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In defense of Free Software, community, and cooperation

A recent article by Richard Stallman on the subject of the direction of the Free Software community provoked a lot of discussion, in particular on whether he is right to push so strongly his principles of Free Software over and above the pragmatic principles of Open Source. In this article I would like to defend Stallman's vision of software, and its place in community rather than as a consumer product, and re-advocate Stallman's assertion that the right to form a community is more important than the ability to use particular software.

In one of the most telling criticisms of his position, one Slashdot poster commented that, to paraphrase, until Stallman realises that people don't expect cooperation and community to be products of, nor aspects of, a software industry, he won't ever succeed. Stallman, the poster implied, is talking only to a select group of people, and will never "meet the needs of the masses" until he accepts that their expectations of software are significantly different than his own.

This apparently pragmatic approach to software can be found in a lot of documents advocating the use of the term "Open Source" in place of "Free Software" (though I am by no means implying that this applies to all Open Source advocates). To many, the development models best described by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar are what is most significant about GNU/Linux, along with the technologies and associated benefits of Open Source software, like stability, security, and speed. And it is these development models and their benefits that we ought to preach to potential customers and convertees. In the words of Raymond himself, the original push for Open Source "was a sustained effort to argue for 'free software' on pragmatic grounds of reliability, cost, and strategic business risk."

It is undoubtedly upon these grounds that Free Software has seen such huge success in the business world, for the most part in the server market and increasingly in the desktop market. The founders of the Open Source Initiative were no doubt correct in thinking that the term "Open Source" would be easier to sell to commercial entities than the term "Free Software." But this is only half the story. Where Open Source software has taken the business world by storm, Free Software is increasingly making a difference in governments, developing countries, areas of cultural minority and many others upon more grounds than "reliability, cost and strategic business risk."

I should note, before I get indignant responses from Open Source advocates, that the confusion of terminology does highlight the fact that we shouldn't think of Free Software and Open Source as meaning different kinds of software, since generally they are synonyms describing software under licenses like the GPL. Rather, they are different philosophies, different reasons for using and promoting the licenses and values that they share, and their key difference lies in the omission of community in the Open Source philosophy.

Free Software as a community tool

When announcing a move to Open Source software, the Venezuelan government outlined "a new Internet access program where all machines would be Linux-based and held under community franchise." Venezuela's announcement made clear that the health of the communities who use information technology, and of the wider community of developers in Venezuela, depended upon their adopting Free Software.

In an infamous letter to Microsoft Peru, a Peruvian Congressman outlined his reasons for mandating the use of Free Software in government. In response to the question of whether the market should decide, he said that "the state archives, handles, and transmits information which does not belong to it, but which is entrusted to it by citizens... the State must take extreme measures to safeguard the integrity, confidentiality, and accessibility of this information." He makes it clear the importance of community in Peru, distinguishing between the conception of software as a product for consumers and the conception of software as a tool for citizens and communities.

Though most government decisions cite economic and technical reasons for switching to Free Software, there is almost always a mention of the damage that proprietary software has done to communities in their countries. By its very nature, proprietary software stops people from sharing technology and provides no guarantee that citizens will be able to share information through open standards. In Venezuela, the government felt that proprietary software had subjugated its development community under the arm of foreign developers, and had not enabled established communities to benefit from information technology in the way that Free Software might. These sentiments are echoed in many government statements, particularly those from developing countries where large proportions of their citizens are further excluded from information technology by proprietary restrictions.

These countries, we hope, will in time develop to such a point that they will be able to nurture nascent software industries capable of competing locally, nationally, and globally, where Free Software can make such a difference. It is precisely because of considerations of community and cooperation that they will be able to enjoy the apparently more "pragmatic" considerations of reliability, cost, etc.

Central to the development of information technology in any region is the accessibility of that software for particular cultures, with their own languages, scripts, and approaches to software. With the proprietary software model, consumers are dependent upon the producers to supply sufficiently customised or internationalised products. With the Free Software model, on the other hand, individuals and communities are free to internationalise software, and often receive considerable support from the parent projects in doing this. One only needs to look at the recent localisation of GNOME into Bengali or of KDE into Farsi to see how Free Software enables communities to cooperate and better themselves and their fellow citizens.

Whether FS or OSS, community matters

In fact, it is not only in governments and developing countries that the importance of community is apparent. Every nation is composed of communities formed around religious beliefs, shared hobbies and interests, political necessity, and all kind of other grounds. In these communities, the benefits of being able to share software, to customise or have customised software for their particular needs, and to be free as a community from the influence of any particular software producers is a great opportunity.

Associated with Free Software is also the ability to influence, contribute to, or join the communities that produce the software you can use. Not only can entire communities, as in the internationalisation cases, link up with communities that they benefit from, but individuals and companies, should they want to, can do so too. Whilst the idea of your average Web-browsing, document-writing computer user contributing to the Linux kernel may sound absurd, simply providing the ability for such a person to file a feature request or ask a community of developers and supporters for help is enormously empowering. It humanises software, and takes the user from being a passive consumer who must put up with what he is given to being a potentially active user who can exercise a degree of power over what he is given, both in terms of actually changing particular features, and in terms of influencing the development agenda.

The freedoms ensured by Free Software also enable new communities to form, for example locally based cooperative volunteer support groups, or Linux User Groups (LUGs) for short. The more the public is able to share and cooperate without destroying the software "industry" entirely, the more citizens will gain in terms of participation in communities, increased opportunities with information technology, and of course all of the "pragmatic" benefits. So long as Free Software doesn't undermine the ability of the public, including business, to make software and make it usable for everyone, it is morally superior to proprietary software, and leaves us with no reason to keep proprietary software. Where proprietary software is necessary, that may not be the case, but I don't want to get into a discussion as to where it might be necessary.

In highlighting these cases, I am not trying to suggest that Open Source as a philosophy denies the importance of community, but that those who attack Free Software advocates like Richard Stallman for talking about cooperation and community are quite wrong. Community matters, more in fact than considerations of stability and cost, because in the long term, whilst Free Software will enable communities and deliver the quality of products citizen-consumers require, proprietary software will further divide and polarise communities and inhibit the potential of information technology for the public. Considerations of cost and stability will continue for as long as software is produced, but considerations of community are central to the direction of information technology in society.

Whether or not you can sell this vision to the average consumer over a shop desk, it matters. If the community behind Free Software forgets this in its rush to spread the software, and we confuse the goal of freedom with the goal of popularity and market share, it fails. Until those who disagree with Free Software advocates understand that this is our position, criticisms will fall on deaf ears.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2004. It was published by Newsforge.