The free software movement is one of the most successful social movements to arise from computing culture, driven by a worldwide community of ethical programmers dedicated to the cause of freedom and sharing. But the ultimate success of the free software movement depends upon teaching our friends, neighbors and work colleagues about the danger of not having software freedom, about the danger of a society losing control over its computing. – Free Software Foundation
I’m trying to remember when I first tried out free software. Did I do it because it was free, as in it cost nothing? Was that all there was to it? Or was there something deeper, a pull that went beyond the basic issues of a computer and convenience to the core of what it means to be able to be free rather than have free stuff.
For many people these issues may seem irrelevant. After all, think about every computing service you use. It’s all free, isn’t it? Yes you pay for hardware, your laptop, your phone, your tablet, but then pretty much everything you use costs nothing or it’s a subscription, something you pay as long as you use that service. It’s free, it’s easy and that’s all there is to it surely? Or is it?
The Right to Read
In 1997 Richard Stallman published a fictional article called “The Right to Read”. It projected a future where you weren’t allowed to read anything unless you agreed to be monitored and followed the rules set by those in power, typically governments, corporations and institutions.
Think about this for a minute. It seems farfetched. Is there anything you do today that doesn’t require you to agree to be monitored? For example, I wanted to use the word “dystopian” to describe Stallman’s article. But I wasn’t sure about the meaning. Now, quick, how would you check what it meant?
Perhaps you are one of those people that still have a physical dictionary on your desk. I do have one, but it’s currently in the loft, behind piles of things that need sorting out. So, no help there. How would you check the meaning of that word without agreeing to be monitored in one way or another? Google it? Of course you could, but you’re going to be tracked and you’ve had to sign up to an agreement to use their site anyway. If you don’t use Google, perhaps there is a different search engine, like DuckDuckGo, which protects your privacy, that will lead you to an online dictionary, one that will have its own conditions that you have to agree to in order to access its content.
Well, you argue, that’s no bad thing. At the end of the day you can find out the meaning of the word you’re looking for and having to agree to follow the rules is a small price to pay for the ease and convenience of being able to search for something and find it instantly. It’s easy and convenient and like air and light and electricity you only notice how important it is when you haven’t got access to it any more.
Now, that won’t happen, will it? But if you imagine the worst possible situation that could happen, well, that’s dystopian. And I found out what that means by installing a piece of software called dico that asked a dictionary server what it meant. I still had to agree to the terms of the software before using it but the one difference is that the terms are ones that protect my freedoms, not terms that take it away. There is a community out there, founded by Richard Stallman, that operates with a set of principles that will protect your freedom to use computers and read, a community called the Free Software Foundation. One that supports almost all of the tools I use for my own work, and one that I should probably do a lot more to support. But why?
The pen and the sword
As you know I’m trying to work through a book project here, and I’m finding this one a lot harder already than the first two, mainly because it’s hard to work out what you can and can’t do, what’s right and wrong and if it’s right or wrong.
For example, I am writing these words in a text editor on a Linux computer. I can keep doing what I do if the Internet is turned off, I don’t need to sign into Microsoft or Google or Apple or any of the other big corporations that provide computing services to the vast majority of people. I’m writing in plain text, a format that will last as long as computers last. I’m also using a terminal, a command line. It’s black and white, no mouse involved. The technological experience is decades old, not that far removed from a typewriter with a few improvements. So, why do I use this approach to create text, why not just use a word processor, an online tool, something easy and convenient?
There are two reasons for this. The first is practical, the tools I use are better for a whole host of reasons. They don’t try and tell me what to do, correct grammar or spelling or suggest different ways of doing things. They let me get on with my work. The second is more important, and has to do with my freedom to write and say what I think because in this world of ours your ability to document your thoughts is the way in which you protect your freedoms.
The United States is perhaps the preeminent example of this, a nation state founded on a document, a Constitution. Of course, you can point to the Magna Carta as the ancestor of it all. I would also argue that the Indian constitution, which gave 300 million people their freedom, had the largest impact of any single document in history. These political documents mattered, they were a contract that set out the rights of people and those rights still need defending even today.
How do you defend your rights? With words, of course. And so the tools you use to write your words are just as important as any other tools you use to defend your freedom. Once upon a time you would have reached for a weapon; in many parts of the world that’s still a first recourse. But for more and more of us these days you reach for your computer and start writing your message of hope. History teaches us that words have power and if someone has power over your ability to create words then they have power over you.
I have a deep, visceral need to be free to write and the Free Software Foundation’s mission is one that I can sign up to. It’s a community with which I share values and ideals. So, while I might use non-free software if I am working for others on their systems I will use free software to do the things that matters to me.
Exploring the model
Now that I’ve got that out of the way, hopefully you understand that people can have points of view about things that you didn’t even realize were an issue. And before you write me off for that, what you should notice is that you and the people around you will their own causes, the things that they find important and that they want to defend, whether it’s the right to bear arms or their religions beliefs or an activist movement looking to stop climate change.
What I’d like to do tomorrow is carry on with the Free Software Foundation. Today has been about its mission and why I think it’s important. Tomorrow, let’s look at how it operates in practice and see if there are elements there that we can identify and see how the various parts are working.