The conflicting motivations of free software supporters

What is the point of free software? Surprisingly I have never seen this question asked or answered directly. We cover aspects of it when we argue about, say, licencing, or whether you should buy a particular product. The arguments are often unproductive because they skirt around the fundamental issue: what are we trying to achieve with free software?

It is fairly uncontroversial what the free software end game looks like. The utopian vision is 100% of software being available under GPL-like conditions running on open hardware. Programmers are gainfully employed writing new features and offering support and so on. It is primarily this vision that sets free software apart from open source culture, which has no desire to make the fundamental freedoms universally available.

When you have a uniform landscape of free software you don’t have to decide whether to use it. Everyone has all of the fundamental freedoms all of the time. The vision reflects a desire to have all the nice technology that we have today but better because those freedoms are there too.

Obviously we’re nowhere near that uniform landscape and possibly we never will be. We’re in this awkward middle ground where we have both free and proprietary options to choose from and this is where the motivations become varied.

For Richard Stallman it is a matter of absolute moral values. In his worldview, giving someone proprietary software that they can’t inspect, share or modify is an electronic variation of slavery. It is inherently morally repugnant for a developer to place these conditions on their users and downright stupid for a user to willingly submit to them.

Of course there are many practical advantages to free software too. Stallman and his variety of activist will also talk about those, but the practicality is just the icing on the cake. What they cannot abide is someone waving around an iPad saying, “This solves all my problems just fine. I don’t need those freedoms.”

I don’t think it’s widely acknowledged that this kind of activist derives their attitudes from moral absolutism. When it comes down to it they find the subordination of users with proprietary software intrinsically wrong. In the same way we feel it to be self-evident that murdering people is bad, they feel it to be self-evident that denying people their software freedoms is bad.

Yet we haven’t peeled back the layers far enough. What do the freedoms actually represent? As I see it, the freedoms are ensuring that all users have the same level of agency as the software developers. It takes as given that private ownership of physical property such as a computer is valid. It then cements it by suggesting that if you have physical ownership of a thing, you should have full control over what it does and how it does it.

As I write out some of these ideas underpinning free software fundamentalism it should become clear that it rests upon disputed concepts. Not everyone agrees that these moral rights do or should exist. Although you can make good arguments for and against them it is impossible to objectively say that they are right or wrong.

Therefore to be a fundamentalist free software supporter is to subscribe to a particular morality about how the world should work. To them, the point of free software is to spread and enforce that morality on as many people as possible. I don’t think this is a bad thing in any way. I think it’s important to base your opinions and decisions on a thoughtful morality and to share it with others.

Yet I think this fact might be uncomfortable to some free software supporters. It is a community of primarily programmers, who tend to be scientifically minded. Arguments about the practical benefits of free software come easily to us. If you find the happy iPad user perplexing or infuriating it is not a matter of practicality but a moral gulf that divides you. Your challenge is to dig down to find out what your underlying disagreement is. It won’t be a technical discussion.

Personally I find the absolutist view unconvincing. I think I understand it pretty well because I used to subscribe to it. I suspect where I part ways is this: I don’t think a person has an intrinsic right to have full control over an item in their possession. Desirable, yes, but not a right.

The happy iPad user has the same attitude, probably formed subconsciously. They are aware that they can’t reprogram their iPad arbitrarily but they have sufficient control to do what they need. If they are aware of free software they have weighed up their options and gone without those fundamental freedoms in order to get something else that is more valuable to them.

At this point I’ll introduce my opinion on the point of free software: to make computer users as happy as possible.

The utopian scene I described earlier was one where things are the same as they are today except everyone has the four fundamental freedoms. This is undoubtedly a happier place for computer users. Viruses are harder to spread, no DRM means media can be moved between devices more flexibly, and users aren’t vulnerable to forced obsolescence. Why do I like these things? Because it improves users’ lives and therefore makes them happier.

When I see the happy iPad user I want to make sure they are informed about the choices they have made. Most people buying iPads have never heard of free software, even if they use some of it. If I explain free software to them and they still want their iPad I don’t think they are foolish. If a particular device does its job better than the free alternative then you might very sensibly wear the risk or costs of proprietary software. Overall you will be happier and that’s what I’m aiming for.

For the iPad user, having the fundamental freedoms perhaps doesn’t have a big effect on how happy they are. If they are considering using an android device running Replicant instead, they will see that many apps they want to use are not available. They could use Replicant but it will make them much less happy. Even though they have the fundamental freedoms they are still going to be less happy than they were before.

A consequence of this point of view is that free software developers need to work hard to win over potential users. As much as possible we need to make software that is as visually pleasing, useful and intuitive as the proprietary competitors.

Some free software supporters bristle when I talk about this. Emphasising the quality of the software sounds suspiciously like open source. To me it’s imperative. We need to give users at least what they have now in proprietary software, plus the freedom. For the vast majority of people who don’t derive much inherent joy from being “free”, this is only way they’ll be happier using free software.

My point in explaining all this is not to say that my point of view is better than anyone else’s. It is to highlight that there are at least two incompatible moralities (and probably various others) in the free software community.

If you’re involved in free software take the time to figure out what drives you to participate. It will probably help you avoid a great many arguments when you encounter people who are different.