Bonum Certa Men Certa

Reigniting Excitement and Momentum in Free Software, Based on Accurate Hypotheses

Video download link | md5sum a7af02d44f8762ea610e280930b33d01

Summary: Response to a new article entitled "Free Software's Relevance in 2021" and my own take on the situation, seeing that there are misconceptions and misunderstandings

THERE are many people out there who are directly and less directly involved in Free software development. There are far more people who are Free software users; many don't even know that, partly because they don't understand what that term even means. The media won't tell them, either.

Someone else's stance

In the video above it is merely a response to a new essay written by a programmer in Australia; it's my first reading of it, I didn't even know he was Australian until after I had recorded. It merits an explanation; why respond to something before even reading it? Well, I saw too many issues in it (too many to mentally keep track of) and decided to go through the text while recording.

First of all, the author seems to be mixing the issue of software freedom with totally different issues (albeit important ones). In some cases, issues are serious issues no matter how they're implemented and under what licence. In the example of contract-tracing, which we wrote about many times last year, it's a bad idea altogether, both for practical and ethical reasons. I think it's important not to conflate that sort of issue with software freedom; the legitimate issue, I think, is the openwashing of contract-tracing ploys, e.g. by the Linux Foundation. For similar reasons, vaccination isn't a software freedom issue.

The author then speaks about so-called 'smart' phones (which Stallman compares or equates to "Stalin's Dream"). Again, this isn't so much of a software freedom issue. These sorts of devices are inherently problematic because of data collection associated with their operation. Unlike cars, for example, they would not do very much without being connected to the network.

The remainder of the piece is, in my humble opinion, making loaded and likely unsubstantiated statements about copyleft and software that's reciprocally-licensed. More examples would have helped, though I suspect he's just not correctly defining the obstacles or describing the situation. Maybe as a hardcore developer he hasn't been keeping close enough track of the more emergent threats.

I don't want to make this article merely a cordial rant about someone else's take, so instead I'll have my own go at defining the problem and possible solutions.

My personal stance

First of all, let's define the scope of the problem and describe what we deal with. When someone in the crowd heckled Richard Stallman by bringing up vegetarianism (basically trying to dare/shame Stallman for talking about software freedom but not about animals' freedom) people reacted with bafflement. It happened a few years ago and I'm familiar with that tactic. One corporate troll, for instance, likes to change the subject to sex if we debate national security issues like back doors. The morality/ethics issues associated with undermining real security (betraying users on behalf of the state or monopolistic corporations) merits a subject change. It's the only way to appear like "winning" a debate (changing the topic entirely).

Free software does not speak about privacy; instead it focuses on being able to exercise control and study code, irrespective of which pertinent aspects that affects (there's a lot more to it than privacy). While it's true that Free software can emancipate users from mass surveillance, there's no guarantee that Free software won't be (mis)used for that purpose, capitalising on Freedom Zero. In fact, some of the world's biggest spies (governments and corporations) use GNU/Linux for their spying operations. So in general that's an entirely different issue.

So we're now left with licensing issues; how do we convince more companies, governments and people to release their code as Free software? Moreover, how do we convince billions of people to choose Free software over proprietary software? We generally want more code to be Free software and more people to use Free software.

From my understanding, GPL-licensed software is of high quality. There are many projects that demonstrate that (the video mentions KDE in passing), so quality is not likely to be the real problem. In terms of the size of the development force (number of people, committers, commits etc.), we're no worse off than any proprietary software company, so it's probably not our biggest concern. In fact, a lot of foundational software -- including the kernel -- is already Free software. Its quality is best bar none.

People I speak to (e.g. in IRC) say that GNU languishes because of neglect, but judging by frequency of GNU releases (pertinent projects) I find that assertion difficult to believe/support with evidence. As for the CLA, that seems to be something that IBM et al abhor because they want to 'own' everything. So I remain unconvinced that the true underlying issues are related to this. Moreover, the phony scandals and smear campaigns against Stallman (FSF personified) should be considered a corrupt media problem more than a legitimate PR problem. Media that takes bribes from IBM and Microsoft is inflaming and inciting the masses in an attempt to undermine the FSF.

In a nutshell, taking into account conversations I recently had with Leah Rowe (who prepares "Save GNU"), here are some of the things we need to do in order to advance Free software:

  1. Advocacy/outreach. A lot of people don't know (or only think that they know) the issues at stake. If explained in a compelling and convincing enough fashion, we'll get more people to join our cause. It spreads in a non-linear fashion (teach X people about the issue and each of them will tell Y people the same).
  2. Eliminate GitHub. Or tackle centralisation in general. Microsoft is a lot more sinister in that regard and we need to weaken their 'land grab' attempts. They know what they're doing and it's an attack on us.
  3. Reject media owned and controlled by proprietary software companies. Toxic publishers and tabloids like ZDNet need to rot away and ultimately shut down. They're a force of occupation not only against our movement but also against truth itself.
  4. Teach more people how to code and hack. When we say "hack" we mean modify code. We need more people with the ability to fork software and actively participate (not through GitHub; see point 2).

With all that said, it's likely that we've overlooked lots of other points. But the objective wasn't to make an exhaustive list but to get the ball rolling. Join us in IRC to discuss further.

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