[act-ma] 9/15 Software Freedom Day at Encuentro5 (Sat)
cwelch at tecschange.org
Wed Sep 5 17:40:38 PDT 2007
On the afternoon of Saturday, September 15, 2007, the Free Software
Foundation and BinaryFreedom (http://binaryfreedom.info) are hosting a
Software Freedom Day (http://softwarefreedomday.org) event in downtown
Please bring your friends and join us for talks, activities and outreach
in support of software freedom. We'll be one node in a network of over
290 events worldwide, and it's not often we get the chance to make that
kind of splash. It'll be a great chance to meet other hackers and
activists in the area and to make plans for how we can work for software
freedom on a concrete, local level.
Let us know that you can come by emailing info at fsf.org, and keep
up-to-date or even help us plan the schedule at
Date: Saturday, September 15, 2007 Time: 1:00pm - 5:00pm
33 Harrison Street, 5th floor
Boston, MA 02131
what is Free Software?
You can’t usually do the right thing without inconveniencing
yourself. *Bruce Byfield* reckons free software is a rare opportunity.
When you turn on your computer, you’re making a political statement.
If, like most people, your computer boots Microsoft Windows, the
statement you’re making is that transnational corporations should
control access to the most powerful public media that ever existed.
You’re passively accepting, too, that non-industrial nations should be
kept from developing, and helping to preserve a monoculture that
threatens the existence of minority languages. At a personal level,
you’re accepting that these same corporations should control your access
to educational and government services and have a right to install
lock-down technologies on your computer without your permission – to say
nothing of controlling what other software you can use and how you use it.
Most people, of course, never think of these implications. When
confronted, some will claim that none of this matters. Most, even social
activists, accept the situation because they don’t know of any alternative.
Yet an alternative does exist, and it’s becoming more viable by the day.
It’s called Free Software. It has already built and still runs most of
the internet. Now, increasingly, Free Software is finding its way on to
the desktops of those who want their ethics to extend to their computers.
From the city of Munich and the Extremadura region of Spain, to Brazil
and the Indian state of Kerala, the possibilities of Free Software are
being explored and, in many cases, implemented. Adaptation is slower in
North America, where Microsoft’s influence is strongest, but even there
many universities, corporations and government departments are at least
considering the possibilities.
Where it all comes from
Free Software began in 1984 when Richard M Stallman started the GNU
project to build a free operating system. Stallman had become concerned
about a major shift in the culture of programming. With the increased
popularity of computers, software was being treated as a commodity and
the old academic tradition of sharing programs in the name of exchanging
ideas was dead.
As an alternative to the new proprietary programs, Stallman created the
Free Software Foundation as a home for his project and wrote a software
licence called the GNU General Public Licence. ‘The GNU General Public
Licence is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free
software,’ the Preamble to the licence says, ‘to make sure the software
is free for all its users.’ The licence then goes on to grant users the
right to copy, install and change any software that uses it in any way
that they please, so long as a few basic conditions are met, including
preserving the original programmers’ credit and using the same licence
for any modified version.
These were radical ideas in the 1980s and they were largely ignored by
the general public. Free Software’s real boost came in the early 1990s,
when the internet – that it had largely created – in turn allowed groups
of programmers to co-operate remotely. In a few years they had built a
whole operating system called GNU/Linux – or Linux, as it is often
Soon, thousands of people were collaborating worldwide to fill in the
gaps. At first their efforts were focused on GNU/Linux. However,
enthusiasm quickly led to similar efforts on Windows and the Mac, as
well as several other lesser-known operating systems. An offshoot and
ally, the Open Source Movement, uses the same licences and co-operative
work methods, but its main concerns are software quality and working
with business. Today, some gaps remain – notably games and some drivers
for the very latest software. But it is now possible, without much
effort, to perform routine office functions entirely in free software
that is usually as good as, and often superior to, the proprietary tools
Need to replace MS Office? Try OpenOffice.org. Internet Explorer? Try
Mozilla Firefox. PhotoShop? The GIMP. And, in many cases, you’ll find
not just one alternative, but dozens, especially if you drop Windows or
OS X in favour of GNU/Linux.
The free software world view
If you’re not a programmer or a lawyer, all this might sound as exciting
as washing the dishes. So why should you care? Because, in ensuring
their own power to tinker with software, free software programmers have
also empowered users.
With free software, access to programs becomes a matter of accessibility
to the internet or contact with a project rather than the size of your
bank balance. Instead of going to the store, users can download the type
of program they need from the internet – and have it automatically
installed in minutes. Upgrades are the same. If organizations or users
need some functionality that isn’t there, they can add it themselves, or
become involved with the project that develops it and lobby for changes.
Moreover, organizations no longer need to be worried about licence
audits or getting activation codes.
The fact that it comes without a price tag doesn’t hurt, either.
Although the Free Software Foundation prefers to emphasize philosophical
freedoms, its cost-free nature remains one of the main attractions for
cash-strapped governments and educational institutions. Even allowing
for training, free software has been found consistently cheaper to run
than proprietary software in every neutral study ever conducted.
