Free software needs your vote
At the Free Software Foundation, we want to empower all computer users everywhere to do everything they might need or want to do on any computer, using only free software, without having to ask permission.
By definition, proprietary software does not empower users in this way. It places limits on what they can do, such as preventing sharing of the software, or looking at its code to see how it works.
Proprietary software enables users to pursue everything they might need or want to do, only as long as the software distributor approves.
The four freedoms that define free software -- to run the program (0), to study and modify it (1), to share it (2), and to share modifications (3) -- are meant for everyone, in their interactions with any program. Free software is a means to protect the individual freedom of computer users.
But why would someone who has no intention of ever reading the source code of programs running on their computer, much less in modifying it, care about Freedom 1, or Freedom 3? Why do they need or want the freedom to do things they might never need or want to do?
One reason is that any computer user can ask someone else to do those things for them. Like the freedom to take your car to any mechanic, or to evaluate multiple contractors for an improvement on your home and then go with the one you like the best, in a free software world, people can request or commission changes to the way their software works.
In the proprietary world, this happens only in a very limited and contingent way. You can't pay Microsoft or anyone else to make changes to Windows, or anyone -- not even Apple -- to change something in the iPhone's operating system. In the free world, anyone can make modifications to any program, and can even be paid for their time spent doing so.
This is an example of a tangible way in which everyone benefits from the four freedoms, whether they work on software themselves or not -- but it is not the only benefit.
The mere existence of the option for people to inspect, modify, and share the software they use has an important effect which, if it became the norm, would cause a dramatic change in the behavior of software companies, and the character of software.
To understand why, think about the right to vote. Everyone does not have to vote in every election in order for voting rights to have an impact on the behavior of elected officials. Politicians know that there is the potential for all eligible people to vote one way or the other, and they have to act accordingly.
Of course, many countries (such as the United States) have voting systems that are less than ideal, with various obstacles and distortions dulling the importance of individual votes. But in general, the right to vote can be a powerful check on government behavior.
The four freedoms for software can work in a similar way. We don't need everyone actively modifying software to deter bad behavior by software companies.
But we do need everyone to have the right to modify software; we need everyone to have that potential. The fact that any given person around the world could step up and make a modification to a program to make it act differently -- such as removing a back door installed by some company -- is a powerful check against unethical control of individuals through software.
It can't be entirely mere potential. If nobody ever votes, the right to vote loses its impact. This is a good reason to request the source code for any device you purchase that has GNU GPL-covered software on it, whether you have plans to do something with it or not. But regardless, the number of software developers, hobbyists, and tinkerers, who can effectively modify and redistribute software, is much more than zero.
We do still need to encourage people to learn more about how their computers work, enough to be able to make basic changes for themselves, but we also need to explain that these freedoms are important for anyone regardless of whether they intend to ever write a line of code in their lives. We need to encourage people to use only software that respects everyone's freedoms.
To succeed at this, we need to make it easier for people to identify free software, and to care about it. Identifying whether something is free software or not can be a complex process. Several aspects need to be looked at by a knowledgeable person -- the copyright license, any End User Licensing Agreement, related trademark licenses, and possibly relevant patent claims.
That's a lot to ask of someone who is just trying to buy a computer or device that comes with some software, or is considering downloading a program they found online.
We know we need to make this easier, and we are working on a number of efforts in this area. One of the most important is our Respects Your Freedom hardware certification program.1 Another is a simple label that can be put on programs to indicate that they have been verified as free (such as being listed in our Free Software Directory).2
As one milestone along our path to the elimination of proprietary software, we can aim to have free software achieve what the organic food and textiles movement has achieved. Whatever you think about the importance or irrelevance of organic products, they are now available and clearly marked in many stores around the world, as well as in online shops. Imagine if it were just as easy to identify and support free software.
Please do exercise your freedom to read and modify software. But even if you don't, insist on having the option. By doing so, you help create a world where software is a tool for true empowerment instead of control.