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You are here: Home Bulletins 2012 spring Your money and your freedom

Your money and your freedom

by Libby Reinish Contributions Published on Oct 12, 2012 03:43 PM

by John Sullivan, executive director

Talking to people about free software involves asking them to stop for a moment and consider aspects of the technology they use that aren't readily evident. Most people haven't been introduced to what "source code" is, or why it would be an important thing to have or to see. I'm just guessing, but in my experience most people judge and choose their technology based on what it does for them, how well it does those things, how much it costs, how it looks and sounds.

At the FSF, we can and do provide answers along these axes on behalf of free software. We're happy to explain when a piece of free software is good at doing a particular job, we're happy to point out when it doesn't cost much money, and we publicly boast when it looks good.

However, making these points is not the most important thing we do, as free software activists. These aren't the concerns we want people to stop and think about -- they are the concerns people already think about. In fact, because we want people to use a free program even when it's uglier, more expensive, and less functional, we try not to "lead" with those concerns, which basically means not going out of our way to mention them unless we are going to follow up the mention with some points about software freedom.

This is because we are trying to help people help themselves at a deeper level than becoming a skillful user of a program or device appropriate to their practical needs. We help people protect their interests against containment and control by proprietary software companies. We want them to see how using free software is better for their privacy and security, and how it is wrong to subjugate themselves to a corporation's control.

This process is complicated by the fact that, in many countries, people are accustomed to having such a relationship with corporations. Corporations try to squeeze everything they can out of us, and we try to get everything we can from them. This attitude comes fully into play when something happens which makes the abuse of proprietary software come to the attention of those who don't usually focus on these issues.

When Amazon, using its proprietary Kindle software, remotely deleted copies of George Orwell's 1984 from readers' devices, or when they disabled the Text-to-Speech features on many e-book titles, people recognized this as bad behavior but mostly saw it as an example of a company making some individually bad decisions, rather than as natural and expected outcomes to a model of software distribution that gives Amazon immense power over readers.

When Apple bans politically controversial applications from being distributed through the App Store, or removes some feature from applications users already have installed on their phones, people have complained about those decisions but often think that the problem is that Apple didn't exercise its authority in justified ways, rather than contest that they should have that authority at all.

Because of this framing, a common response to these problems has been, "If that makes you uncomfortable, then just don't buy products from that company. Don't buy a Kindle or an iPad." If the problem is seen as a company just doing something unskillful, or making a bad product, this is a sensible response. Dumb products aren't illegal or unethical. However, there are many examples of alleged corporate misbehavior which do provoke a stronger reaction in people. When there was a controversy over the reliability of the brakes in Toyota hybrid cars, the predominant reaction was not "just don't buy a Toyota." Many demanded an investigation, and possible legal action.

Some of the concerns recently raised about Apple have elicited similar reactions. There has been an explosion of interest in Apple's manufacturing practices. People are concerned about reports that Apple suppliers' factory workers commit suicide at a high rate, and that they are treated poorly. People are also concerned that Apple's retail workers are exploited, because they make such low wages compared to the value of the products they are selling. They are upset when they think that Apple and Microsoft don't pay the taxes they should.

These moments are opportunities for free software activists who want to advocate free software on a basis more significant than just showing people good programs to use. I don't mean that they are opportunities to compare proprietary software to abused factory labor. But they are opportunities to argue that some misbehaviors by proprietary software companies are problems that can't be addressed simply by shopping elsewhere. They are opportunities to show how we can and should take actions stronger than simply not buying Kindles in order to help others, and to make our societies better, freer places.

What puts proprietary software in the category of misbehaviors that require a bigger response? The proprietary control that these companies exercise over software stems from the legal subsidies given to them around the world. These legal subsidies -- by which I mean subsidies in the form of laws and accompanying law enforcement -- take public freedoms such as freedom of expression, and give them to corporations in the form of copyright holdings. Without laws dictating terms under which people are not permitted to share or modify software, such sharing would be a form of free expression and association. Free societies know that these basic freedoms should not be taken away by other laws unless absolutely necessary.

Therefore, whether or not we buy their products, these companies get something from us -- our societal endorsement enacted as subsidies through our laws, funded by our freedoms. When people ask me whether the FSF thinks proprietary software should be illegal, I suggest that this is missing the point. The question is not whether to make it illegal -- the question is whether to remove the laws that create proprietary software in the first place. This is not banning proprietary software; it is undoing subsidies, without which proprietary software simply does not exist.

Changing laws to this end through public education and awareness-raising is a long and hard process. Until that can be successful, we will instead pressure companies not to take selfish advantage of the legal subsidy offered them. The mechanism for this refusal is copyleft licensing of the software they write -- using the power of the legal subsidy given to them to encourage sharing and freedom. We want to reward those companies who do refuse the unethical subsidy, and criticize those who take advantage of it.

Certainly one step in addressing the abuses of proprietary software companies is to not buy their products, and to encourage others to do the same. But it's not the last step, and it's not the only step. We also must end the mechanism that hands these companies the public's freedoms, whether or not we buy their products. We "buy" these devices not only at the store with our dollars, but also through our acceptance of the laws that empower them at our expense. Let's make sure this problem is heard whenever other social and human impacts of these companies' practices are being discussed.

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