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Sparking change: What free software can learn from social justice movements

by MK Fain Contributions Published on Jun 13, 2019 04:15 PM

In his celebrated 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. contrasted "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." Negative peace, he claimed, was the greatest force against civil progress. King's description of negative and positive peace is something that still rings true across social movements today; from movements for racial equity, to ending sexual violence, to animal rights, or to economic justice. Those who take direct action are chided, even by those who support their end goal, for being too radical, too confrontational, or too emotional -- yet these actions are vital for social change.

To apply this concept to the free software movement, the general public remains largely unaware of the consequences of the software they use. Meanwhile, under the surface, it is violating their privacy and stomping on their freedom by giving corporations control over their computing and thus, by extension, what they read, think, and know. Despite the fact that proprietary software poses unprecedented risks to individual liberty, democracy, and societal freedoms, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple act with impunity. Software is deeply intertwined with all means of production, communication, and travel. We are quickly approaching a society in which every action is determined, predicted, or prevented by an algorithm. The lack of tension, while injustice remains the status quo, is what negative peace looks like.

Throughout history hundreds of methods of protest, resistance, direct action, and subversion have been used to topple oppressive regimes and systems. The Albert Einstein Institution recognized 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action. Although there have been notable exceptions in organizations such as the FSF and their partners, the bulk of the free software movement on the ground has primarily focused on one method: #72, non-consumption of boycotted goods.

In a movement that is so vital to the freedom of not just software, but to the toppling of all oppression, we can’t afford to just use one tool in our box. Boycotting proprietary software is crucial, but it is not enough: while free software advocates have also engaged in development, written letters and called government representatives, and provided educational resources and legal tools, there's so much more we can do. As software freedom activists, we also need to focus on bringing visibility to this social crisis, so that it can no longer be ignored.

In past social movements, ending the state of negative peace through nonviolent direct action has been a necessary part of achieving change. Taking example from the suffragettes in England, real change was only achieved by those activists with a disruptive and confrontational approach to the cause. For example, in 1906 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst started disrupting political events and got themselves arrested on purpose. They used their time in jail to garner more public attention and sympathy through hunger strikes. This breaking of the negative peace, and the creation of controversy, meant that the men in power could no longer ignore the issue.

The free software movement can learn from such successes. We can start by building grassroots networks of connected and empowered activists through conferences (such as LibrePlanet and SeaGL), as well as local organizations. Connect with activists in other movements, and learn from them. Plan protests and marches together, coordinate sit-ins and disruptions of events, organize walk-outs, and raise the tension. Attend these events when others plan them, even if you’ve never protested before. (See https://www.itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2017/01/a-few-small-tips-for-attending-your-first-protest-march/ for tips for your first protest!)

If you can’t take direct action yourself, support the activists who do. Become comfortable with nonviolent confrontation in your daily life. Correct language normalizing proprietary software. Challenge its use even when you know you won’t win. Refuse to remain silent.

The threat of proprietary software is too great for us to allow the state of negative peace to remain. Breaking it is our clear path forward, and this will be how we spark change.

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