Where The Free Software Movement Went Wrong (And How To Fix It)


The biggest change I’ve seen in the tech industry in the past decade isn’t social media, cloud computing, big data, consumerization or even mobile. It’s the mainstream acceptance of open source. Even 10 years ago open source was controversial. Back then “open vs. proprietary” arguments would still erupt at meetings and parties. Back then vendors spread FUD about open source. Today, every vendor wants to call themselves “open.”
Why is that? Writer Evgeny Morozov traces it back to Tim O’Reilly and his media/conference empire in a long piece for The Baffler published this week.
According to Morozov, O’Reilly hijacked Richard Stallman’s free software movement and turned it into the more corporate-friendly open source movement. From there, O’Reilly would go on to redefine web freedom as freedom for companies like Google to do whatever they want online, and to redefine open government not as a movement for transparency and accountability but as the need to give free data sets to for-profit companies.
The piece raises important questions about the Californian Ideology and how it influences policy — and about the consequences of sacrificing principles in the name of pragmatism. But I think Morozov misses some crucial reasons that open source supplanted Free Software.
Morozov sort of glosses over the differences between open source and Free Software. Free Software, as the saying goes, is free as in speech, not as in beer. The primary freedoms, as Morozov notes, are: “users should be able to run the program for any purpose, to study how it works, to redistribute copies of it, and to release their improved version (if there was one) to the public.”
But most open source software — as defined by the Open Source Initiative — is also free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation. So what’s the problem? The difference between the two movements is that Free Software is a social movement, and open source is a methodology. In an essay titled “Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software,” Stallman complains that the freedoms promoted by the Free Software Movement are not discussed by open-source advocates, and that because of that, the public in general remains deeply confused about what open source even means.
Morozov writes that the difference between the two is that free software emphasizes users and that open source emphasizes developers. But I would submit that free software is also primarily interested in developers as well, in that the freedoms it emphasizes are ones that matter to developers, but very little to the rest of us. That’s where the movement went wrong.
Sure there are a few non-developers who care about this stuff — activists and other security-conscious people have reason to want to study the software they use, or to have it reviewed by trusted networks. But try telling graphic designers that they should use GIMP instead of Photoshop because they can study the code, modify it and release their own version. Or try telling a data analyst why they should use Libre Office instead of Excel, or a musician why they should use Ardour instead of Logic. See how far you get.
All this raises the question: did open source eclipse Free Software because O’Reilly is such a gifted marketer, or because people just don’t care that much about the freedoms that Stallman cares about? Is it any wonder that developers are the primary users of free software?

By Klint Finley
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