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You are here: Home Bulletins 2019 Fall Building ethical software based on the four freedoms

Building ethical software based on the four freedoms

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Nov 27, 2019 04:11 PM

One of the free software movement's most important achievements is its contribution to awareness among engineers that software development and distribution have important ethical implications. Because software can give those with the source code and the knowledge necessary to modify it power over others, the terms by which it is distributed matter greatly. Distributing software under free software terms, allowing all recipients to read, modify, contribute to, and share it, avoids an immediate injustice – that of controlling how someone uses or learns from a tool they've been given. However, distributing software under free terms doesn't ensure that every possible use of that software is ethical.

We have seen an increasing number of engineers raise concerns as to how the code they write is being used. They have seen the success of free software licenses as tools to facilitate the sharing of software on ethical terms, and have sought to modify those licenses to address further social concerns, like labor issues (Anti 996 License), health concerns (Vaccine License), and general harm to others (Hippocratic License). These licenses aim to leverage the legal force of a copyright license, to prevent unethical uses. I see it as a success that these engineers are drawing inspiration from the free software movement.

The FSF licensing committee has not formally reviewed all of the above specific licenses, but we can broadly say that any license which restricts the first of the four freedoms – the freedom to run the program for any purpose – is a nonfree license. As a movement of ethically concerned human beings, we want to do everything we can to encourage ethical behavior. But embedding that desire in software license requirements will backfire, by legitimizing fundamentally unjust power over others. While all free software licenses do use the power of copyright law, a power which is certainly unjust at least in its current implementation, they use it to directly counter the ways in which it is unjust.

To allow more than this allows not just restrictions for good, but restrictions like, "you may not use this software to publish criticisms of Microsoft." Because software is inherently an expression of speech and knowledge, this is also analogous to putting restrictions on a textbook to say, "you may only read this book if you use the knowledge to help people in ways the author believes they should be helped." Would the next step be using Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to enforce the usage rules?

The lack of usage restrictions in its licenses is key to the success of free software. A world of proliferating and potentially conflicting usage restrictions, each seeking to address a different social cause or need, would introduce so much friction that the tremendous democratic social benefit brought about by the free sharing of software – including the empowerment of individuals to effect social change in unjust institutions – would be undermined.

Just because a license is not the right place to enforce ethical software usage doesn't mean we don't recognize the problem, or respect the people raising it. We should encourage and participate in conversations about the ethical usage of software. With the ground rules of free software as the baseline, anyone can build systems to specifically promote ethical use.

We already have some such systems. For example, the FSF's Respects Your Freedom certification program starts with the requirement that software in the product be free software, but its criteria also exclude products that spy on the user, even if the software used to do so is free. One can imagine other kinds of certification programs for both products and the companies who make them. Software engineers could also develop and propagate a code of ethics, the way other forms of engineering have. And, we've seen company tech workers organize together to refuse to make certain kinds of software; they could do more of this. These are just a few ideas, but we can undoubtedly come up with more together through community dialogue.

Whatever the solutions, to be truly ethical, they should all begin with the principle that software must be free. The FSF will continue working tirelessly to move the world to the point where this is the norm, and will seek ways to welcome and engage new generations of ethically concerned hackers. We can work together to build a free society in which software serves to empower everyone.

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