If you are socially active, you’ll probably find the values associated
with free software even more attractive. For one thing, projects are
usually communal organizations, where authority and respect are based
largely on contributions. Many of the members, too, are volunteers,
working only for credit, although a growing number are paid for their
efforts by companies like Google or IBM that see benefits in both
software results and public relations by offering assistance.
In some companies, too, the co-operative ethos spills over into their
interactions with competitors, evolving a less capitalistic, more humane
way of doing business. The same clashes of ego occur as anywhere else,
but, even so, the thousands of projects around the world are living
proof of how efficient collaborative methods can be.
One more reason to support free software is that it helps to put the
entire world on an equal footing. Free Software Foundation supporters
believe that it is a basic necessity of free speech. Today this requires
that everyone who wants it has internet access. Yet, given the price of
proprietary software, many people – especially in impoverished nations,
but also in the inner city and remote rural regions in the
industrialized world – can’t afford legal access. Nor can some
governments afford to build the technological infrastructure to improve
their countries. Free software removes many of these barriers.
Admittedly, hardware can also be a problem. That’s one reason why One
Laptop Per Child, an initiative whose goal is to build a $100 computer
and see copies distributed as widely as possible, finds many of its most
enthusiastic supporters in the free software community. The computer
will be distributed to millions of schoolchildren in the developing
world and free software will be installed (see http://laptop.org).
Some people question the priorities of the project, arguing that it
matters less than ensuring food or shelter. Yet, by the same arguments,
efforts to improve education in developing nations should also be
ignored. The issue is less about priorities than about people helping in
the areas where they can make a personal difference.
Similarly, personal computers and the internet threaten to produce a
monoculture. Fortunately for the British, North Americans and
Australasians, the language of the monoculture is English. Those in less
dominant states or in minority regions aren’t so lucky. Often they have
trouble finding programs written in their own language, because
proprietary software vendors have judged the market too small to be
worth developing a product for it. However, armed with enthusiasm and a
perception of need, volunteers can often bridge the gaps that economic
realities leave. OpenOffice.org, for example – the alternative to MS
Office – has been the first office suite in many languages, including
Welsh, Scots, Gaelic and Slovenian. With free software tools, minority
language users can keep their language alive and growing. In fact, Free
Software projects have frequently been the originators of dozens of
computer terms in such languages.
Ethical computers and civil society
It’s all very simple: supporting free software is good for you and even
better for the global community. Yet fewer than 10 per cent of computer
users have any free software installed.
A large part of the reason is probably the tactics used by Microsoft to
encourage the use of its products. However, Peter Brown, Executive
Director of the Free Software Foundation () and a former New
Internationalist co-operative member, suggests some additional reasons.
For one thing, he suggests, the implications of Free Software are so
large that mainstream journalists have trouble covering the issue. When
Brown tried to interest a friend at the BBC in covering free software,
his friend was overwhelmed. ‘He was like: “This is a big topic we’re
talking about,”’ Brown recalls.‘“It covers disks, it covers downloads,
it covers television, it covers iPods. How on earth am I going to wrap
up this story?”’
Another reason, Brown suggests, is that until recently the free software
community has not managed to contact potential supporters who lack a
strong interest in technology. The philosophy and organization of the
movement have close affinities with those of social activists, charities
and religious groups, yet such people know little about them. Many
people in such groups have a minimal knowledge of technology, and tend
to accept the dominant media portrayal of technologists as smart but
anti-social people whose concerns are irrelevant to the average person.
Supporting free software is good for you and even better for the global
community. Yet fewer than 10 per cent of computer users have any free
Yet, slowly, the connections are being made. For example, as the Free
Software Foundation explains in its Defective by Design campaign, the
increasing spread of ‘lock-down’ technologies that can limit users’
control of their own hardware and obtain information about their habits
without their consent raises issues about consumer rights, privacy,
anti-trust and industry standards. In such cases, the technical aspects
become secondary to the social implications.
‘When you’re talking about recycling, you don’t say that you’ll take
waste to this location and heat it to so many degrees. No-one needs to
know that,’ Brown says. ‘You don’t need to know the architecture of
GNU/Linux in order to make a judgment call about the ethics of free
In the end, he says, ‘Free software should be an obvious civil-society
issue. It should be as obvious as recycling cans. It should be something
that every parent should be asking when they go into a parent-teacher
meeting: is the school using free software? Is my child being taught to
use free software? Having control over your computer and knowing that
your devices aren’t spying on you, that you have an ethical computer –
[these] are all issues for civil society.’
Support begins with personal involvement. Instead of trying to grapple
all at once with the complications, start simply. Look up the subject at
Wikipedia and Google (two organizations with strong connections to the
free software communities) and choose a program or two to try. Two good
choices are the OpenOffice.org office suite (http://www.openoffice.org)
and the Mozilla Firefox web browser (http://www.mozilla.com).
What happens next is between you and your conscience.
*Bruce Byfield* is a journalist and editor for the Open Source
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