spend so much time fighting with my computer when I use free software.  It can be a real pain to figure out how to get my wireless card to work or tweak my synaptics touchpad so the mouse doesn’t move when I’m typing.  I’ve spent days trying to figure this stuff out, when it just worked out of the box in Windows.  The ony way that I keep going is telling myself about the ethical reasons I switched to free software. 

    It is sad to me how many of my activist friends see computers only from a pragmatic side.  I have the hardest time persuading my activist friends about the ethical implications of free software.  In the US, free software hasn’t really attracted much of the activist crowd.  None of the people who I meet at anti-war rallies or peace and justice conventions seem to have even heard of the “free software movement” although they might have heard of “open source” trendiness.  I really don’t think that people in the free software movement have made much of an effort to reach out to other activist groups in the US. 

    I have been told that it is different in Europe and from what I have seen in Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, it is very different.  In those parts of Latin America, free software is linked to the “anti-globalization” movements.  I attended a GNU/Linux conference in Sucre, Bolivia in 2004 where Richard Stallman was invited to be the guest speaker.  In the discussion sessions that I attended, the panelists talked about how forming a national Linux LUG was more a political act, rather than a technical act.  A lot of the discussion was about the political implications of having a LUG. People wanted to use Linux to set up independent media hosting sites and community based forums. Stallman arrived at the end of the conference and gave the closing speech. I was intrigued by the way that Stallman described GNU/Linux as a kind of “globalization movement” that fought bad forms of globalization being promoted by multi-national corporations.  At the end of his speech he drank from a Pepsi bottle and told the crowd that he was boycotting Coke products because Coca-Cola subsidiaries have murdured 9 trade unionists in Colombia and Coca-Cola refuses to stop its bad business practices. 

    Quite frankly, Stallman’s Spanish was horrible–he approached the language like it was a computer language.  He knew the vocabulary and the synatax, but he talk like “a machine”–as one Bolivian described it.  Still, I was so pleased that someone like Stallman would come to a backwater place like Bolivia and try to link free software into their larger struggles for social justice–we need more of this sort of linkage between the the activist groups in the US.

  5. well.. i think a lot of activists and other people who might otherwise be well intentioned or in theory support the free software movement don’t enjoy using computers, so the thought of spending extra hours or days to learn/install something new is not what they want to do, even though this creates a sort of paradox.

  6. I think the word to define these people is bourgeois. I believe in America the bourgeois is composed mostly of college educated professionals who identify with the Democratic party or liberalism. Computer use is a lifestyle choice in this situation and non-free software companies (mostly Apple) have the most appealing lifestyle. Free Software has absolutely zero lifestyle in terms of popular computing in America, therefore it is unmarketable. When IBM had those (admitedly well made) Linux advertisements on television, all my friends were like, “hey, that’s the thing you use, right?” They didn’t identify with it at all and nor should they. I would like to see discussion of the question “how do you promote something to the American bourgeois that is fundementally unpromotable in popular culture?” Personally, I just stick to my guns and expect people to take me seriously when I tell them they shouldn’t run Windows in their Internet cafe.

  7. Nice article and comments…

    As you have rightly mentioned, taking principled stands almost always mean a lot more work, at the very least, a bit more work…while this is perhaps admirable – taking a principled stand and enduring the pain – it should also be realised that taking a principled stand does not necessarily mean ignoring the virtues of concepts that might not necessarily parallel those of the principled stands…

    The truth is, installing, using and living your life with many proprietary software is more easy for the common man than using many of the free or open software solutions…now, this is a virute that the world of proprietary software has – usability…I strongly feel the adherents of the free & open source movements should admit that this is a ease of use is major bottleneck in their solutions ( which is perhaps because of the hacker culture that is behind these solutions)…what is see is not however this…if I mention that Microsoft products are more easy to use for me, my Free or Open Software friends jump on me and argue for hours why that is not the case…and they are stupid on that account, because I am the user here and if I say Microsoft products are easy to use FOR ME, who are they to argue…this pig-headedness amongst some of these “principled stand takers” is what is bothering me, and this attitude could also become a serious bottleneck in the quick spread of such wonderful concepts such as free and open source software movements

    Ec @ <a href=””>Free & Open Source Software Database</a>

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