Short critique of saint-hero free software ideology and activism


About the Software category:

Some proponents of software freedom make ethical claims, but are they robust? They need to be critiqued and improved, otherwise they will fail to convince others, a tragedy. Question software freedom‽ If you find work addressing claims of software freedom by outsiders – for example philosophers or social scientists – please share here.

Previously: FSF@30 Critical Cheering.

A Short Critique of Stallmanism is a rare and good take by Jan Corazza (judging by the essay and their about page, not really an outsider to free software), who says that an incorrect analysis rooted in individualism calls for individual technological asceticism and linguistic posturing at the expense of non-elitist outreach and collective political action.

Corazza on “what is to be done”:

Free software activists should accept that software freedom is not an isolated issue, with its own, completely independent value set, but is just one aspect of a wider struggle for justice, and that we can never achieve full software justice under capitalism. Once freed from this isolated logic, the next obvious step is integrating it into our advocacy, critiques, and educational material.

A more general but also important realization should be that non-participation of this kind is a privilege, not an effective political strategy. We should turn the implication “Free Software => Free Society” on its head: Free Society => Free Software.

I’ve never read anyone claiming that if free software is true, it is impossible for free society to be false. Corazza’s reversal seems to me to be what free software advocates claim: if free society is true, it is impossible for free software to be false. Of course free software advocates usually do not make claims about free software in terms of logical implication. But they do argue that free software is necessary for free society and that free software furthers free society, not that if all software is free, society will be free. Still, Corazza’s intervention is enjoyable and helpful, not least because reversing common arguments if not unclaimed implications is provocative – is free society necessary for free software? Does free society further free software?

Without directly answering these questions, my take is that changing the structure of production, at least for software, is necessary for free software, and the benefits of free software are primarily social and macro (e.g., removing sources of conflict and inequality) not micro (individual software users benefiting from the four freedoms).

One earlier paragraph strikes me as somewhat out of place in a critique of ‘Stallmanism’, but I’m not thrilled with the substance either:

The fight for institutional support for free software usually has very positive consequences, but the rhetoric and motivations behind it can be problematic: it is often intertwined with liberal cries for efficiency – the idea that governments and institutions should switch to ‘open source’ because it is in their financial interests. Instead of agreeing with this most likely correct statement, we should point out that software should be a public good, and that it’s generally irrelevant what governments and institutions use: what matters is that we control what we use, invest in it, and make it available to everyone. Of course, this is probably an extremely hard goal to reach, which only shows that, again, the struggle for free software is in fact the struggle for free society.

First, it very much matters what governments use – if they aren’t using free software, they (we) don’t control what they use and almost certainly aren’t investing in free software or making what they/we pay for available to everyone. Second, it matters because government use of free software is something that requires collective action to obtain and connects to free society, not individual computer user freedom. Third, I’m for any argument that can help, depending on the audience, including financial ones. I’d change “Instead” to “In addition to”.

Corazza also writes:

Evgeny Morozov’s article on Uber expands on this idea on how to conceptualize privatization and technology.

Sadly Morozov doesn’t conceptualize free software, only problems, even when his articles have provocative titles like “Socialize the Data Centers!” (my comments). But on Uber, I recently enjoyed Let a thousand Ubers bloom and commented there (emphasis added):

[added: followup I noticed after strongly notes need for pro-competitive regulation and touches on open data]

monopolists typically increase prices by using political machinery to limit the output of competing products—usually by blocking low-cost substitutes

Indeed, so it’s quite interesting that Uber and Lyft opposed regulation that arguably would increase competitor startup cost, or rather, demanding that the regulation be shaped to in effect do that. Perhaps they are just not well established enough yet, but the logic of regulation decreasing competition should give pause – see… – to think about how regulation can be designed to have long term pro-competitive effects, ie keep competition blooming.

One dimension to consider – require software and data used and produced by ridesharing companies to be open source, auditable by the public and regulators, copyable by competitors.

This may seem a tangent but I don’t think so. How Uber and the like operate is a potent social question and software is right in the middle of it. Free software must have broader contribution, and one that is amenable to collective action, than some individual saints refusing to use Uber’s non-free phone app or non-free javascript on the Uber website because doing so would make them individually unfree.

I am most thankful for Corazza’s article and hope to see many more critiques of free software, lest it die from the unremitting bludgeoning of obscurity and triviality.