Broadly Defined Freedom: Radical Nondiscrimination in Free Software

Author:Benjamin Mako Hill
Date:Tuesday, 5 July 2005
Affiliation:Ubuntu Project / Debian Project


This talk was delivered at Libre Software Meeting (LSM/RMLL) 2005 in Dijon, France. More information on this talk my other talks is available at



SLIDE 1: Title

I first talked about these ideas at LSM two years ago in a theme that was about taking libre software outside of IT. This theme made me consider what it was about free software that could be applied?

Rather than try to theorize, I looked around. What I saw was many people working on FOSS from many perspectives.

What we can learn from libre software is not that a particular set of ethics, values, or politics is necessary to a practice but that certain social structures and practices encourage the cultivation and growth of productive ethics, values, and politics.

Broadly Defined Freedom, based around the idea of radical non-discrimination is one extremely productive aspect of free software.

Reductive Analyses of Libre Software

Many (perhaps most) social critiques of libre software approach libre software in a reductive fashion.

Here are three example that I'll come back to at the end of my talk:


SLIDE 2: Reductionists says libre software is inherently anti-capitalist.

  1. Libre software is inherently anti-capitalist.


SLIDE 3: Reductionists says libre software is inherently capitalist.

  1. Libre software is inherently capitalist.


SLIDE 4: Reductionists says libre software is inherently a system about limiting capitalism.

  1. Libre software is inherently a system about limiting capitalism.

No two of the above claims can be correct. But the fundamental flaw is not in that each group is wrong but that the way they trying to approach free software -- as reductionists -- is wrong.

Rather than creating an answer through reductive or essentialist analysis, I prefer a sociological/anthropological method.

Freedom -- Broadly Defined

I believe that Free Software is broadly defined. But "broadly defined" is still defined.

There exist definitions of Libre/Free/Open software to which everyone who does free software is committed...


SLIDE 5: Broadly Defined Freedom / The FSD

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
  4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits

OSD and DFSG are just re-articulations -- checklists -- around the same concepts. OS and FS are different terms around a single name.


SLIDE 6: Radical Non-Discrimination

At the center of each of these freedoms is a concept of radical non-discrimination.

In turn, what this leads to is the idea that ideas can be easily translated from one field to another both inside and outside of the projects.

While there is significantly different emphasis on the meaning and/or importance of this freedom within different groups, a concept of freedom (that includes radical non-discrimination, uninhibited use and re-use, transparency, among others) plays a central role.

Political Divisions

Within Development Communities


SLIDE 7: Political Division in Developer Communities

Within the larger libre software community, broadly defined freedom is interpreted very differently by:

  • The free software movement (FSF, Richard Stallman, etc.):
    • Emphasizes freedom
    • Offers critique of the larger system of software intellectual property
    • Emphasizes philosophical and civil libertarian advantages.
  • The Open Source movement (OSI, etc.):
    • Focuses on libre software more as a development methodology than a social movement
    • Emphasizes pragmatic advantages

Within Libre Software User Communities


SLIDE 8: Political Division in User Communities

Had libre software been codified as "left" or "right" it would not be as easily approachable by a diverse group of users.

The same pieces of libre software are put in use by those groups I alluded to earlier with their quotes:

  • There are anarchists, communists, fascists and transnational companies that use, often emphatically, the Linux Kernel or Apache
  • Debian has a following that includes fascists, anarchists, communists, and everyone in between -- there was almost a meeting to sign keys from a protester visiting a political convention and a delegate to the convention.

e.g., Software written by Indymedia (a radical left media organization) software with general uses, is unused outside of the political left.

Software that is identified strictly with a particular political community is more difficult to take out of that community.

While Taking Libre Software Out of the IT Sphere

This is where things get fun.

Each of the three organizations mentioned earlier see libre software as a model on which they can base their philosophy and actions for the purposes of contradictory goals.

We briefly can walk through the list once again:

  • Indymedia (radical anti-capitalist left)
  • I.B.M. (capitalist)
  • The emerging commons movement led by Lawrence Lessig and David Bollier (arguing for limitations on capitalism);



SLIDE 9: Indymedia

  • Global collective of loosely affiliated grassroots online media websites and non-virtual spaces
  • Be the media
  • Identified as part of the anti-corporate and counter-globalization movement
  • See FOSS philosophy as aligned with their goals and visions for openness, media-reform, and large-scale socio-political justice
  • Indicative of a large sort of relationship between the anti-globalization community and free software tied to information and property ownership more generally
  • FOSS seen as an alternative to capitalist forms of production



SLIDE 10: I.B.M.

  • Over USD 81 billion in yearly revenue
  • Largest patent filer in the world -- including many software patents
  • IBM recognizes FOSS as more agile and profitable than proprietary models in many situations, IBM was quick to embrace FOSS.
  • Looking to FOSS as a way to "commoditize" software
  • Played an interesting role in regards to the SCO case

The Commons Movement


SLIDE 11: The Commons Movement

  • Critique of neo-liberalism
  • Uses the metaphor of the commons to argue for legally protected resources and knowledge available for use by all
  • FOSS is seen as proof that commons are achievable and as a model of the process through which they can be created
  • Creative Commons is a major example of an organization. Bollier and Lessig are leading commons figures



SLIDE 12: Problems

Conclusions / Lessons


SLIDE 13: Conclusions

Avoid Reductive Analysis:
It's often just not true and is a poor fit for Free Software
Balance Breadth With Rigid Limits
Free software's major success is that it's done both.
Discriminate Against Discrimination
The central role of non-discrimination has made free software more easily translateable and more agile within different political communities.
Consider "Internal" and "External Relationships"
Dealing with user and developer communities