Summary: This post addresses common new criticisms of the FSF and/or its philosophy
THE Free Software Foundation (FSF) is no stranger to controversy because its views are seen as ‘not permissible’ in some circles whose goals rely upon subjugation. But the Free Software Foundation seems to have found an uncommon opposer not in proprietary software vendors or even the media industry, which smeared the FSF repeatedly this year.
According to Tim Lee, a promoter of some of the FSF’s ideals as applied to more than just software, someone from the network neutrality debate has disparaged the FSF.
James Lakely, a research fellow at the Heartland Institute, recently pointed me to a new study he’s written on the network neutrality debate. (See also his op-ed summarizing the argument.) Lakely is clearly a smart guy, and his paper is backed up by a significant amount of research. However, the basic argument of his paper—that the network neutrality movement has “unwittingly bought into” the “radical agenda” of the free software movement—strikes me as pretty misguided.
The free software movement is textbook example of the libertarian thesis: it’s a private, voluntary community producing public goods without a dime of taxpayer support. Some leaders of the free software movement don’t realize they’re walking libertarian case studies, and some have an unfortunate tendency to employ left-wing rhetoric to describe what they’re doing. But if you look at the substance of their views, and even more if you look at their actions, it’s hard to find anything for libertarians to object to.
Here is how it’s summarised in Slashdot:
‘I’ve got a new article analyzing the unfortunate tendency of libertarian and free-market organizations to attack free software. The latest example is a policy analyst at the Heartland Institute who attacks network neutrality regulations by arguing that advocates have ‘unwittingly bought into’ the ‘radical agenda’ of the free software movement. I argue that in reality, the free market and free software are entirely compatible, and libertarians are shooting themselves in the foot by antagonizing the free software movement.’
It mostly boils down to government regulation/intervention and Lee defends the goals of the FSF, which he claims are being grossly misinterpreted. This pattern of daemonisation is one that we see quite often (a form of infighting) and words like “religion” [1, 2, 3] are sometimes used to stigmatise the FSF.
It may be a good time to address another daemonisation pattern*. The FSF is often being accused of “exclusion” when in fact it is GPL violators who exclude by not honouring their agreement to share rather than monopolise and exclude others, by preventing access to source code and the permission to modify and redistribute it. Mike Masnick seemingly fails to acknowledge this in the following new column
Even The Open Source Community Gets Overly Restrictive At Times
I find this fascinating on a number of different levels. The argument he’s making — within the open source world — pretty much mirrors the arguments we make to copyright maximalists: that focusing so much on “freeloaders” is pointless, they’re going to exist. Instead, focus on building your overall community, adding value, and setting up a model that works for those people. It’s amazing to think that the excess restrictions in some open source licenses creates something of a parallel world, with parallel issues.
Once again, it all seems to come down to the same thing: restricting what others do is rarely a good strategy. Let people do what they want, and focus on providing the most value for the largest community that wants to be a part of what you’re doing.
The problems in Masnick’s mind are probably very different and the analogy improper because when it comes to derivative works, code and music, for example, vary tremendously. By doing the above (being overly permissive and tolerant of interference between individual freedoms), you enable and empower those who restrict, including those who capitalise at your own expense, at the expense of your freedom. Comments are already pointing this out. Take this new case of HTC for example.
HTC Releases Hero Kernel Source for Developers (Updated)
As the GPL requires immediate availability of all source code created under the aforementioned license, many developers were upset when the initial requests for the source code after the release of the smartphone were met with vague responses and no specific availability information, with some even threatening legal action due to perceived non-compliance.
The short story is that HTC did not comply with the GPL and only under pressure did it release Android source code. That is a good thing and those who suggest otherwise fail to understand the requirements of peer production; it’s the GPL which keeps people honest. Likewise, diversity is not bad, but some people miss the point right now (in reference to Android). The whole point of Free software is that modifications are allowed and even encouraged. To decide on one single way is to eliminate freedom of choice. If deviation is frowned upon or not permitted, then it becomes a development tyranny which puts off the very same developers that it requires. We keep seeing this spin on diversity, which is not just a euphemism for fragmentation; it’s people’s essential need to express themselves and be creative.
Mike Masnick also writes about this new intellectual monopolies colloquium that involves Brad Smith, the General Counsel of Microsoft. There also a guy there from the copyright cartel. To quote some portions:
Amusingly, Microsoft’s Smith early on suggests that it’s a question Congress could solve “if the industry got behind it; if copyright holders got behind it.” Striking, huh? He basically admits how copyright law works in this country. It’s not about what’s best for the overall society or economy. It’s not about the politicians fixing things where they see a problem. It’s not about consumers. It’ll happen if the industry gets behind it. Welcome to the way things work in DC. The rest of this part of the discussion is interesting — and it’s one (rare) case where I mostly agree with Lichtman, that as a resource, Google’s Book search is incredibly useful, and we should figure out some way for it to happen.
Brad Smith, at one point, does point out that this is all a “revenue” problem, and does a pretty good job describing the revenue problem… but then falls into the trap of saying the law needs to “fix the piracy problem” because without that, business models can’t be built up.
How conveniently Microsoft ignores companies like Red Hat that manage just fine without customer obstructions. █
* There are many other examples, like false claims that the FSF is not capitalistic or that it imposes views rather than represents people’s existing views and puts these under a common umbrella.