08.19.19

Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: Free as in Speech

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF at 1:23 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

A publication from the Free Media Alliance

Overview

  • Part 1: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: Introduction
  • You are here ☞ Part 2: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: Free as in Speech
  • Part 3: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: Free Software in Education
  • Part 4: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: Narcissism in The Community
  • Part 5: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: The Simplest Ways that AI will Change Computing
  • Part 6: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: There is More Than One Iceberg Ahead
  • Part 7: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: Distro-libre and feature-schema
  • Part 8: Guarding and Rescuing the FSF Titanic: A Free (as in Freedom) Library, and Federation of Advocates

Freedom of speech

Summary: “While a new breed of so-called anarchists campaign against expression that even the state allows, people are also foolishly overplaying the relevance of the state to free speech issues — as if it’s not a freedom issue when a project is increasingly thought-policed, because the thought-policing isn’t on a state level.”

The FSF used to say “Free as in Speech”, and now you hear a lot of “Free as in Freedom”. This is subjective, and perhaps they say plenty of both. But “Free as in Speech” made more sense in the earlier days of Free software.

Free speech isn’t just the basis for Free software, it’s the basis for all expression technical, political, philosophical and artistic. So many people are bent on creating new exceptions to free speech and free expression, and this is already bleeding into censorship of art and even code repositories. The threat to Free software is real, but the people who want such a threat of course do not think it is a problem.

“Free speech isn’t just the basis for Free software, it’s the basis for all expression technical, political, philosophical and artistic.”While a new breed of so-called anarchists campaign against expression that even the state allows, people are also foolishly overplaying the relevance of the state to free speech issues — as if it’s not a freedom issue when a project is increasingly thought-policed, because the thought-policing isn’t on a state level. This is pedantic and misguided for so many reasons.

First of all, it is technically true in some ways — that’s where the ignorance starts. From a purely technical point of view, the Constitution protects against laws that abridge the freedom of speech. That’s all.
So the First Amendment has very little relevance, technically speaking, if someone comes into your house and insults you, and you tell them to get out. You don’t really have to explain this to people every time this conversation comes up, but it’s understandable why people do that. It’s because they don’t care about the issue enough to be honest.

“It’s a deeply condescending, stupidly narrow definition of free speech to limit it exclusively to “whatever the state does not infringe is (sufficiently) free.””When people talk about free speech outside of this narrow but primarily correct definition, they are talking about the absence of censorship. This is not a usage that comes out of ignorance or lack of education, as the minimalists and pedants imply. Rather the Constitution protects natural rights from laws, liberty is a natural right, and free speech is a subset of liberty. (Free software in turn, is a subset of free speech.)

You can certainly look at this in various other ways, but to constantly insult and negate what people are saying based on ignoring the validity of this perspective, merely insults the intelligence of everyone you bother about it. It’s a deeply condescending, stupidly narrow definition of free speech to limit it exclusively to “whatever the state does not infringe is (sufficiently) free.”

That sort of pedantry only demands that we throw away the words “free speech” as being as limited as they insist it is, and focus exclusively on matters of “censorship.” This is pointless, when Wikipedia begins its article on “Freedom of Speech” with the words:

Freedom of speech is a principle that supports the freedom of an
individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas
without fear of retaliation, censorship, or sanction.

Far be it to suggest that quoting one line of a Wikipedia article proves anything at all, but can anyone honestly insist that it’s ridiculous to treat free speech as the opposite of censorship? Or is it the pedants who are being deeply dishonest? Either way this goes, what good are they?

“The (more honest) truth is that free speech is a more complex and nuanced issue than Randall Munroe has painted it in the most ignorant XKCD ever shared online.”If the FSF lent more credence to the relationship between modern copyright and censorship, and the relationship they themselves established between Free software and free speech, they wouldn’t likely be looking for exceptions like whether we should be able to freely adapt “works of opinion” or whether you should be able to make unlimited paper copies of a manual under an allegedly free licence.

Alas, the FSF has painted too many exceptions to free speech (or for you pedantic idiots — the lack of censorship) and is likely already having key figures (including Stallman and Torvalds) stifled over those exceptions. This is self-defeating, but it also harms other movements that promote works that are “Free as in Speech.”

“You are free to lie, until the fraud does enough harm to the freedom of others, but when you twist reality to limit a quest for freedom you make an enemy of yourself.”The (more honest) truth is that free speech is a more complex and nuanced issue than Randall Munroe has painted it in the most ignorant XKCD ever shared online.

There are people who want to add to the censorship in the world, they are successful in actively doing so, and they are eager to get away with it using flimsy justifications and dishonesty. You are free to lie, until the fraud does enough harm to the freedom of others, but when you twist reality to limit a quest for freedom you make an enemy of yourself. At that point you are no better than a politician, and you have earned the disdain reserved for the worst among them.

