Bonum Certa Men Certa

Making The Most of The Fourth Age of Free Software



By figosdev

They said what? Founder of Free software does not and cannot speak for Free software?



Summary: "For better or for worse, we can be certain the Free Software Foundation will never be the same."

Internet eras come and go in one lifetime. Other technological ages approach and wane with the same haste.



The First Age of Free software arrived in the 1950s, when source code was both available and unrestricted. Neither copyright nor patents were applicable to code, and the A-2 compiler gave customers the opportunity to study and improve the software.

The First Age continued through the 1970s, and gave birth to C, UNIX and BSD. In 1980, Software became copyrightable in the United States -- as of the late 1990s, Microsoft had still not yet found a way to abuse the patent system to increase their level of control over the market.

"In 1980, Software became copyrightable in the United States -- as of the late 1990s, Microsoft had still not yet found a way to abuse the patent system to increase their level of control over the market."The Second, and first deliberate Age of Free software, began in the 1980s as Richard Stallman created the Free Software Foundation. Now that monopolies were exerting additional control over software, Stallman realised that this ultimately meant exerting unjust control over the users themselves. For an extreme example of this, one need only consider the level of control that Amazon has today over your ebook library.

You may "purchase" an ebook, but Amazon controls your digital reader and with that, your library. You have less of a say over your own books than the company you bought them from, which is an unprecedented level of control over libraries that circumvents First-sale doctrine.

First-sale doctrine dictates that even if you don't have the right to publish a book, the physical copy you purchase is yours to change, resell, destroy -- you don't control the publishing rights but you do own your copy.

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (where applicable) is at odds with First-sale doctrine, making it a crime to circumvent the encryption scheme on ebooks, music and films. But it's Amazon's control of the software that gives them their control of your library -- and poses an existential threat to public libraries, which have nearly always existed in the (legally and constitutionally defended) defiance of publishers.

"But it's Amazon's control of the software that gives them their control of your library -- and poses an existential threat to public libraries, which have nearly always existed in the (legally and constitutionally defended) defiance of publishers."There are countless other examples of how non-free software creates a lack of freedom for the user, but the threat that companies who promote such software pose to libraries is as good an example as any. Similar modern injustices exist for users of automobiles, pacemakers and farm equipment.

In the late 90s, the Third Age of Free software began. This was an age where Free software worked to maintain awareness as a schism took place. As the GNU project moved forward from creating the rest of an operating system to creating a viable kernel, another free kernel emerged. We know this as the Linux kernel, which has included a Free software license since 1992.

It was not a problem that the Linux kernel was created outside of the GNU project per se, but it created a unique challenge. The authors of Linux were not interested in promoting Free software; they preferred to promote an offshoot or alternative concept called "Open Source." And one of the primary goals of Open Source was to focus on goals that businesses liked, without having to talk about politics or freedom.

"The authors of Linux were not interested in promoting Free software; they preferred to promote an offshoot or alternative concept called "Open Source." And one of the primary goals of Open Source was to focus on goals that businesses liked, without having to talk about politics or freedom."The Third Age is an age of excessive compromise, as well as greater awareness of the products of Free software -- through an often unsympathetic, pro-corporate and monopoly-sponsored tech press. This age created great misconceptions and frequently misrepresented history prior to "informing" the public about it. The Third Age helped to steal Free software from the poor and the general public, and give it to the rich and monopolistic.

The Third Age is largely successful, from the standpoint of people who are happy to find that Free software is now actually less free than before. If you ask someone sympathetic to Open Source, they may refer to the movement they co-opted as consisting of "neckbeards", "whiners" and "zealots". They mock people who spent years working hard to make software free for everyone as "cheapskates". But for them, Open source is a triumph. It has entirely different standards of success, but by those standards things are going very well.

If an outside group co-opting Free software forms the Third Age, then the next great Schism in Free Software is the Fourth or present Age. This is a potentially dark age where Free Software itself splits apart -- the cause could be considered as a combination of factors.

One factor is the damage to the Free software ecosystem caused by monopoly interference. This has been recognised for years by Free software supporters in various camps, closer to the outskirts (or frontiers) of the movement than the Free Software Foundation itself.

A second factor is the failure of the Free Software Foundation to respond to this category of interference. For many years, a debate has existed between these frontier supporters and the FSF on what the greatest threats to Free software are today. None of this negates or tries to negate the original or primary threats to freedom that have always existed and are still relevant -- this a key difference between the current schism and Open Source.

