In it for the long haul: free software and politics

It’s a rough time to be a libertarian. In fact it’s a rough time to be anyone whose convictions last longer than a social media cycle. Anyone who’s consistent will find themselves contrary to popular opinion occasionally. By comparison the archetypal social media activist is a chameleon, juggling their principles to stay on the side that achieves the highest retweets-to-replies ratio on a given week¹.

If you want to see ideological consistency in action the free software movement is a fine example. Since the free software definition was published in 1986 its advocates have promoted the right for anybody to run free software programs for any purpose². In the last couple of years there has been a rising awareness that “any purpose” includes the activities of fascists. Despite being utterly obvious, this revelation upset a number of people and stimulated efforts to develop new licences and redefine the direction of open source³.

What makes this feel particularly strange is how modern these criticisms are compared with free software itself. In the 80s the political bogeyman was not the alt-right but communism. If the GNU Project was concerned about their software being used by Soviets their Bulletin of June 1991 didn’t show it:

A Russian Connection? The GNU Project seems to have grown a branch in Russia. Computer exporter Anwar Fancy plans to sell thousands of computers in the Soviet Union, and hopes that the GNU system will make this more feasible by saving the purchasers multi-user Unix license fees. […]

Imagine if the GPL came with a clause saying the software may not be used by communists. Nowadays it would be quaint or even confusing—many seem to think that free software is communist.

This is a popular misconception, that the purpose of free software is to create a shared commons of software and disrupt the capitalist activity of creating and selling proprietary software. It might look that way if you squint but this perspective misses the point considerably. Free software is fundamentally libertarian. If you look carefully at the guiding freedoms you will notice they describe what any individual should be permitted to do, beholden to neither government nor business.

Disliking big companies and their practices is perhaps the only serious overlap with communism. The shared access to source code is a means to an end, a way to deliver those individual rights rather than a motivating goal in itself. The trick of copyleft relies on software being owned by its author and merely licensed to others. The GNU project has an entire article about selling free software, encouraging you to charge as much money as you can.

Free software is most accurately viewed as a libertarian movement, carefully designed to function in a society where capitalism is the way things work. It is certainly political and it does not manage to escape identity politics—the stereotype of the white male fossbro is not entirely unwarranted—however its fairly pure libertarian goals do not inherently slant to the political left or right and it ends up being used by people all across the political spectrum.

I admire those free software people who are in it for the long haul, who have to roll their eyes and carry on while being accused of supporting this or that under the banner of “any purpose”. Please be kind when you see them.

¹ For example, behaviours that recently became defensible among the edgy left include ageism, credentialism and inciting violence against political opponents. I assume these attitudes will shift again whenever it becomes convenient. Yes, I’m aware that right wingers have their share of -isms too. No, that doesn’t absolve anyone of anything.

² Technically, freedom 0 was only implied in 1986. “Around 1990” it was deemed necessary to write it out explicitly and so it was added to the list.

³ I think this approach means well but it is flawed for reasons that deserve a longer explanation than a footnote.