05.20.20

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Things Will Get Worse For Free Software, Before They Get Better

Posted in Free/Libre Software, FSF at 12:35 am by Guest Editorial Team

A guest post by figosdev

Nice chair

Summary: “Who do they think they’re kidding? You’re creating user lock-in in practice — but in license, you’re free!”

I‘m actually very happy when there’s good news, but there really isn’t enough of it.

I wasn’t always Mr. Free software Gloom and Doom, nor was I always content before that. I spent years migrating from Windows, even when I was already very interested in doing so. The two issues that took the longest were the fact that I still used dialup Internet (hey, I didn’t know better) and my favourite programming environment was still DOS. (I really didn’t know better). I was still using DOS quite regularly in 2003.

10 years later, I was writing a curriculum for refurbishing computers with Free software (using Debian). I was also giving away computers with Debian on them. The future of Free software seemed fairly bright. The main thing that bothered me was the major relationship difficulties between Free software and free culture. Then Debian (a distro I never thought would let us down) got really and truly nasty.

The years that have followed have had plenty of ups and downs. When I gave away computers with Debian, I copied the entire source DVD onto the hard drive, to comply with the GPL. I migrated to Devuan on my primary development machine, I tried GNUinos and Refracta.

“In my version of the new FSF, Stallman would have only partly retired from just one of his roles — he would also guide and assist the transition of the new president.”While waiting for Devuan to get serious enough to also offer a source DVD image so I could resume giving away computers, I wrote a programming language that I still use half a decade later. Instead of teaching PC refurbishing with Free software, I’ve helped people learn how to code. I created a script for remastering distros. I still love and care about Free software.

But though I’ve watched very, very closely, things have never returned to the nice state they were in 7 years ago. I lost all confidence in Devuan (but not in Dyne) and there was a half-successful coup in the FSF. The half-failed part of the coup is a blessing, but the fact that it was partly successful remains relevant. Truth be told, I had openly expressed my own doubts about Stallman’s leadership, but at the time I knew a LOT less about how the FSF actually works.

My own call was for someone suited to the role to take on a leadership role as president of the organisation. I did not expect anybody to support this call — and nobody did. It was mostly a rhetorical gesture. It did not, however, involve dishonestly shaming Stallman or twisting his words around, or attacking him with the shill-infested tech press. I was already disgusted with their bias-for-hire in favour of “Open Source”, and the coup only proves how dangerous that really is.

In my version of the new FSF, Stallman would have only partly retired from just one of his roles — he would also guide and assist the transition of the new president. He wouldn’t have received false, misleading information leading to him stepping down from two roles (the role of president and as a board member). No staff or former staff (or whoever) would have tampered with his personal website to make it look like he was also resigning from the GNU Project. He simply would have helped look for a worthy successor. As a nice bonus, the plan would have likely added important scrutiny and reduced leadership tension in exactly the areas where the coup took place.

“The FSF is currently arranged in a way that allows maximal (but only indirect) interference from sponsors and lobbyists.”In fact one of my biggest concerns at the time was that Stallman didn’t seem to have a successor — and this was also partly a misconception. I’d maintained a list of people I thought would be good for the role, including Ben Mako Hill and Denis Roio. (I really do admire Roio a great deal).

I did not assume these people would be eager, nor willing or necessarily even able to take on the role. But even if this whole idea was based partly on a number of misunderstandings about how the FSF actually works and Stallman’s role in all that — the fact remains that it would have left Stallman on sturdier ground than the situation we have now. Another thing I had no way of knowing about, was the number of people close to the FSF who were willing to turn on him and act dishonestly.

I think it’s been about 8 months since the coup, and things look very different indeed. I care far more about the GNU project than the FSF — absolutely nothing appeals to me about the FSF anymore, they are mostly awash in glib soundbites and lack any sign of strong leadership. The way they are currently arranged, there is no real place for a strong leader. Some people probably think that’s a good thing, but I doubt it.

