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.




Software Freedom Day 2010 – WordPress for the win!

Well, Software Freedom Day Melbourne has been and gone for another year! This year’s event was absolutely amazing, with thanks to Multimedia Victoria, Linux Australia, the State Library of Victoria, VicNet and Linux Users’ of Melbourne, whose generosity enabled us to produce hundreds of free DVDs packed with free and open source software (FOSS) tools, and deliver a fabulous program of workshops and talks.

I had the privilege of delivering a WordPress workshop with Sarah Stokely and Anthony Cole, whose experience – both technical and with blogging in general – ensured that participants got a well rounded introduction in WordPress’ strengths and limitations. The workshop was fully booked – and we had a waiting list just as big!

A huge thanks here is due to Peter Lieverdink, who with the folks at Computerbank enabled us to have not only 10 operational computers for the workshop, but also a server to run it from! Many thanks guys!

The notes from the workshop will be polished off and set out to participants shortly 🙂

UPDATE: Slides are now available! Please note that these were produced by Sarah Stokely, Anthony Cole and myself Software Freedom Day Melbourne 2010 WordPress Workshop notes (ppt format, 1280kb)

We know what you’re thinking – why aren’t they in Open Office Impress format? Well, we had to collaborate over multiple machines – this document will still open in Impress!

Gearing up for Software Freedom Day 2010

It’s just under two weeks until Software Freedom Day is celebrated – and I’m so excited by this year’s event!

It’s promising to be the best Melbourne event ever – with Senator Kate Lundy confirmed to speak on Government 2.0 and Rami Olwan of Creative Commons also speaking. And let’s not forget a raft of short presentations from the likes of Richard Jones, who spearheads Melbourne’s Python community and Colin Jacobs – chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia. Luminaries Donna Benjamin and Ben Sturmfels will also be addressing what is expected to be an audience of several hundred.

I really feel that this year has marked a turning point in the promotion of free and open source (FOSS) tools and a coming of age of the community. Netbooks are now shipped with Linux, GIMP is a term in widespread use and WordPress and Drupal are tools of choice. The community has gained credibility through programs such as the LUV Beginners’ Workshops, and through consistent delivery of engaging and informative events – such as previous Software Freedom Days.

The global financial crisis has highlighted the need to derive significant value for money from the software tools that we use – and in some ways has caused both businesses and individuals to question why they’re paying hundreds of dollars for tools when FOSS equivalents are freely available.

Growing awareness of privacy violations and the general attitude of some large social networking sites toward user ownership of data has also come to the fore, helped in no small part by the efforts of Paul Fenwick. The Patent Absurdity campaign, aiming to abolish software patents, has highlighted the need to reform restrictive practices which stifle innovation – and therefore the information economy.

Interested? More information below 🙂

More links:

Software Freedom Day Melbourne 2010 is kindly and generously sponsored by: