richard stallman
Evgeny Morozov
free software

Where The Free Software Movement Went Wrong (And How To Fix It)

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The biggest change I’ve seen in the tech industry in the past decade isn’t social media, cloud computing, big data, consumerization or even mobile. It’s the mainstream acceptance of open source. Even 10 years ago open source was controversial. Back then “open vs. proprietary” arguments would still erupt at meetings and parties. Back then vendors spread FUD about open source. Today, every vendor wants to call themselves “open.”

Why is that? Writer Evgeny Morozov traces it back to Tim O’Reilly and his media/conference empire in a long piece for The Baffler published this week.

According to Morozov, O’Reilly hijacked Richard Stallman’s free software movement and turned it into the more corporate-friendly open source movement. From there, O’Reilly would go on to redefine web freedom as freedom for companies like Google to do whatever they want online, and to redefine open government not as a movement for transparency and accountability but as the need to give free data sets to for-profit companies.

Free Software, as the saying goes, is free as in speech, not as in beer.

The piece raises important questions about the Californian Ideology and how it influences policy — and about the consequences of sacrificing principles in the name of pragmatism. But I think Morozov misses some crucial reasons that open source supplanted Free Software.

Morozov sort of glosses over the differences between open source and Free Software. Free Software, as the saying goes, is free as in speech, not as in beer. The primary freedoms, as Morozov notes, are: “users should be able to run the program for any purpose, to study how it works, to redistribute copies of it, and to release their improved version (if there was one) to the public.”

But most open source software — as defined by the Open Source Initiative — is also free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation. So what’s the problem? The difference between the two movements is that Free Software is a social movement, and open source is a methodology. In an essay titled “Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software,” Stallman complains that the freedoms promoted by the Free Software Movement are not discussed by open-source advocates, and that because of that, the public in general remains deeply confused about what open source even means.

Morozov writes that the difference between the two is that free software emphasizes users and that open source emphasizes developers. But I would submit that free software is also primarily interested in developers as well, in that the freedoms it emphasizes are ones that matter to developers, but very little to the rest of us. That’s where the movement went wrong.

Sure there are a few non-developers who care about this stuff — activists and other security-conscious people have reason to want to study the software they use, or to have it reviewed by trusted networks. But try telling graphic designers that they should use GIMP instead of Photoshop because they can study the code, modify it and release their own version. Or try telling a data analyst why they should use Libre Office instead of Excel, or a musician why they should use Ardour instead of Logic. See how far you get.

All this raises the question: did open source eclipse Free Software because O’Reilly is such a gifted marketer, or because people just don’t care that much about the freedoms that Stallman cares about? Is it any wonder that developers are the primary users of free software?

Once companies and developers realized that you could use open source software to build products, the flood gates were open.

To hear the old timers tell it, it was Apache that won the mainstream over to open source by 1) providing a really good server (that happened to be free) and 2) having a license that made it very clear that a company wouldn’t be sued for using it for commercial purposes, even if they built some custom software on top of it.

Once companies and developers realized that you could use open source software to build products, the flood gates were open. The upside is that more people learned about open-source technologies and corporations paid for more open-source development. If open source hadn’t caught on, we might all be doing our blogging on proprietary content management systems coded in ColdFusion running on Windows servers and IIS.

An alternate picture of O’Reilly that emerges, looking over his history, is one of a pragmatist willing to make compromises to reach his goals. You can also argue that open government would never have gotten off the ground if it weren’t for the economic argument that open data could be used by private companies to stimulate the economy — we’re still waiting to see how that works out. Getting the mainstream to accept open source meant more Free Software developers getting paychecks, as well as selling more books and conference tickets. But it meant downplaying the ideology, and accepting only the software freedoms that were imagined by developers in the early 1980s.

I do prefer free as in freedom software, even though I’m not a developer, but there are a few other freedoms that matter more to me:

  • Freedom to run software that I’ve paid for on any device I want without hardware dongles or persistent online verification schemes.
  • Freedom from the prying eyes of government and corporations.
  • Freedom to move my data from one application to another.
  • Freedom to move an application from one hosting provider to another.
  • Freedom from contracts that lock me in to expensive monthly or annual plans.
  • Freedom from terms and conditions that offer a binary “my way or the highway” decision.

The first of those is certainly part of the Free Software Movement, and the others are promoted today by advocates for the open web, federated web and/or indie web and vendor relationship management. I’m sure there are many more freedoms I’m not thinking of, but the groundwork is there for a new Free Software Movement that’s more in line with the needs of the users in our time.