A Blog of Very Little Brain

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Free as in Not Free

with one comment

Sometimes you think maybe people are “getting it”. Sometimes you think we can lay off the Free Software pedal. Sometimes you think people like RMS are exaggerating, or are plain anal. And then you get a wake up call.

Now, you’re not going to hear me saying anything against either Ubuntu or Opera, those are both great products which I use daily at home and work, and I have all the best wishes and compliments for them. What I don’t like is this following sentence from the start of the article:
It is not the death of freedom in Ubuntu land, but it certainly is the birth of one kind of freedom – freedom of choice.

The writer (who goes by the name of ‘ubuntonista’, and therefore will hereby be referred to as “The writer”) goes deeper into this argument, and so will I, but, off the bat, this spinnery of common sense is just staggering. Either the writer doesn’t “get” the Free Software concept or he fell asleep when they did the civil rights class in high school.
I’ll be going deeper into the flaws in his argument, but at the moment, let’s summarise by saying that this so called “freedom of choice” is the same freedom of choice hailed in Credit Card commercials as “your freedom, your money”, hiding the fact that you’re, at most, are given the “freedom” of deciding who you want to owe money to, the bank, your credit company, or your retailer.

So, here goes:
I believe in freedom of choice – for me, I will use a superior product even if the source code is not free, if I feel like it! I am all for people making money off of their work, as long as they don’t start squashing or trashing other good things I like by wielding their power or influence. In short, let us all be, and we’ll probably like you, and even use you Maybe I should think more about writing down the reasons why and when I’d use a non-open-source product, just for the heck of it.

There are just too many flaws here, but I’ll try to capture them all. The writer believes in the freedom of choice, but then promotes his choice of products that limit his freedom. I recall going to the local grocery store, and noticing all the chocolate display shelves had the same brand on them. When asked, the cashier quickly pointed that they are indeed offering a very large range of choice, from milk chocolate to cherry-filled with nuts. The fact that all those were flavours of the same brand by the same company didn’t faze him. To have a freedom to choose means that your choice isn’t limited, and can’t BECOME limited. This is exactly where the writer’s “freedom of choice” concept fails.

Opera isn’t free. It is free in the monetary sense. But that’s only very recent. Up until a year ago it was a fully commercial product, available either for a paid license, or through a non-paid adware, but that’s completely beside the point, as the Freedom we keep talking about doesn’t have zilch to do with the cost of software. You can charge whatever you want for a Free Software product, and it will still be free, as long as you follow a Free Software license (such as the GNU General Public License). Once you comply with the demands of your chosen license, you can charge whatever you want for the software, it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that the writer substitutes his freedom for the good will of proprietary software makers. “I am all for people making money off of their work, as long as they don’t start squashing or trashing other good things I like by wielding their power or influence,” says our writer, forgetting that without any actual means of forcing the consumer freedom on the software makers, they are as obliged to not using “evil” techniques as Google are obliged to maintain human rights.

Its back to the old chain-gang theme, a company doesn’t have to be “evil” to practice those themes. Companies like IBM, original inventor of Lock-in techniques, FUD propaganda and draconian licensing is one of the world’s biggest supporters of Open Source and open software standards. In the Sherwood Forest of the software world, IBM is both the Robin Hood and the Sheriff or Nottingham. The only times companies such as IBM find themselves committed to securing and protecting users’ rights is when they are forced to, when they use a Free Software which has a “viral” license.

Now, Opera. Opera is a small, yet very good browser-making company who wants to survive in today’s market and also make profit. They don’t want to play nice; they don’t care about users rights. At the start of the way, Opera’s founders realised that the only way to carve a niche for them would have to be based on quality, which meant high standards compliancy and focus on browsing speed and security. This, along with some true innovation in the browser and user interface, made Opera one of the “good guys” when it comes to the browser wars. It does not make them Free Software. During the past years, Opera carved another niche for itself, on mobile and portable computers (such are cellphones). To better promote itself in this market Opera decided to waive the subscription fee for its PC product, thereby enlarging its PC customer share. This was not done out of philanthropy. If, for instance, sometimes in the near, or far, future, Opera will find itself in need of braking standards or using lock-in or other evil techniques to get ahead in the game, they’ll do that, despite being a company made out of, what appears to be, some very nice folks.

And it’s not only Opera. Take Apple. The “Us vs. Them” wave that puts anyone who is seen as “counter-culture” and, more to the point, “Anti-Microsoft” as a knight in shining armour makes Apple with their cool designs and UNIX based OS look like holders of the holy grail. Not so. Apple have a legacy of binding customers to their products, sold on their hardware, effectively locking you in once you bought one of their computers. They are world-leaders in using DRM technology in their downloadable music files. Just a few months ago, Apple abused a clause in the BSD license of their OS Kernel and closed it, reminding us that they were only “free” as long as it suited them. Once it doesn’t, they go back to the tried and tested methods.

In essence, this serves as a reminder to us all, you can’t trust companies to be “good”, and you can’t wish them to not become “evil”. You can only trust them to do what they set out to do from the get-go, and that is: to make profit. The only way to guarantee any sort of freedom of choice is by using a Free Software license, preferably one that doesn’t quote from the Rules of Acquisition, if possible.

Written by Erez

Sunday, July 9, 2006 at 18:55

Posted in Free Software

One Response

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  1. Hey, thanks for the commentary. Something about commercial enterprise tells me it is not evil, though I have been known to lean towards the left when I was younger. However, as I wrote in the article, I am yet to put my finger on it.

    In this article, though, most of the entities you refer to are publicly traded corporations, who have a legal commitment to their shareholders to keep churning out the profits. The issue that should be discussed, however, is how easy it is for Ubuntu users to install and use software of their choice. Making proprietary software difficult to install on Ubuntu just doesn’t make sense. Those who really want it will either go elsewhere (stop using Ubuntu) or install it after a painful process and curse Ubuntu. What is wrong with offering a fair choice of freely available non-open-source alternatives? That is the question you sidestep, as you digress into tangentially related topics. How is this freedom the same freedom as that offered in the credit card commericials? How am I limiting my freedom(s) by promoting software of my choice? My choice wont BECOME limited, since I use and support free software a lot more than I do proprietary versions – having given 2+ years of my life to the development of FOSS software.

    “The only way to guarantee any sort of freedom of choice is by using a Free Software license, preferably one that doesn’t quote from the Rules of Acquisition, if possible.” – why so? Have you seriously considered and exhausted all other ways to ensure freedom of choice? Leveraging the average persons need for recognition and success to drive human development is the secret to many of the successes civilization has had. If you take away individual interest, you take away societal good too. If all software developers could do is develop open source software that is then distributed for free, then that would leave very few software professionals, and young kids who want to get in the game. But I digress…


    Monday, July 10, 2006 at 4:53

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