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Opinion: The GPL and Politics

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GPL at 2:48 am by Guest Editorial Team

GPL meme
Daniel’s meme

Summary: Daniel from Argentina responded to our take on GPL enforcement and agreed for his message to be reproduced (along with the above meme, which he had made and sent to us)

Hi there Roy.

I saw your video about Mastodon, and would like to send you some comments.

It’s about the political side of Free Software: an aspect we have discussed many times by now.

I feel the video/argument is mostly divided into two halves: a first one about Free Software and some of its uses, and the second half more focused on Mastodon itself.

I agree with everything you say about the Mastodon side of the argument. I mean this: it’s more about power over speech and people’s political capital rather than about freedom, and I find your experience with it quite representative.
However, your reading about “how it all should really be” left me some doubts that I would like to discuss myself.

1. About the “political” aspect.

At ~12:40, you tell “this is problematic, first of all, because it contributes to the perception that FS is very politicized, and is going to great lengths to discourage adoption from certain political factions”.

Well… Free Software kinda IS that.

The “kinda” part (as in “debatable”, or even “wrong”) is that Free Software would never actually say something along the lines of “these political parties are prohibited from using Free Software”. I believe that’s closer to your point (what you want to argue against), and I agree with you that something like that would be totally opposite to the freedom FS works for, and therefore would be a misuse of FS.

Yet, you and I react that way any time any corporate agent gets its dirty hands in some FS project or organization. It’s not about “we don’t want Microsoft people to use GNU/Linux”: it’s about “Microsoft IS ENEMY of FS”. We don’t like them, we don’t trust them, we fight them, and that may not be on the philosophical core of FS but it actually IS in its historical core. We are, in a big part, also that: if not by philosophy, then by culture. And Microsoft is not and should not be the only such case.

And I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy in that. I think business corporations (as MS) and non-profit organizations (as the FSF) are very much “political parties”, even if they don’t go to elections for any state position. But both kinds of organizations work constantly for social changes (or against them), and that’s pretty much politics.

The point is always about “canonical political parties” getting all the credit for “politics” itself. That SHOULD NOT happen. That’s just the representational aspect of wWstern liberal democracies, which these days seem more like a bug rather than a feature.

Of course you start and end the video acknowledging a political side of Free Software. Yet, “politicized” gets in the middle of your argument over and over again. That word should be something more close to “partisan”.

I don’t think in English, so it’s tricky for me to figure out the details, but I feel like “politics” in English as spoken by people has a slightly different meaning compared to the people around me. It’s not like we don’t have the same problem here: it’s full of people telling you “this/that is not political, don’t politicize it” when you argue from some technical perspective against some political figure. That’s usually the case when legal stuff gets in the argument, or even scientific. But we also know very well here that there’s NO WAY of splitting politics from social criticism, no matter how technical it is: social action, whatever its nature, in the XXI century, is political, and whoever tells otherwise is quickly recognized as a negationist. And technical or not, Free Software DOES social criticism. Free Software DOES have enemies. Free Software IS NOT neutral: it favors freedom. And that is totally fine.

Yet, freedom comes with some attached issues.

2. About the weaponization of licences.

Make no mistake: it IS a problem. What you perceive and argue about in your video IS a very real and very core problem.
But, as I argued before with “political”, I also believe the GPL very much IS a weapon (in the metaphorical meaning you give to that word, of course).

“For freedom” may say RMS or the FSF: but everybody knows the dangers with weapons…

I’ve argued in other messages that the GPL is meaningless without enforcement.

It’s not actually “meaningless”: it means A LOT, as it guides people’s ideas and discusses stuff like property and sharing and rights. But that’s ideology, and you can do that by just writing books or preaching in any way; the GPL is a legal license, and that’s where it’s “meaningless” without enforcement. And enforcement is very much “a weapon”: you don’t do enforcement with smiles and balloons and candy, but with consequences of failing to comply.

The GPL beautifully shows that people breaking it are not stealing “property” or “money”, but other people’s freedom. That means many things: from allowing people to do stuff to questioning value theory. It’s brilliant, elegant, and absolutely necessary for social change, for the good.

Yet it’s also aggressive, and it imposes rules on others. Hence “weapon”.

