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Freedom: a choice

“The price of freedom is eternal vigilance”
Thomas Jefferson

Rarely does an informal user group talk challenge my perceptions. This month’s Linux User’s of Victoria Beginner’s Workshop talk, presented by Ben Sturmfels, did.

Many will be familiar with the oft-cited benefits of free and open source (FOSS) software; it’s cheaper to acquire, strong community support means that bugs are found and patches provided quickly; because it’s ‘open’, it’s readily able to be extended and modified. Essentially, there are a number of practical  benefits to adopting FOSS.

However, for Sturmfels, convenience is not the overriding prerogative for adopting FOSS.

Freedom – as in liberty, not gratis – is.

Taking a leaf from the book of Richard Stallman and contemporaries at the Free Software Foundation, Sturmfels outlined four basic freedoms that he believes people should be more aware of when making software choices;

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

If these principles are not considered when using, buying or recommending software, then we are essentially curtailing our own freedom. We are penning ourselves in. Considerable debate ensued among the twenty or so people present at the workshop, with several pertinent examples highlighted. Being forced into a single supplier for a product, and that supplier then leveraging a monopoly position to raise prices was the obvious case. This got me thinking, after having a recent case with an integrator at work, who refused to share their source code for a user interface device. In turn this increased the dependency we had upon the integrator, rather than them competing on superior quality, innovation or price. Perhaps Sturmfels was on to something here.

Digging a bit further, he went on to highlight that our choices also impinge on others. By using non-free (as in liberty) software that has a ‘network effect’ (the more users of the software there are, the greater its value – such as Skype or Adobe Flash Player), we are actually pressuring others to use non-free software, and in doing so, pressuring them to curtail their own freedoms. This struck me as a novel angle on an old debate.

Surprisingly, many open source products and operating system distributions contain non-free/proprietary components. The most common are things such as device drivers for wireless cards, graphics cards, and software that plays media files such as Adobe Flash and some codecs. Even the popular Ubuntu GNU/Linux distro contains some proprietary software components. Two distributions which don’t include gNewSense, and TrisequelGNU/Linux, the distro preferred by Sturmfels.

The issues with software freedom are only being exacerbated with the prevalence of cloud-based services, such as Flickr, Twitter and Facebook. The question of control of user data, and the inability to inspect the inner workings of many of these applications goes against the grain. There do however appear to be alternatives, such as and Diaspora, that adopt a more libertarian attitude and make their source code freely available. Indeed, free software advocate and lawyer at the Free Software Law Centre, Eben Moglen, has conceptualised the Freedom Box – a distributed method of sharing data with those you choose, while retaining privacy and intellectual control. It would also have the ability, via peer to peer networking, to route around disruptions to internet connectivity, such as that experienced in Egypt earlier in the year.

However, software freedom is not sexy. It is a hard sell.

In the end, as software users and advocates we have a choice to make. Sturmfels compellingly puts the case for freedom.





  1. James Macpherson
    James Macpherson Sun April 17, 2011

    Hey Kathy,

    Not to pick but 2 famous distros with the ‘libre’ software you missed are Debian and Linux Mint. Debian, IMO, is the best server OS available, and it is from this distro Ubuntu and others draw, and its default is to exclude non-free software. Mint is interesting, built on Ubuntu and gaining its own popularity, its default setting is to more easily allow non-free stuff installed at setup, like skype, flash, mp3 codecs, dvd playing etc. *but* also has a prominent checkbox to only use free software, ignoring proprietary drivers, codecs and other software.

    What are you using desktop wise at the mo’, reidk?

  2. KathyReid
    KathyReid Sun April 17, 2011

    Hey James!
    Fair call on the distros. Personally I’m using Ubuntu, generally because my box is a general purpose one and I need to be able to do *everything* on it. We had an interesting discussion on whether someone like the FSF would team up with a hardware manufacturer and release a lappy or netbook featuring only hardware that has open drivers – negating the need to install proprietary drivers for things like wireless and graphics cards – but it still seems some way off..

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