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Freedom to Not

21 April, 2022 21:15

or, why FOSS is capitalist.

tagged: foss politics


In the world of software, the term “open-source” can mean a few different things. Broadly, it refers to the source code of the software being available under some kind of license, allowing it to be inspected (and sometimes modified) by users. The term “Free software”, and the similar “Libre software” is a subset of open-source, referring to software whose source code is freely available under a license that explicitly allows to inspect, modify, and redistribute said software, usually as long as it is stays under the same license/terms.

It is not hard to see the political charge of these terms, but attaching to them any ideology, or even a broad set of ideologies, quickly proves to be a near-impossible task due to a number of factors, but the one I’d like to focus attention on is the userbase.

In the decades since the inception of the Free software movement, there has been a growing mainstream acceptance of open-source software in our daily lives, notably with technology giants previously notoriously hostile to open-source, such as Microsoft, now endorsing, actively promoting, and using it; entire companies developing and selling open-source software (eg. IBM’s Red Hat) now exist. What changed?

The distinction

To answer that question, we need to examine the terms “Free Software” and “open-source software”. “Open-source” was popularized (at least in part) by Tim O’Reilly in 1998. This paradigm shift, as O’Reilly describes it himself, was a necessity - Free software wasn’t marketable to companies as a commodity, the line of thinking being that if a piece of software can be obtained and redistributed for free, that’s a loss of sales and/or profit. What O’Reilly achieved with his “rebranding” of Free software would still not be truly felt until a few years down the line, but the groundwork was in place.

Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project, writes:

Free software means, roughly, that you are free to study what it does, free to change it, free to redistribute it, and free to publish improved versions.

The quote is from his letter to Dr. Dobb’s Journal’s editor from 2001, apparently in response to them conflating the two terms (although I couldn’t locate the journal issue in question). Later in the same letter, he gives a not-so-subtle “nod” to another group:

[…] in 1998, another group began operating under the term “open source.” They have contributed to the free software community in practical ways, but they stand for very different views. They studiously avoid the issues of freedom and principle that we raise in the free software movement; they cite only short-term practical benefits as the reasons for what they do.

The group in question is OSI, founded by Bruce Perens and Eric S. Raymond in 1998. While the Free Software Foundation, founded by Stallman, claims to promote Free software on ethical and moral grounds, the OSI seems more concerned with “opportunities” that open-source software can provide, opportunities that are essential to many companies and products operative today. Those “opportunities” are outlined in their conferences and events that they participate in, highlighted in one of the first paragraphs in the About section of their website:

OSI participates in Open Source conferences and events, to meet with open source developers and users, and to discuss with executives from the public and private sectors about how Open Source technologies, licenses, and models of development can provide economic and strategic advantages.

To be clear, OSI does claim to “help build a world where the freedoms and opportunities of open source software can be enjoyed by all,” disregarding the distinction between Free and open-source, a claim similar to the FSF’s mission. However, the FSF makes no mention of the “economic and strategic advantages” that Free software can provide.

That finally answers the question of the difference between two terms — Free software is about the users’ rights, while open-source is more explicitly about there being profit in open software. However, in the grand scale of things, that distinction is ultimately meaningless.

The distinction is just a distraction

It’s tempting to hyperfocus and choose sides in this debate, but the problem with that is it obscures deeper analysis. The distinction is only valuable insofar as it explains how we arrived at the point of companies, and capital, embracing open-source.

In the modern age, the squabble of Free vs. Open is just that — it’s irrelevant to the wider world. We are already using technologies built using Free/Open software in our daily lives, in most if not all our waking hours. And while your “four essential freedoms” the FSF so vehemently wants you to know are respected, can be respected if the licensor cares enough, the question being brought up should be if that freedom should be so easily and readily afforded.

In our capitalist economy, companies/businesses will seek to commodify anything they can and can not, usually by manufacturing our consent first (though it’s not necessary for them to do it, I view it as a cynical gesture of their “goodwill”). This is exactly what happened here — OSI and O’Reilly’s strategic reframing of the narrative of “Free Software” to the much less scary at a glance (to the capitalists) term and a much more inviting promise of strategic opportunity. Once the neoliberal hacks and the emerging class of Silicon Valley tech bros hooked on, license restrictions ceased to be anything but a signal to make competing software (and often release it under an open license), and the “four essential freedoms” reduced to a footnote.

The advantage to capital, then, is manyfold:

  1. Companies get lauded to this day if they choose an open-source technology to offer their services, or open-source their own (even if it’s unmaintained);
  2. Companies get to leech off the (largely unpaid) labor of individuals that create open-source technologies;
  3. Companies get to maintain an image of community-centricity by festering or appropriating open-source culture within their hierarchical corporate structure.

A prime example of all three is Microsoft. Their image of hostility to anything that is not owned by them still persists (see: the GitHub acquisition, the Blizzard acquisition, etc.) — so accepting, contributing to, and providing their own solutions that are open source is a good way to posture to the community that they’re the good guys now, promise! (Those familiar with Microsoft’s policies will have noticed this strategy is very similar to EEE, if not the same thing with a new coat of paint).

There is simply nothing for capital to lose by going open-source, and the benefits are extraordinary in value. In that sense, license restrictions such as those of the GNU GPL are nothing but a libertarian projection of utopia — there is no clause stating you can’t extract surplus value with the product or service being offered and necessarily exploit those working on the product, and licenses that are more “permissible,” e.g. MIT, allow for nearly unrestricted use — by any entity — as long as credit and copyright of the original program is noted somewhere.

Sorry socialists

That any entity can use open software is concern enough. It might be the morally correct opinion that anyone obtaining a program should be able to inspect it to learn how it works, or change it to suit their needs, but that angle gets more complex when “anyone” necessarily includes “bad actors,” to borrow a popular term. Here, I use that term to refer not only to hackers, for example, but any organization adhering to a capitalist mode of production, big or small, for-profit or non-profit.

In its essence, Free/Open software fails to tackle the social and economic concerns posed by the world of today. The same concern is raised by the Organization for Ethical Source. In an effort to distinguish itself from the Free/Open movement, they even avoid using the term “open source” to describe theirs — their tagline is “Social Good, Source Available.” (emphasis added manually).

It is simply impossible to not allow any one entity to use a piece of software for any purpose, all while having it open-source. By choosing to license software under a Free/Open license, the freedom to choose what purpose it can be used for is waived and replaced by freedom for the end-user. JSON gets around this, at least in theory, as it hasn’t been tested in court, by having an “evil use” clause in its’ license, which states that it can not be used for “evil,” but exactly what “evil” means is left ambiguous.

Unfortunately (fortunately?) for JSON, the OSI classes that as “not open”:

The Open Source Definition specifies that Open Source licenses may not discriminate against persons or groups. Giving everyone freedom means giving evil people freedom, too.

This is nothing but a tacit endorsement of the status quo from one of the supposed “authorities” of open-source; there might be evil people, but the “free market” will sort it out. That is why FOSS in its current form is antithetical to anticapitalist, and socially conscious in general, activism.

Open source is a capitalist’s game.

Further reading

Free software and digital capitalism by César Pichon

Freedom Isn’t Free by Wendy Liu

The Meme Hustler by Evgeny Morozov

Copyleft Won’t Solve All Problems, Just Some of Them by Bradley M. Kuhn