Now, anyone can use a weapon, for whatever reasons. What do we do about that?

It’s the same issue as “I don’t want my free software being used for ICE, smart rifles, surveillance, etc”.

I remember an RMS talk here in Argentina, about 2010, where someone from the Argentinian Python community asked him about that issue. “I don’t want my free software being used in killing people”. And RMS said “from a FS perspective, we have to let them do it”. You can imagine that didn’t result in happy faces.

“Freedom is technical” clashes with “freedom is political” very quickly in real life. And we (as a community) have different stands regarding that.

I’m on the wagon of “freedom MUST have limits”. I’m not sure HOW that crosses with Free Software (I think it does in several different ways, where I’ll favor freedom or restrictions depending on each case), but I’m absolutely certain it does. That problem in part touches your concern about weaponizing the GPL (“it should be used equally, not just against a political party”, yet enforcers are human beings with their own interests), but is much more important in other aspect of your argument: “Free Software as Free Speech”. And that’s where Trump gets tricky.

3. The case of Trump, and what he represents.

You said it yourself, about ~28:00: you don’t want anything to do with those free speech maximalists from Gab, because these people are malicious.

Yet you do, because you argue in favour of free speech (what they say they do) and free software (what they use, and also kinda do). They’re a shining example of everything wrong with “free”.

I would say it’s a blatant lie that gab is “free speech”, as we all know that “leftist discourse is not welcome” barely begins to describe what happens in that space.

Thing is, again, we do that too. We see nazi discourse and we discredit, mock, marginalize, or even ban. Those are not the same things (different powers for different people are involved in each action), but the social structure match: there are implicit and explicit rules for speech, and whoever doesn’t comply faces consequences.

So, from the point of view of the nazis, gab is “freedom”, I have no doubts about that. But if we do critical thinking, we can’t just replicate their logic with a straight face, and we need to face that our freedom of speech actually has limits.

When this issue comes up, you usually use the legal aspect as a limit: the death threat, for example. But I say that’s just naive. I have been defending for years strong freedom of speech online, on different spaces (mostly forums and IRC), even to the point of making banning a taboo of sorts. And over and over again the result is the same: the most rude and violent people make a home of those places with free speech, and everybody else just leaves. I myself was actually very rude, “truth” was the word that made that behaviour legit, and “technical” was always the criteria to discredit criticism: other people had to argue with MY technical points, and theirs were always off-topic from my perspective. And the other side was always full of actually wonderful people, that usually didn’t have the same capacity as I did for expressing or sharing their thoughts. Also people easily get hurt by words (REAL hurt), and this way I found myself over the years being an asshole in the name of free speech. Happens all the time, is a serious issue of free speech, and I personally will no longer face this with naive stances as I consider that would make me part of the problem. Spaces with different people NEED rules. Rules HELP people, even if rules take away degrees of freedom. And “no rules” has always the same consequence: a loud minority with more power than others.

You may disagree with this, and that’s OK. But it’s as empirical as your experience with Mastodon. Surely other people had other experiences.

And I bring this up because, while I think you’re right about Mastodon being used awfully, I also think you’re wrong about what to expect from it as “free software”, and therefore from free software itself.

You focus mostly on how somebody banned your user account because of your opinions and their political bias. But let’s consider for a moment the other two cases you also mention: the ones where some people over the Internet just drop the server to never come back. I would say that people bringing down its servers was irresponsible, because of the impact on the users (loss of data, the feeling that what they do online people care little about, powerlessness, etc) and the technological ecosystem itself (users getting away from this tech because it’s unstable, and so using other more stable stuff). And I share your lecture that all of that seems much more about the power of being admin rather than free speech or empowering users.

Yet again, the same happened decades before with forums and IRC channels: you give extra power to someone, and you get misuse of power issues. On the other hand, you give the same power to everyone, and you get any random person over Internet having the same weight as respected people on the community, and suddenly you have problems of quality vs quantity. And that’s just the beginning of it. Those problems don’t exclude themselves, and you can have both of them together and then more: factions, untold interests, honest irreconcilable dissent, new generations of users with different cultural baggage…

The admins of all that complex systems are usually just people that knew how to install and maintain some software: they know little to none about people. And the point is that this shouldn’t be about software, but about people.

