FSF30 critical cheering


Today the Free Software Foundation is celebrating 30 years with a User Freedom Summit in Boston. The best homage is criticism, and I still claim that software freedom is in dire need. A festschrift is in order, but this small post will have to do for now.

Read the GNU Manifesto and included “easily rebutted objections”, please. Generally it is prescient and as relevant as ever. Excellent, right? Now, three observations, evident at the link, but also about the software freedom movement generally.

Romance of heroic developers who write free software so that they may “continue to use computers without dishonor” and altruistically enforce copyleft licenses. The goal is software freedom for all, but it is to be delivered and enforced by a tiny class of superheros hacking on the margins of the software industry and the legal/regulatory/public policy system.

Moral certainty with no attempt to engage with other moral takes on software; the opposition is amoral. Claims that one’s issue is “moral” are embarrassments unless constantly justified, and better, held open to doubt. Software and the claims of software freedom advocates are important enough that both deserve much greater scrutiny, e.g., from philosophers and social scientists.

Lackadaisical marketing; the Manifesto’s “easily rebutted objections” wants the “to let the free market decide” whether advertising is necessary to spread GNU. It has decided: the complex of advertising, marketing, distribution, and sales is what proprietary vendors do. The software freedom movement again competes at the margins, leaving the unenlightened masses with access only to the wares of proprietary vendors, the latter subject to hectoring rather than competition.

I see a commonality among these: lack of appreciation for economies of scale. The development of computing, morality, and culture are each massive undertakings. Any movement that stands aside from the global, industrial scale currents of any of these consigns itself to a “dark ages” of its own conception.

These may also be observed in the User Freedom Summit schedule. The four activities represented are good to great. I support them all, but nonetheless am going to use them as foils to speculate about what a software freedom movement that rejected romance, certainty, and laziness?

Community Licensing Education & Outreach

Our work in free software is motivated by the idealistic goals of spreading freedom and cooperation. Strong copyleft licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL) allow us to spread this freedom and cooperation by ensuring that our software only to be distributed as part of free software programs, and not as part of proprietary ones.

Alternative: software freedom as public policy.

Introduction to federation

decentralization on the web, and why it is important for freedom, democracy, and a non-Orwellian future.

Alternative: Public big data infrastructure

Dip a toe in crypto

intro to crypto presentation and a facilitated discussion combining technological and social perspectives. We’ll also save ample time for a workshop introduction to GnuPG email encryption based on the FSF’s Email Self-Defense Guide

I don’t have time to find a more directly on-point article at the moment, but User Education Is Not the Answer to Security Problems is in that spirit.

Alternative: making encryption ubiquitous and transparent in GNU systems.

Libreboot: A talk and demonstration

Libreboot is a free software BIOS/UEFI replacement for general purpose computers, including laptops and servers/workstations, and based on coreboot. The purpose of this session is to talk about the history of libreboot, why it was started, why libreboot is important and how it could benefit you.

Alternative: selling and demanding computing devices that respect user freedom.

Critical cheering along similar lines about a FSF initiative may be found in Make the Day Against DRM a day for freedom, and further in prioritize(projects, freedom_for_all_computer_users) and 6 reasons for GPL lovers, haters, exploiters, and others to enjoy and support GPL enforcement.

Along different but possibly complementary lines, read Software that liberates people: feels about FSF@30 and OSFeels@1 by Luis Villa.

Congratulations and thanks to the Free Software Foundation for 30 years of pro-commons activism.

Short critique of saint-hero free software ideology and activism

I am all for more advertising and more usable/accessible product. One thing, though, that’s core to the FSF philosophy that I agree with is that it’s important for more people/users to understand, respect, and care about their own freedom and/or the commons generally. Getting people to use/consume free work is great, but if none of them develop ideals then they will take a proprietary thing as soon as it comes along and is shinier.


Agreed re importance of more people caring about their own freedom and the commons, though I heavily favor the latter for nudging software freedom politics in the direction of public policy rather than in the direction of individual honor, which is a very expensive and privileged thing to pursue.

I don’t entirely agree with your final sentence. What constitutes “shiny” is very path dependent. Also there’s raw numbers. People who need software freedom: ~7 billion. People who could conceivably learn about, appreciate, and become so deeply committed to software freedom so as to take it as a litmus test and reject all else: I don’t know, but feel safe in saying several orders of magnitude less.

That’s why again I’m more interested in cultivating policy imagination for (most obviously through winning competition) and political commitment to software freedom and friends, not an individual ethical practice. The former is relatively cheap and can be used to mandate software freedom, the latter is expensive and can be used to to create an elite but scared remnant.


Hmm, for sure. I don’t think we can turn everyone into freedom-loving zealots, but I think it’s important to increase the number of people who treat freedom as a factor at least, instead of not considering it at all.

You may be right. I think many of us (myself definitely included) have largely considered public policy “too big” and that’s why the grassroots focus of so many groups. Can we convince governments who continue to give the IP-exploiters favours to move in favour of the commons? I would love to hope so.


Yes, we definitely can convince governments to adopt commons-favoring policies even while IP-exploiters win most of the things they consider most central. It is being done around the world through procurement and funding mandates, some for software mentioned previously. It can be done a lot more, especially as concentrated entities with a competitive advantage in commons-based production grow and advocate for their interests. To be really successful policymakers and especially regulators whose primary care is something else have to be sold on software freedom being an important tool for them to achieve their goals. Stuff like the VW scandal are opportunities to convince (there will be many more) but using them as opportunities to talk about licensing are a miss.

I wonder if part of the reason public policy seems too big is that many times when free/open movement people are encouraged to get political, they are encouraged to demand generic copyright and patent reforms which do not specifically favor commons-based production and are indeed basically impossible to get past the IP lobby at this point. To me commons-favoring public policy is “just right”; generic reforms are too big but ignoring public policy is way too small, both in the sense that there is no way the result will be increased software freedom for anyone but an elite, and in the sense that non-elites have little opportunity (or rather the opportunities are expensive) to participate in grassroots technical activities which further software freedom; contrast with participating in democracy, which is democratizing…