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You are here: Home Bulletins 2012 fall The stakes are higher

The stakes are higher

by libby Contributions Published on Nov 27, 2012 09:30 AM

by John Sullivan, Executive Director

When Richard Stallman launched the free software movement, it was because he couldn't get the necessary source code to a printer program with a problem he wanted to fix. Not being able to fix the printer was frustrating, but this practical issue rose to the level of an ethical problem when he realized people had started to make promises to the companies distributing software that they wouldn't share the source code they had with anyone else. Software companies were requiring users to promise not to help each other; to remain dependent only on them. People had to sell out their friends and peers in order to get the software they needed.

Because Stallman didn't have the source code, his Xerox printer didn't work as well as it could have. But now, because we don't have the source code, Amazon can delete copies of our books from the reading devices we hold in our hands, while we hold them in our hands. They can and they do; in fact, they are so confident that people will accept this exercise of power that they remotely deleted copies of one of the most powerful books ever written about totalitarian control -- 1984. Beyond deleting individual books, Amazon can -- and does -- completely block readers' access to their entire libraries, because access to those libraries is controlled by proprietary software and proprietary formats.

Amazon is not the only company with this power -- all of the current ebook reading devices, including the Nook and the iPad, have the same problem. The result is that we are not able to pass our books on to our children, or loan them to friends, or donate them to libraries, or sell them when we are done, or re-read them ourselves in the future once the proprietary device-of-the-year decides to stop understanding the format they are in. It means that all of our reading habits can be recorded, consolidated, and exploited.

It's not just books. Because we don't have the source code, we aren't in control of the medical devices some depend on to stay alive. Because we don't have the source code, soon we may not be able to drive freely, because proprietary car software will take the wheel. We may not be able to see freely, because the electronic glasses we wear will filter our vision.

The stakes are now much higher than a printer jam, and they will continue to get higher.

We are fortunate Stallman recognized that not having the source code was more than a mere inconvenience, and fortunate that others have realized this as well. The fact that only the companies have the source code keeps us ignorant of what they may actually be doing -- and often are caught doing -- and deprives us of a component critical to improving both our own world and the world of those around us.

You wouldn't know it from the advertising, of course. On October 25th, 2012, Windows 8 launched with an estimated $1.5 billion marketing budget. If you're in the US, you've been seeing the incessant rapid-fire colorful commercials. The same week, Apple launched a heavy round of advertising for a new (smaller) iPad.

These commercials try to convey a sense of freedom and creativity. They focus on all of the new things the software will "let" you do. What the commercials don't tell you is that many of the devices sold with Windows 8 -- especially tablets -- will only be allowed to run Windows. One of the major innovations in the new operating system is not what it will empower you to do but what it stops you from doing. They don't tell you that if you buy an iPad, you are only allowed to install software pre-approved by Apple, or that Apple can remotely disable this software at any time.

Everywhere around us we hear these voices deceptively pushing proprietary software. Where are the voices for free software?

The FSF has been a voice for free software for over twenty-seven years, and we are building our capacity to crank up the volume. We won't compete by being a corporate marketing department designed to trick people into buying our product. That isn't necessary, because we have the truth on our side. Free software is just better for you. If we had $1.5 billion with which to make sure everyone heard about free software, this would all be over very quickly.

While we don't have that kind of money (yet!), we do have many thousands of supporters and independent free software users around the world. You are reading this because you are one of those supporters. The FSF exists largely to amplify your voice, and to make sure you and the rest of the free software movement are represented in every context where software is mentioned, in any language, anywhere.

In order for us to do that, we need you to speak up first. That's why we often ask you to make public commitments -- to sign pledges and petitions, and to firmly state your support for free software ideals to any company that restricts users.

It's why we've asked you to state on the record that you won't buy any computer that tries to prevent you from changing the operating system, at Over 37,000 people have added their name, and more are doing it every day.

It's why we've asked you to pledge to help a friend or family member move to GNU/Linux instead of Windows 8, at

No matter how much amplification we do, the essence of this movement is these individual conversations with the people around you, and the way you share your commitment with others. Keeping these conversations and these public commitments going is the only way to keep our books from getting burned, and to make our participation in a technologically advanced society truly free. The stakes are high and getting higher. What you are doing is very important, and we need you to keep it up. Unless you can give us $1.5 billion.

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