I say “irresponsible” because to me people matter. But I also know that any random person over Internet may just want to administer some instance of a server for whatever reason, such as the ones which may not share my concern over people. “I wanna be an admin” is pretty much an OK thing to want, and “I’m tired of doing this” or “It’s not what I expected, I just wanna leave now” are OK stances too. Free software gives the power to that person to do that. That’s freedom too. And when we talk about that hypothetical admin: is this person “user”, or is something else? Is it OK to empower that person to do that kind of things, no matter what happens with the users of the online service?

Even RMS relativizes the value of Free software in remote servers from an end user perspective.

But my point is that real life puts limits to the Free software ideals, and add lots of complexity that naive stances simply can’t deal with. This are just some of them, and there may be many others. Now, you’re talking about “not making free software an anti-trump thing”, because Free software is not supposed to be that, and here I strongly disagree. This is a good example of my stance on the issue.

Trumpism is no joke, the far-right is growing worldwide, and the Internet is in the middle of it. WE, as the free software community, are in the middle of it: we’re the ones fighting against corporate power inside the software world. We’re the ones turning software into a political issue. We’re the ones talking about ethics and sustainability and people’s empowerment from IT. It’s pretty much irresponsible for us to try to be neutral when the corporate power of Trumpism gets into Free software: that’s already a wrong instance. But by the looks of it, things are so bad with the far-right worldwide that we’re kinda also living a civilizational crisis: nazis again, and this time all around the world, while tech makes them grow and grow by the day, and both global warming and inequality get worse by the year. This is the ultimate real-life limit Roy, and there’s no more room for neutrality here.

There’s always ideals: and there’s always also real-life. Science is supposed to be neutral, and technical, and most of all objective: yet, ask any person who studies science (not “a science”, but science itself, as in “sciences”), and the person will tell you that science is as political as anything else. Or take a look at the justice department of any country in the world, all of them supposedly objective and technical and neutral: full of contradicting normatives, full of lobbying and ideological mandates, full of politics. That’s not “corruption”: that’s the way they are, the way they work. Institutions are NEVER neutral, and never were: they favor values. And Free software favors freedom. We are NOT neutral.

You may be most likely right that GPL enforcers have their own agenda. But in your argument you don’t mention the issue of limited resources (so you can’t just go enforcing GPL against every single server online, therefore you have to cherry-pick your targets), and the fact that high targets may actually be a correct strategy (because of cultural impact of your work). And there’s also the fact that is not the same Trump or Bernie Sanders, and you may have pretty much different stances against each one of them without breaking any Free software ethical rule: I’m OK to have some anti-Trump enforcers, and if I were trying to argue your points I’ll more likely argue in favour of “also anti-Bernie enforcers”, and NOT “neutral enforcers”. Careful Roy, as you reject some very basic enforcer’s humanity traits by trying to defend technicality and neutrality, which is already a questionable idea. But then again, you do that when Trumpism is in the focus of the scene, and Trumpism is the “freedom” of Gab. And not only that, but Trumpism is also fascism: a clear limit to freedom. You may have defensible points, but I must warn you anyways to be very careful with the real-life limits of those arguments. There ARE limits to ideals.

4. Some final notes, mostly about politics.

“Free speech” has his history. It comes from the fight against the churches and kings. Science as we know it championed freedom of speech around the XVII century, but it had more to do with “against dogma” rather than the current idea of “I can say whatever I want”; they’re both very different things.

Free software shares some of that same history. It comes from a long liberal tradition. I’m talking about the left liberal ethos from the French revolution. Later the Cold War experience immunized the USA from Marxist influence, and so liberal ideology is the canon there: you have different shades of liberalism, and that’s it. If you have any “left” in there, it’s also liberal, like it was back then in France. And that’s the place where RMS grew up. So, his freedom imperative had a lot of cultural and political influence from previously-enabled and already-installed reasonings.

Yet, if you work on its logic, and read it from “empowering users” perspective (as you do in your video), Free software is pretty much classist: it’s about “people vs corporations”, and from there “workers vs capitalists” is less than a step away.

