Free Software: Socialism for Computing

August 23, 2011

[This article originally appeared on the New Left Project website.]

As I’ve delved deeper into politics I’ve been struck by just how many activists on the left who might otherwise self-identify as anti-capitalist, socialist or defenders of personal freedom, are quite willing to accept corporate control over the technology they rely on. Having been involved in the free software movement for the past six years, I have noticed a strange cognitive dissonance with regards to this issue; one I feel needs to be tackled with education on the alternatives.

You may have heard of ‘open source’ or ‘free software’ before. In fact you’re most likely already making use of it, whether you realise it or not. Free software powers internet giants such as Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon. The Firefox browser is used by around 30% of web users around the world. Free software is also becoming more widely used in consumer devices, like mobile phones running Android.

So what is free software? And why should something which might be more at home in the basement of The IT Crowd concern those of us on the left?

Without wishing to become entangled in boring technical jargon, for software to be classed as ‘free,’ it must meet four essential criteria of freedom. Users should have the freedom to run the program for any purpose, the freedom to study how the program works and change it to make it do what they wish, the freedom to redistribute copies so they can help their neighbour, and finally the freedom to distribute copies of modified versions to others.

The free software movement was established during the early 1980s by MIT academic Richard Stallman. Stallman had become frustrated with the creeping restrictions on software development, which had historically been open to everybody. Large corporations ceased the distribution of underlying computer source code, which prevented users from tweaking the program to meet their needs or to fix bugs themselves. The extension of copyright law to software in the 1980s also acted as an additional restriction.

(If this all still sounds a little confusing, perhaps I should let free-software advocate – and national treasure – Stephen Fry explain it a little further, in a fantastic video he recorded for the 25th birthday of the free software foundation.)

Many are initially confused by the term ‘free’ in this context, assuming that it means gratis: without financial cost. It does, but the issue of cost barely scratches the surface when it comes to understanding free software. The constitutional scholar and professor of law at Harvard Law School, Lawrence Lessig, argues:

[Free Software is] not free as in costless, but free as in limited in its control by others. Free software is control that is transparent, and open to change, just as free laws, or the laws of a “free society,” are free when they make their control knowable, and open to change. The aim of Stallman’s “free software movement” is to make as much code as it can transparent, and subject to change, by rendering it “free.”

Introduction to ‘Free Software, Free Society’

Lessig compares the methods by which free software contributes to society to that of a legal brief: a free and open document which can be copied and integrated into future briefs or judicial opinion; the outcome of which being the evolution of law via continual improvement, revision and cooperation.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, proprietary software (such as that produced by Apple, Adobe or Microsoft) could be compared to cooking with a recipe book which is both carved in stone and chained to a single kitchen. It leaves users helpless, unable to adapt the package to their needs, banned from sharing and creating derivative works, and unable to fix problems themselves.

One of the most compelling reasons for free software adoption is that it fits into a left-leaning, ethical and economic framework of sharing and cooperation. It is – in short – socialism for computing.

So what exactly is so bad about us using an Apple iPhone or purchasing a computer with Microsoft Windows installed?

A special problem occurs when activists for social change use proprietary software, because its developers, who control it, may be companies they wish to protest—or that work hand in glove with the states whose policies they oppose. Control of our software by a proprietary software company, whether it be Microsoft, Apple, Adobe or Skype, means control of what we can say, and to whom. This threatens our freedom in all areas of life.

Richard Stallman – Your Freedom Needs Free Software

As technology has evolved, the corporate stranglehold which Stallman first observed in the 1980s has increased exponentially and so has the abuse of this power.

For example, Microsoft has been involved in several high profile anti-trust cases, and was convicted of monopolistic behaviour by the EU in 2004 with a fine totalling $730m. Amazingly. Microsoft chose to disregard this decision and subsequently received a further $1.4bn fine in 2008. This was the first time a corporation had wilfully ignored an anti-trust ruling in over 50 years of EU competition policy.

Apple and other large technology companies also partake in some ethically questionable behaviour in the production of their equipment. Apple was targeted by Greenpeace in 2007 over the toxic chemicals found within the iPhone, following founder Steve Jobs’ earlier dismissal of environmental concerns as ‘bullshit’.

The recent rise of corporately controlled cloud computing , where your personal data is stored not on your own PC or laptop but in the data centres of a company such as Google, Amazon or Dropbox, presents a new and unexplored set of dangers to technological freedom. The privacy implications of cloud computing could be massive, with providers able to – lawfully or unlawfully – access data, or supply it with ease to law enforcement agencies, a massive concern for anyone involved in protest or direct action. Similarly, the emergence of e-books represents an additional threat, as Amazon proved by remotely deleting copies of books (which ironically included George Orwell’s 1984) from their customer’s Kindle devices in 2009.

Well, the Internet, like most technology, is a very double-edged sword. Like any technology, including printing, it has a liberatory potential, but it also has a repressive potential, and there’s a battle going on about which way it’s going to go, as there was for radio, and television, and so on.

Noam Chomsky – The Big Idea, 1996

So what are the alternatives? Whilst some popular free software is also available for proprietary platforms such as Windows or Mac, this simply doesn’t compare to the benefits of moving to an entirely free system.

GNU/Linux is a completely open computing platform with many variants, perhaps the most well-known of which being Ubuntu and Debian. Removing proprietary software from your machine and installing an operating system such as Ubuntu is the simplest way to experience full software freedom. It supports all the latest technology you’d expect from your computer and provides easy access to thousands of open applications developed by teams of volunteers from around the globe.

A great many Latin American countries including Cuba, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela are already making heavy use of GNU/Linux, as are other governments in Europe. However, the freedom which free software enables is far from limited to consumer technology.

Sukey is a perfect example of free software’s liberating potential. The developers built the web based anti-kettling tool making heavy use of existing free software and the developers plan to release Sukey itself under a free software licence once it is stable, allowing activists around the world to adopt and adapt Sukey for their own needs. It is almost impossible to conceive that Sukey could have been so speedily written during the student protests of 2010 if an existing wealth of free software hadn’t existed for them to derive from.

Free software is politically neutral, but is theoretically open for any group or party to support. Yet the left seems strangely quiet on its potential benefits, whereas the right seems to have taken full advantage.

George Osborne has espoused the advantages of free software – using its corporate-friendly incarnation ‘open source’ – claiming in a speech to the Royal Society in 2007 that the British Government could save £600m a year by making the switch. No doubt Osborne sees in free software yet another opportunity to privatise the provision of IT services to friendly third-party contractors, however the initial sentiment is encouraging. Sadly, the Conservatives – and to a similar extent the Greens - are the only UK political parties which wholeheartedly encourage the use of free software in government within their party policy. Labour has made some moves to encouraging free software adoption, but these appear to be quite hollow and fairly limited in scope.

We desperately need to hear more from politicians and political activists on this issue. Free software represents a fantastic tool at our disposal to take back control over our technology from corporations and governments who might otherwise continue to violate our rights in ways as innovative as the new technology.

So do bear in mind, when you set out to purchase your next Apple iPhone or Windows 7 computer, the system of oppressive restrictions you are propping up by doing so. I hope you’ll pause to consider whether free software might offer you a cheaper, more ethical, secure and user-friendly alternative.

[Article photo: quasimime on flickr.]

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