The FSF is currently arranged in a way that allows maximal (but only indirect) interference from sponsors and lobbyists. Nothing about the organisational structure directly allows such interference, but we are talking about the FSF in practice, not in theory. The fact that a coup took place really makes the point about interference — more than any bylaws could.

In my opinion, the future of the FSF is like the future of the EFF, NPR or PBS. For convincing evidence of this, look at FSFE. For a decade and a half, the self-serving “charity” wing of Microsoft has shown how much it “♥” National Public Radio, and it is also giving money to CopyleftCon [sic] and FSFE — the latter of which has shown undue and unapologetic hatred towards Stallman. In the United States, people who cared about what NPR really stood for have lamented the way they have abandoned their listeners and supporters, while constantly and cynically referring to themselves as “Listener Supported” NPR.

“The FSF will fight for your freedom, but as a course of action it won’t hit very hard. Let’s just say they will continue to mention freedom from time to time.”I think this is what the FSF has turned into, and what it will continue to be. So when I say I don’t care about the FSF, I really literally mean it. I don’t know of any 501(c)(3) organisations that have taken a turn like this and come back. They may remain financially secure for years, even decades — as a shell of what they used to stand for. But the title is about Free software — not the FSF.

My vision for the future of Free software is not one strong leader, but several strong leaders. My assessment of the FSF is that it will not tolerate any strong leaders, but demand a generally lukewarm, “safe” brand of inoffensive messaging that continues to get more and more watered down. This also fits the pattern of every part of Free software that “Open source” money has touched — but that isn’t proof.

Whether they are complacent in the face of dubious funding or they simply decided they were trying too hard and to just take it easy from now on, the result is roughly the same. The FSF will fight for your freedom, but as a course of action it won’t hit very hard. Let’s just say they will continue to mention freedom from time to time.

I want to be clear that in a system with many leaders and many organisations, the founder of the Free software movement ought to be at least as welcomed as any other leader. Witnessing what ugly means it took for the coup to try to remove him only lends credence to the notion that he was already where he rightfully belonged. I still have misgivings, of course. Far fewer of them have anything to do with Stallman as a leader. The problem goes much deeper than that.

Note that I don’t think anybody is perfect — Not Roio, Stallman, Perens, not even Roy — notions of flawless leaders and celebrity activists are flawed. Grassroots movements depend on people, not demigods. Stallman isn’t always right, but his track record is far above average. No matter how the Free software movement of the future is arranged, there will be mistakes and setbacks.

Before the FSF Coup, I predicted the sale of Red Hat, several of us predicted that they would try to remove Stallman after the LibrePlanet petition (which happened, months later) and I said in the “FSF Titanic” series that there was more than one iceberg ahead. Stallman was “nudged” out of his position weeks later. It is very unlikely that I will ever support SFC or FSFE. But the future is weird sometimes.

“Stallman deserves so much better than this. None of this would be here if not for him.”I think the lesson of the Microsoft GNU-Hub series is that GitHub’s informal, already-discouraged ties with the GNU project are the second iceberg. CPython continues to migrate to GitHub, as did NPM. The sheer amount of stuff that’s held captive by GitHub is also troubling, but none of it is worse in my opinion than it holding any sway over GNU.

Stallman deserves so much better than this. None of this would be here if not for him. I may not care about the FSF, but Stallman and the GNU Project still deserve support. And even if Stallman took a hard political right, started goosestepping and disparaging minorities, I would still think the GNU Project is incredibly important (though I would be hard pressed at that hypothetical point, to argue against the GNU maintainers petitioning in such a scenario).

The FSF may have the word “foundation” in it, but I think the GNU Project is the true “foundation” of Free software. I also think we could do with simpler programming languages for many purposes, but to run programs you (generally) need an operating system, and to have a free operating system you really need a compiler. So GNU starts out with the vital requirements — and builds all the way up to some nice or occasionally even frivolous extras — that’s not a real problem either.