"The First Age was an age of de facto software freedom, the Second Age was the first age of deliberate and intentional freedom, the Third Age was an age of challenged freedom -- and in the Fourth Age, we find a dramatic change in leadership and organisation."Finally, there are people working closely with the Free Software Foundation who have supported the complete political and social ousting of its leader. While voluntarily stepping down as president may have given the FSF the chance to find and transition in a leader suitable to the movement, this has now taken place under other, more disruptive circumstances (including leaving the board instead of just the position) and this dramatic change makes the Fourth Age of Free software that much more distinct.

The First Age was an age of de facto software freedom, the Second Age was the first age of deliberate and intentional freedom, the Third Age was an age of challenged freedom -- and in the Fourth Age, we find a dramatic change in leadership and organisation.

You may choose to define this age as the one where its founder was ousted and rejected. Alternatively, you may choose to define this age as the one where the FSF lost credibility with the treatment of its founder. Stallman himself encourages us not to blame the FSF as an organisation, and I can still appreciate and try to support that request. How we go about supporting the FSF in the future is something we are all ultimately going to be discussing.

Speaking personally, I am not the only person that thinks we need the FSF just as much as ever before. I think this is mostly an attack by monopolies, enabled by damage done by Open Source, and that ceding too much control to those who never cared about freedom has weakened the FSF to the point of nearly falling apart.

I do think we should work to save the Free Software Foundation, and abandoning it will not likely save it.

"I do think we should work to save the Free Software Foundation, and abandoning it will not likely save it."But it will only be saved on terms that no longer neglect the problems that led to this age in the first place. In other words, if we continue to support the FSF, it will be clear that Free software advocates have a greater input in the future and are not so easily waved aside.

It's important that the FSF not compromise on its goals, but it is also important that it not shy away from addressing new problems. It can be argued that the FSF has fallen short on both. Since we cannot trust the FSF to get everything right, since it has proven unable to sustain its mission in a number of notable ways, it must be willing to accept help that it waved aside in the past.

This does not mean giving into the false compromise and false promise of Open Source. If anything, it has done too much of that already.

But since the FSF was founded, many organisations sympathetic to Software Freedom and (with varying degree) the FSF itself have formed. These are typically smaller organisations, often focusing on certain aspects of freedom that the FSF may neglect or even try to negate.

These organisations cannot and will not be ignored or hastily dismissed any longer. We have predicted several of the crises the FSF is bleeding out from, and if the FSF insists on continuing to bleed out this way, it will die. We can't force them to listen, or to agree. But we can certainly point out the foolishness of some of the key mistakes that brought us to this point in time. We can also point out solutions that are within the FSF's ability to implement.

"Regardless of what happens to a sole organisation, this is the second and new age where lines have appeared between those who would have Richard Stallman as captain, and those who would not."The FSF remains very important to Free software. It holds documents, software, history and talent that can probably do far more good where it belongs -- sheltered and maintained by the FSF, if they are willing to work with a broadening, ideologically diverse but sincere and devoted Free software community. By no means will we have a net benefit if the FSF falls.

But we also know that the FSF has failed us in ways we won't put aside. Even if the organisation is vital, even if the majority of its volunteers are better described as "with us" than "against us," those who are responsible for these failures will be noted and trusted less than in the past.

The FSF must choose -- between becoming less trusted as an organisation, or understanding that certain individuals will become less trusted as a result of all this. We owe it to Stallman, as well as ourselves, not to be hasty or superficial in where we place or withdraw our trust. But the First and Second ages of Free software were ages of innocence and growing up. The Third and Fourth ages will prove to be ages of hard lessons and struggling to regain lost ground, as well as ages of new ideas and evolution.

"For better or for worse, we can be certain the Free Software Foundation will never be the same."In many ways, it was our own decisions that led us here. In another sense, this is the direction we were swept into. The Free Software Foundation lacks a leader, and the Free software movement is searching for a new anchor. What once was a great ship, is very arguably now a fleet. Regardless of what happens to a sole organisation, this is the second and new age where lines have appeared between those who would have Richard Stallman as captain, and those who would not.

For some of us, this could be the age where Stallman is retired as captain and is promoted (by us) to Admiral, as several new captains appear. For better or for worse, we can be certain the Free Software Foundation will never be the same. Free software sails on, into uncharted waters. We venture forth in search of greater freedom -- we do not abandon the quest for freedom for marketshare alone.

Long Live Stallman, and Happy Hacking.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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