I prefer the liberal stance over the Marxist when it comes to talk about what people CAN do, because I don’t like the Marxist implications about work and history and what it means to be human: there’s some idealism I consider empirically and historically incorrect. However, the flaws of liberal ideology also comes from idealism gone wrong, with the uses of “freedom” being the main of such cases, and so I prefer Marxism when it’s about what people SHOULD do. And this is actually the case when almost every contemporary economic theory ends up being just liberal ideology made pseudo-science for business enthusiasts: Marxist theory shines there. And it’s also very useful in places where social responsibility is involved. Let me give you an example. Remember those Mastodon instances taken down by its admins, that I called “irresponsible”? The current liberal-inherited common sense would call those Mastodon instances “servers” or “services”, implying servitude and even a possible commercial interaction. Well… Marxist common sense would call them “means of production”, implying “that’s what people use in order to do stuff”, and would tell you to seize them, to not let such a thing in the hands of people that do not share your class interests. What would have happened to Free software if its people would have used those kinds of categories and reasonings, instead of the liberal-inherited ones, every time a corporate zealot came to our doors with shiny trinkets to offer?

Yet we’re not talking about economics, but about Free software. Let me tell you Roy: I HATE when people try to make that stuff about “it’s just technical”, and then embrace ideal rules as sacred scriptures and call that “freedom”. That’s not freedom: that’s dogma. That’s RMS telling lots of wrong stuff, even if he’s brilliant and actually the creator and rightful (and beloved) leader of our movement. That’s “systemd is ethical because is Free software”, that’s “we should let them do it from a FS perspective”. That’s the kind of rationale that feeds us bloat release by release of almost every single software we use: because if it’s Free software, then everything else is fine. That’s fantasizing that software culture can be limited to a bunch of rules and that’s it. And it’s not like that: it’s quite complicated and much bigger than the 4 Freedoms and “technical quality”, at least if we’re still talking about people.

And it is much complicated than liberal vs Marxist too. Because it’s also about psychology, biology, ecology, sociology, theology, cybernetics, arts, and so much more. What people can do with anything tends to be chaotic, and what people should do almost never can be reduced to simple rules. That’s the very history of human institutions.

Informatics is the way of handling huge real-time complexity: probably the main problem our current societies struggle with to survive; informatics is the way of sharing information of all kinds, from health care to arts; informatics is the way to predict future problems, to calculate just production and distribution of needed materials, to democratize participation in science and politics, to spread awareness, to connect people, to understand and fix diseases. And a giant chunk of informatics is software. And we, as the people that do ethics and politics from the software world, try to focus on the 4 Freedoms and the GPL uses, and that’s it? Really? “Neutral GPL enforcement” is a bigger issue than fascism for our community? Are we really discussing more about “privacy” than about capitalism? When are we going to discuss our own liberal-inherited agenda limits in light of real-life needs like poverty, climate change, overpopulation, and so on? Are we going to keep telling ourselves “it’s just about freedom” in front of all of that, as if software didn’t have anything else to say?

I feel that last paragraph can be very unfair to you, because I know very well that you’re a sensible person on those issues, you do write frequently about all that, and this time you’re just talking about a very specific thing and that’s all. I understand that. But I tell this as a more general idea, as something I feel must be said loudly to the crowd where you also happen to be. So please understand it’s not about you, but about the shared ideas and ideals on the software community in general, and the Free software community in particular. I believe we’re dealing with dogmas and inherited common sense that should be faced with critical thinking. I also believe right-wing corporations are much better organized than we are, and that they’ve learned with time to make us use our own weapons against ourselves (like the very GPL), by which we should be discussing what to do.

I believe the Free software movement must grow into something bigger, and stop trying to be so specific. Because we’re people in a critical infrastructure position for our time, and should think therefore with a more holistic and societal mindset. And I’m not talking about relativize freedom, but about mixing it with other equally important values, ending up in more core guidelines than the 4 Freedoms. Otherwise, I believe we’ve already seen everything Free software can do for society, and frankly I don’t think it’s helping very much these days: most likely makes things worse by allowing Trump zealots to clone Twitter, but this time with Apple EUAs and a free haven to the worst of our culture. That’s just simply too much.

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