I do think optimism would be out of place here. It’s the truth that I’m looking for good news — but that may take a while. Apathy and denial in the Free software movement are very strong these days. I don’t mean to disparage those who still care — they exist. I don’t mean to downplay those who are truly part of the solution — right now, I still think the Hyperbola team is doing the most to save Free software. That’s why I keep mentioning them. I don’t believe they are alone in that, there are certainly others and it’s a good thing there are. One team, even a great team, can only do so much.

But I think too much of the Free software movement can be glib and even obtuse when it comes to the real problems that Free software faces. I know there are people who write for ZDNet who opportunistically bash Free software, unfairly and dishonestly attack Stallman, and overhype nothingburger security flaws in GNU/Linux (while systemd gets away with the security equivalent of streaking nude up down the freeway) and that’s a shame.

“I know there are people who write for ZDNet who opportunistically bash Free software, unfairly and dishonestly attack Stallman, and overhype nothingburger security flaws in GNU/Linux (while systemd gets away with the security equivalent of streaking nude up down the freeway) and that’s a shame.”I suppose there’s some good news in the fact that people at least read this stuff. I’m told the FSF reads Techrights, which I believe — and I sometimes get to know how many thousands of hits certain articles have gotten. Of course I’m glad that people are reading it — that’s good for Techrights and there’s a certain amount of pointlessness in writing articles that people don’t read.

But I don’t write it for views, I write it in hopes of positive change, and of someday going back to the way I felt about Free software in 2013. It will never be exactly the same of course, but I’d like to actually feel Good about Free software again.

It’s going to take a lot.

It isn’t just that I want to feel good — I think the issue of Free software is about as important as Stallman says it is. Unlike the era when the Linux kernel first appeared, our homes are filled with cameras and microphones. Unlike that era, most of the people we know are buying stuff online and streaming video when they used to buy films on DVD.

Simply having 1st and 4th amendments (in the States, or the functional equivalent in other countries) are things we have to put under watch if we don’t do something about the technological authoritarianism that exists under proprietary software companies.

Saying that Free software is about freedom is really an understatement. Comparing DRM to handcuffs is also an understatement. These things seem like exaggerations or rhetoric to some people, who haven’t thought enough about the real implications and real changes in everyday life around software and hardware. The futuristic and somewhat dystopian world that Stallman knew would truly necessitate software freedom is here, now.

And yet, the present reality of the Free software movement is more cynical than it was when the threats to freedom were a bit more hypothetical. When we can demonstrate real world problems, advocates fall back on hypothetical solutions — often without action. If there is a real problem with your software, the first thing you need is the right to to use it — then to study it, then to fix it and share it. Securing those rights is the first step of Free software.

“The futuristic and somewhat dystopian world that Stallman knew would truly necessitate software freedom is here, now.”But when existential threats to freedom arise, some people say “It’s not a problem because the license allows you fix it”. Imagine Lincoln saying “Slavery isn’t a problem because the Constitution allows us to abolish it”.

There’s a certain aspect to such a ridiculous statement that is technically undeniable — the Constitution DOES allow for slavery to be abolished. The license DOES allow us to remove or change unwanted features from our software. But for things to get better, more has to actually happen than to say “It’s ok, it can be fixed”. You don’t end up overseas just by saying “it’s alright, you can buy a plane ticket.” There’s just a little more to it than naming the first step.

The reality is that our opponents have created some very real, relatively new problems. It’s not enough to say “this is fixable” and hang up the phone, or close the email application. There is much we must work on, if we want to Save the GNU.

The nice thing about it is that a lot of it does involve simple first steps and sometimes even simple second or simple third steps. And you can’t simply tap your foot and expect people to jump right on fixing stuff — I certainly don’t. But I hope that eventually, advocates with a bit of sense will stop conflating the ability to name a solution with the non-existence of the problem. After listening to six or seven years of that garbage, it’s getting to be pretty infuriating.

