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You are here: Home Bulletins 2023 fall We stand firm in our resolve for freedom

We stand firm in our resolve for freedom

by Zoë Kooyman Contributions Published on Dec 06, 2023 11:42 AM

Led by farmers, advocating for the right to repair their (John Deere) tractors, the Right to Repair movement has been gaining momentum for more than a decade now, and is being advocated for all kinds of devices. The repairability of mobile phones and computers is fiercely defended by organizations like iFixit, and, this October, the movement took a major step forward thanks to the passage of a new law in California. The Right to Repair movement is one of the most successful movements of digital autonomy we have seen in many years here at the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

An iceberg in the Arctic Ocean "The iceberg's large underwater surface symbolizes all the work we've done thus far, which has contributed to this relatively small moment of visible success."

We're excited to see where things head from here, since the Right to Repair and the free software movement are closely linked. In today's life, appliances and other personal technology are accelerating their pace in a transition from being purely mechanical toward becoming a technology that relies on software. This means that any meaningful notion of repair has to include user rights over that software. Without the freedom to run, modify, distribute, and share the software ourselves (i.e. software freedom), there will be no widespread right to repair. The top-down effect of a bill becoming law, as Right to Repair has accomplished, can be the beginning of an unstoppable change.

But the real change has already happened, because change is like an iceberg. The iceberg's large underwater surface symbolizes all the work we've done thus far, which has contributed to this relatively small moment of visible success. And, like snow atop an iceberg, a movement gaining traction picks up activists along the way. A critical mass of ordinary people, by the millions, is formed and becomes an unstoppable force driving change.

We see Right to Repair's successes as more ice for the iceberg of software freedom -- accumulating at the surface as another step toward freedom for all computer users. Since the GNU announcement, which initiated the free software movement forty years ago, we have seen many steps toward freedom. Today, 96% of all code bases incorporate free software -- an immense achievement. But the FSF will only be satisfied when every user has the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. We want all computer users to be able to do everything they need to do on any computer using only free software. User freedom will increase the control users have over their technology, and therefore their lives. It will take away unjust power from technology corporations, and it will redirect it to the individual. And in an increasingly digital world, free software becomes increasingly essential for freedom in general.

We have taken a lot of criticism for being "absolutists," "inflexible," "uncompromising," "self-righteous," and some even less elegant words for advocating exactly the above. Why? Because FSF brings every conversation back to freedom. Who would have thought that the organization that started this movement all those years ago is still advocating for the exact same thing and continues to stand by the values put forth all those years ago? The GNU General Public License (GPL) has enabled decades of constructive engagement, because it requires companies to give back improvements they distribute, under the same terms to everyone, and its terms don't change with new company leadership or after an acquisition. Demanding freedom is what led us to this 96%.

When the FSF says "freedom," we mean it. Free software has many qualities that we are very proud of, including practical ones, yes. But we do not advocate for those practical benefits that free software merely facilitates, such as sustainable code, large communities, avoidance of vendor lock-in, or tailor-made solutions. They are major benefits, indeed, but user freedom is what we care about. It is also the standard against which we measure the actions of others to judge whether they are true supporters of our movement or simply looking to gain from its benefits and successes.

Standing our ground is vitally important. Freedom is not a short-lived victory or something to turn into material gain. It's what protects users today and in the future. As long as we stand our ground, we continue to define the space between where we are now and where we want to be. The far end of the spectrum has an important role to play in every social movement -- it's what moves the needle. If the FSF budges, even a little, the value of user freedom is diluted. We would send the message that it's okay to give up some freedoms as long as there's some gain on the other side. We reject that reasoning. We stand firm.

Right to Repair stands for increased user rights for everyday technology owners, allowing for more control over one’s tools and creating less waste. In short, these are benefits that align well with many social movements of today. Because, these days, most technology inherently integrates software, we celebrate the success of the Californian right-to-repair law. Meanwhile, we continue to push for user freedom everywhere. We know this doesn't make us the most popular, or the easiest to work with. As challenging as it may seem, we play our part as the lighthouse, the vanguard, and perhaps even the bullheaded. We practice what we preach, creating space for people to navigate towards software freedom, collecting critical mass, just below the surface like the mighty iceberg.

Photo Copyright © 2015 Andreas Weith, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

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