Free Software: Who’s Looking Out for You?

Sometimes I hear my hardworking network and system administrator chums dismissing Free and Open Source Software with “Spare me the philosophy junk. I just want good software, not a sermon.” I quite sympathize with the desire to avoid rants and preaches. But I think it’s important to understand that the philosophy behind Free Software is why the FOSS ecosystem is so strong and vibrant, and produces such good-quality software, and is so beneficial to end-users and developers.

Protecting user freedoms and the hard work of software developers are the core principles of Free Software. In a world where a typical commercial EULA springs from a rather customer-unfriendly perspective, because it disavows the vendor of all responsibility, carries no warranty, and dictates how you can use the software, it seems that the friendlier GNU philosophy would be more appealing than the values behind the typical EULAs we find ourselves “agreeing” to.

Politics Too

We can’t separate the technical aspect of IT from the business and the political parts, because business drives public policy, and us poor IT persons are forced to implement policy for good or ill. Sarbanes-Oxley, anyone? Want to be responsible for storing petabytes of useless logfiles merely on the chance that law enforcement will someday want to go trolling through them? Want to risk being prosecuted for exposing a security flaw, or reverse-engineering, or merely talking about a copy-protection scheme? How did we get to this place, where merely talking about things has become criminalized?

Big tech vendors are investing gazillions of dollars in trying to lock up everything: their code, their ideas, anything that remotely resembles anything they’re doing, thinking about, or might someday think about. Trusted Computing and Digital Rights Management — more accurately called Treacherous Computing and Digital Restrictions Management — are being forced on us on two fronts: through deals with partners, and through legislation. First lock up the software, then lock up the hardware, remove all customer choice and try to control what we do with our own property. It’s like living in a house where we are not allowed to paint, change lightbulbs, hang pictures, move the furniture or do anything but continually pay the builder for the privilege of living there.

FOSS Looks Out For Us

In contrast, the FOSS world gives us all the source code to use, audit, or modify. It gives us open data formats, open standards, open communications, and open exchanges of ideas and knowledge. There is no place to hide sneaky stuff like corporate spyware and rootkits, or misappropriated code. (I’m sure I’m not the only who suspects that much closed-source paranoia is due to using code of questionable origin.)

The FOSS world respects us personally. It gave us PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), OpenVPN, and OpenSSH for securing our private communications. Contrast that with the thousands of companies who routinely violate our privacy and personal rights by collecting and trading our personal data with no oversight or disclosure. Free Software gave us open code, open documentation, user participation, public discussion of anything and everything, and top-to-bottom accountability. FOSS will never hold your data or your computing infrastructure hostage; its open nature makes lock-in impossible.

The FOSS world gave us TOR for anonymous online communications, Web browsers that foil personal data collection, personal password managers, and various encryption tools for protecting our data files. They gave us powerful, sophisticated tools for doing all of these things, and we don’t have to say “Mother may I” first. What a contrast between this, and the companies who value us only for our exploitability.

Eat Your Philosophy Or You Get No Dessert

I could go on forever, but that gets boring. I shall leave you with this suggestion: the next time you feel like complaining about crazy Linux hippie zealots, think about who is really on your side, and who has your best interests at heart.


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  • the text of the GPL
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  • Open Source Initiative
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