I know things aren’t going to just turn around on a dime. That was never realistic, but in light of the data it would be more than a miracle. The Civil Rights movement didn’t take off after the first, second or twentieth string of events that could have kicked it off before the 1950s and 60s. But people eventually found enough outrage and decided to force the issue.

“The Civil Rights movement didn’t take off after the first, second or twentieth string of events that could have kicked it off before the 1950s and 60s. But people eventually found enough outrage and decided to force the issue.”Proof exists, in Hyperbola and other projects, that while most people make excuses, some people can go ahead and do what needs to be done. This the Free software movement running on one cylinder, however. Years ago, Free software had all of its cylinders firing madly, creating the world we had more than half a decade ago. Open Source claimed to help, though mostly it sold us off to our opponents.

While the flagships of Free software were arguably the GNU Project, Emacs, GCC and Trisquel — the flagships of Open source were the Linux kernel (which they continue to mispronounce as “operating system”), the Apache web server and the Mozilla web client — all three of which are co-opted by monopolies via the Linux Foundation, The Apache Software Foundation, DRM in the Web specifications and Mozilla using GitHub.

The Free software movement is largely in denial of how much entry the same forces have had into the FSF and into the GNU Project.

And that’s where the Free software movement is most likely to stay, for years to come.

There is passion for development — but the development is moving towards Microsoft GitHub. There is passion for software, but the SOFTWARE itself doesn’t respect the freedom of the user — only the software LICENSE respects their freedom. There was a time when the license was enough, as it came with a de facto likelihood that some developer who had the freedom would also care enough to actually use it to do good things.

Today, we don’t have enough people who care about freedom in practice — only in license. So we move our GPL source to GitHub, we tie together all kinds of features so that if you remove one thing that has no good reason to be tied to everything else, you sacrifice 10 other things that (if designed 12 years ago) would be separate and truly modular. Who do they think they’re kidding? You’re creating user lock-in in practice — but in license, you’re free! It’s funny how facts and context once mattered, where only the license does now.

“Who do they think they’re kidding? You’re creating user lock-in in practice — but in license, you’re free!”User lock-in isn’t freedom, no matter what license you use!

The simplest of truths, Free software today casts aside, unjustifiably confident in a positive future.

This isn’t likely to change overnight. Instead, software freedom will continue to get sold out — from the organisations that promised to help defend the GPL, only to stab its very creator in the back — to the GNU developers who actually think Microsoft GitHub is a neat place for the flagship of software freedom itself to dock. Yes, thankfully, some of them know better. I talked to one of them today.

The reality is that Free software is in crisis — or even crisis after crisis. We can look at the good news we find as an excuse to deny how bleak and surprisingly dark things have gotten, or we can look at it as a little bit of hope to hold onto, so we can stand against the darkness.

Either way, this ship isn’t going to turn around tonight. It’s going to continue to look for more icebergs to plow into, because an FSF coup and Microsoft GNU aren’t bad enough yet.

“It’s going to continue to look for more icebergs to plow into, because an FSF coup and Microsoft GNU aren’t bad enough yet.”It’s going to take an even bigger disaster for software freedom, before the group at large decides to change course. Either that, or people will eventually get tired of fooling themselves, and tired of drawing yellow smiley faces on the corpses of important projects like GNU Bison and even Debian. You might not think Debian really matters to the FSF or the GNU Project per se, but there wouldn’t be a Trisquel without it.

I don’t blame Stallman for this. Frankly, he has done enough — and people have failed to find someone stronger, more principled, or who demonstrates better leadership. On the one hand, he is the person at the helm; intuitively, blame goes to the leaders. But then it’s one thing to have a coup — it’s another thing entirely to have a coup and not have any damned idea what you’re doing or why.

Free software has lost track of itself. By the time it finds itself again, and I still hope that it does — things are going to be significantly different than they are today.

Long live rms, and happy happy.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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