Free and open source software is not the end goal

When I first started thinking about this article, the title was going to be “I don’t care about free software anymore.” But I figured that would be troll bait and I thought I should be a little less spicy. It’s true in a sense, though. I don’t care about free/open source software as an end goal.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) says “free software is about having control over the technology we use in our homes, schools and businesses”. The point isn’t that the software itself is freely-licensed, it’s about what the software license permits or restricts. I used to think that free software was a necessary-but-insufficient condition for users having control over their computing. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case anymore.

Why free software might not matter

Software isn’t useful until someone uses it. So we should evaluate software in that context. And most software use these days involves 1. data and 2. computers outside the user’s control. We’ll get back to #2 in a moment, but I want to focus on the data. If Facebook provided the source code to their entire stack tomorrow—indeed, if they had done it from the beginning—that would do nothing to prevent the harms caused by that platform. One, it does nothing to diminish the “joys” of spreading disinformation. Two, it would be no guarantee that something else isn’t reading the data.

While we were so focused on the software, we essentially ignored the data. Now, the data is just as important, if not more, as the software. There are plenty of examples of this in my talk “We won. Now what?” presented at DevConf.CZ (25 minutes) and DevConf.US (40 minutes) last year. Being open is no guarantee of data protection, just as being proprietary is not guarantee of data harm.

We’ll always use other people’s computers

Let’s return to the “computers outside the user’s control” point. There’s a lot of truth to the “there is no cloud, there’s only other people’s computers” argument. And certainly if everyone ran their own services, that would reduce the risk of harm.

But here in the real world, that’s not going to happen. Most people cannot run their own software services—they have neither the skill nor the resources. Among those who do, many have no desire to. Apart from the impossibility of people running their own services, there’s the fact that communication means that the information lives in two places, so you’re still using someone else’s computer.

It’s all very complicated

There’s also the question of whether or not the absolutist view of software freedom is the right approach. The free software movement seems to be very libertarian in nature: if each user has freedom over their computing, that is a benefit to everyone. Others would argue (as the Ethical Source movement has) that enabling unethical uses of software is harmful. These two positions are at odds.

Whether or not you think the software license is the appropriate places to address this issue, I suspect many, if not most, developers would prefer that their software not be used for evil purposes. In order to enforce that, the software becomes non-free.

This is a complicated issue, with no right answer and no universal agreement. I don’t know what the way forward is, but I know that we cannot act like free software is the end goal. If we want to get the general public on board, we have to convince them in terms that make sense to their values and concerns, not ours. We must make software that is useful and usable in addition to being free. And we must understand that people choosing non-free software is not a moral failing but a decision to optimize for other values. We must update our worldview to match the 2020s; the 1990s are not coming back.

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