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Challenges in Maintaining A Big Tent for Software Freedom

by Bradley M. Kuhn on August 30, 2018

In recent weeks, I've been involved with a complex internal discussion by a major software freedom project about a desire to take a stance on social justice issues other than software freedom. In the discussion, many different people came forward with various issues that matter to them, including vegetarianism, diversity, and speech censorship, wondering how that software freedom project should handle other social justices causes that are not software freedom. This week, (separate and fully unrelated) another project, called Lerna, publicly had a similar debate. The issues involved are challenging, and it deserves careful consideration regardless of how the issue is raised.

One of the first licensing discussions that I was ever involved in the mid 1990s was with a developer, who was a lifelong global peace activist, objecting to the GPL because it allowed the USA Department of Defense and the wider military industrial complex to incorporate software into their destructive killing machines. As a lifelong pacifist myself, I sympathized with his objection, and since then, I have regularly considered the question of “do those who perpetrate other social injustices deserve software freedom?”

I ultimately drew much of my conclusion about this from activists for free speech, who have a longer history and have therefore had longer time to consider the philosophical question. I remember in the late 1980s when I first learned of the ACLU, and hearing that they assisted the Klu-Klux Klan in their right to march. I was flabbergasted; the Klan is historically well-documented as an organization that was party to horrific murder. Why would the ACLU defend their free speech rights? Recently, many people had a similar reaction when, in defense of the freedom of association and free speech of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the ACLU filed an amicus brief in a case involving the NRA, an organization that I and many others oppose politically. Again, we're left wondering: why should we act to defend the free speech and association rights of political causes we oppose — particularly for those like the NRA and big software companies who have adequate resources to defend themselves?

A few weeks ago, I heard a good explanation of this in an interview with ACLU's Executive Director, whom I'll directly quote, as he stated succinctly the reason why ACLU has a long history of defending everyone's free speech and free association rights:

[Our decision] to give legal representation to Nazis [was controversial].… It is not for the government's role to decide who gets a permit to march based on the content of their speech. We got lots of criticism, both internally and externally. … We believe these rights are for everyone, and we truly mean it — even for people we hate and whose ideology is loathsome, disgusting, and hurtful. [The ACLU can't be] just a liberal/left advocacy group; no liberal/left advocacy group would take on these kinds of cases. … It is important for us to forge a path that talks about this being about the rights of everyone.

Ultimately, fighting for software freedom is a social justice cause similar to that of fighting for free speech and other causes that require equal rights for all. We will always find groups exploiting those freedoms for ill rather than good. We, as software freedom activists, will have to sometimes grit our teeth and defend the rights to modify and improve software for those we otherwise oppose. Indeed, they may even utilize that software for those objectionable activities. It's particularly annoying to do that for companies that otherwise produce proprietary software: after all, in another realm, they are actively working against our cause. Nevertheless, either we believe the Four Software Freedoms are universal, or we don't. If we do, even our active political opponents deserve them, too.

I think we can take a good example from the ACLU on this matter. The ACLU, by standing firm on its core principles, now has, after two generations of work, developed the power to make impact on related causes. The ACLU is the primary organization defending immigrants who have been forcibly separated from their children by the USA government. I'd posit that only an organization with a long history of principled activity can have both the gravitas and adequate resources to take on that issue.

Fortunately, software freedom is already successful enough that we can do at least a little bit of that now. For example, Conservancy already took a public position, early, in opposition of Trump's immigration policy because of its negative impact on software freedom, whose advancement depends on the free flow of movement by technologists around the world. Speaking out from our microphone built from our principled stand on software freedom, we can make an impact that denying software freedom to others never could. Specifically, rather than proprietarizing the license of projects to fight USA's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its software providers, I'd encourage us to figure out a specific FOSS package that we can prove is deployed for use at ICE, and use that fact as a rhetorical lever to criticize their bad behavior. For example, has anyone investigated if ICE uses Linux-based servers to host their otherwise proprietary software systems? If so, the Linux community is already large and powerful enough that if a group of Linux contributors made a public statement in political opposition to the use of Linux in ICE's activities, it would get national news attention here in the USA. We could even ally with the ACLU to assure the message is heard. No license change is needed to do that, and it will surely be more effective.

Again, this is how software freedom is so much like free speech. We give software freedom to all, which allows them to freely use and deploy the software for any purpose, just like hate groups can use the free speech microphone to share their ideas. However, like the ACLU, software freedom activists, who simultaneously defend all users equal rights in copying, sharing and modifying the software, can use their platform — already standing on the moral high ground that was generated by that long time principled support of equal rights — to speak out against those who bring harm to society in other ways.

Finally, note that the Four Software Freedoms obviously should never be the only laws and/or rules of conduct of our society. Just like you should be prevented from (proverbially) falsely yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theater, you still should be stopped when you deploy Free Software in a manner that violates some other law, or commits human rights violations. However, taking away software freedom from bad actors, while it seems like a panacea to other societal ills, will simply backfire. The simplicity and beauty of copyleft is that it takes away someone's software freedom only at the moment when they take away someone else's software freedom; copyleft ensures that is the only reason your software freedom should be lost. Simple tools work best when your social justice cause is an underdog, and we risk obscurity of our software if we seek to change the fundamental simple design of copyleft licensing to include licensing penalties for other social justice grievances (— even if we could agree on which other non-FOSS causes warrant “copyleft protection”). It means we have a big tent for software freedom, and we sometimes stand under it with people whose behavior we despise. The value we have is our ability to stand with them under the tent, and tell them: “while I respect your right to share and improve that software, I find the task you're doing with the software deplorable.”. That's the message I deliver to any ICE agent who used Free Software while forcibly separating parents from their children.

Tags: conservancy, law, licensing

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