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Politics in Free Software

When he added a credit to his application for the United States Army, Neil Stevens created a small storm in the KDE community; "politics", people said, was not to interfere with KDE, and his new credit was duly removed. When the KDE web site took part in the online protest against software patents in Europe, "politics", people said, was important to KDE. So what role does politics play in KDE, and in Free Software in general?

Denying that politics can play any part in Free Software at all is of course absurd. Politics is not confined to a few officials in suits, it is part of the fabric of life. When I consume goods, I tacitly accept that the companies involved in the production of those goods are acceptable to me, or rather that their practices are acceptable; when I use Free Software, I make a political statement about my thoughts on copyright law, software development methods, and perhaps a little of my ethics.

Moreover, software development is directly and indirectly affected by political decisions that are external to the development community. If it were illegal to distribute software with restrictive licenses, proprietary software would not exist; if everybody had to pay royalties to the holder of the patent for the progress bar, very little software would use the progress bar. In an extreme example, if my country were invaded and the occupying power banned me from using Free Software, I would no longer be able to use KDE.

Free Software communities must therefore take political considerations seriously, just as they take technical considerations seriously. Some communities take political matters to heart, and define their community as much by their politics as by their technical achievements; other communities, meanwhile, have an unhealthy attitude, burying their heads in the sand and hoping the wind blows in a friendly way.

When thousands of web sites took part in the online protest against software patents in Europe, they proclaimed their opposition to a political decision that could potentially destroy the Free Software community; it was a defensive action en masse to support the efforts of lobbyists and demonstrators in Brussels, and to raise awareness amongst web site visitors. There was a consensus amongst the majority of Hackers that software patents are bad, and webmasters organically reacted to this consensus by taking any action they could.

In the case of KDE, there was criticism, with many questioning the effectiveness of the action, and some questioning the motivation. But certainly a majority of KDE developers and users were in agreement, that software patents were bad for KDE, and so KDE had to act.

So what about Neil Stevens? He believes that if it weren't for the US Army, he wouldn't be able to develop Free Software. His case raises two questions: is he correct, and regardless should his credits be allowed?

The statement itself is questionable. If the US were invaded by almost any other nation in the world, he would still be able to write his software, since there are no governments that I know of that crack down on the development of media players and inauspicious games like Megami. His statement also implies support for the actions of the US Army, and in particular their recent actions, which are amongst the most contentious in its relatively short history, and that certainly don't have anything to do with his ability to write code.

However, regardless of whether or not is is correct, he is free to hold that opinion, and so is free to put the credit into his software if he wants. But can his software then be included in KDE? As is apparent from the discussions amongst KDE developers and users, the majority find his credit disagreeable, either because they disagree with the statement itself, or don't think it should be included in a KDE application because it would imply KDE as a whole agrees with his credit. It is therefore proper that the credits are removed in KDE. That this caused him to remove his applications from KDE is unfortunate, but both KDE and Stevens are acting within their rights. However absurd the decision seems, however much you'd rather they didn't act in the way they have, one cannot say that they cannot act as they have.

This also highlights another political consideration often glossed over in the wider Hacker community: internal political and social relations. Communities must address issues like that of Neil Stevens' credit and software patents with an ethical and consistent approach, otherwise they will constantly run into trouble and controversy every time something like these cases comes along. Some, like Debian, have put a lot of effort into defining exactly how the community handles political and social relations, so that responsibility and authority is clearly and justly assigned, and decision making processes are clearly and justly defined. Others, like Gentoo and KDE, have few relations clearly codified, and so whenever important decisions confront the community, big debates flare up. These debates are no bad thing, so long as the community doesn't become disenfranchised, and individuals don't feel hostile towards the community and those in charge. But too often, it seems, the debates result in a lot of bad feelings and a lot of lost talent.

It is time that Free Software communities took political and social considerations more seriously; we simply cannot go on with large numbers of people believing that politics has no place in Free Software, or that burying one's head in the sand is a wise way to work. Every community should, once in a while, step back and question it works; it seems that many communities are long overdue this political audit.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2003, under the GNU Free Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.

The article was published on Newsforge.