In the past, the FSF has found it necessary (and rightfully so) to turn to philosophy while Open Source relies on sophistry. These days, when you argue against censorship you find the Internet is overrun with sophists and trolls and armchair authoritarians. If that truly represents what Free software has become in this century, then you can keep it.

But that is not how Free software began, what made it viable, nor what it needs to be in order to fight against censorship.

There is no Free software, without free speech. And if that’s not true, then Free software ought to be dropped as a movement, and replaced with free culture, which is a superset of Free software and still a subset of free speech.

Natural right begets Liberty,
        Liberty begets free speech, 
                Free speech begets free culture and Free software, 
                        Free culture (by definition, if not common
                        practice) includes Free software.

Free software advocates ought to be able to understand this. If they cannot, it is one more area where the Free software movement has failed and become sterile.

Of course even if Free software were dropped for free culture, the specific areas where free culture pertains to software would be no less important. All that would really change is the sacrifice of greater idiocy for greater honesty.

“On matters related to Free software directly, the FSF deserves its recognition as the authoritative voice of the Free software movement.”As it happens, free culture (broadly speaking) cannot seem to wrap itself around the importance of using Free software, either. So both movements are hampered without the other. And too few can appreciate this, or bother to promote it — both movements cost themselves key allies and success in the process.

If they were really at odds, like Free software and Open Source, such alliance would be a false compromise. Since they are ultimately working for the same freedom, Free software and free culture should acknowledge their similarities and help each other. But neither side wants to admit the truth about their existence and philosophical heritage.

Just as Open Source does not want to admit that it co-opted Free software (even when OSI co-founder Bruce Perens said they had when OSI was no more than a year or two old) Free software does not acknowledge the importance of a broader copyright reform movement, when Free software was only necessary due to regressive expansion of copyright itself.

Free software is far more honest than Open Source, but on this matter it too rewrites history to make itself out to be (a little) more authoritative and central regarding a subject than it is in reality — that of copyright reform.

The FSF has — and should have — no monopoly on copyright reform. Its lack of willingness to find its true context in matters of liberty leads it to overplay its hand regarding non-software matters (“Why this license?”) and to misrepresent arguments about copyright reform in other areas. It should not be allowed to perpetuate such dishonesty, even if dishonesty is rarer indeed for the FSF than most organisations.

“With no culture of free speech, there will be no protection against laws that limit it either.”Either the FSF is a secular non-profit with a mission to promote what it says, subject to the same scrutiny as all other institutions — or it is a cult with a leader and devotees that cannot err. Sadly, on matters of broader liberty barely outside of software, it behaves less like a secular institution and more like a cult. Some of its largest competitors are cults as well, but they are cults to corporation and control, rather than to Software Freedom.

On matters related to Free software directly, the FSF deserves its recognition as the authoritative voice of the Free software movement. For purposes of (among others) the unfettered and scientific expression of ideas, we will challenge their authority — but not deny or negate it as Open Source has unjustly done for decades at a time.

As for the Code of Conduct, it is a Trojan horse that in practice lets corporations limit Free software along lines that the government will not. It is a shot in the foot, and all for a false promise. “Love thy neighbour” it was once said, is the whole of the law. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you should remain free to speak against your neighbour as long as you speak the truth.

With no culture of free speech, there will be no protection against laws that limit it either. For a government claimed to be of the people, for the people, by the people — it is delusional to assume or rely on the government to protect and preserve anything that people are not willing to stand for themselves.

“Freedom 0 is the freedom to use the software for any purpose, but what we are inching towards is a future where software repos will be divided along political lines.”You cannot reduce “free speech” to the Constitution, without dooming it to lose further ground to censorship. The FSF may continue their mission, though their followers, bylaws and customs are increasingly eroding the Free Software Foundation’s foundation.

The tools Free software produces to liberate the user, are promoted and run primarily by people dedicated to using them to control speech, not make it more free. Freedom 0 is the freedom to use the software for any purpose, but what we are inching towards is a future where software repos will be divided along political lines. The recently-adopted GNU Kind guidelines include a welcome glimpse of Free software’s past, when words like this rang true:

The GNU Project encourages contributions from anyone who
wishes to advance the development of the GNU system,
regardless of gender, race, ethnic group, physical appearance,
religion, cultural background, and any other demographic
characteristics, as well as personal political views.

Those words do not reflect the politics of Free software today, nor do they reflect the reality of the culture of the Free Software Foundation. It is an ideal we should strive for, to have diversity of contributors as well as diversity of opinion, but just try having your own political views.

Free software should be looking for more ways to enable free speech. At the moment, all communication platforms related to the Free software movement are focused on controlling it, which is endemic to the so-called Fediverse.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

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