Free. As in free speech.

by D. W. Bester

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William Gibson, with his seminal work in the cyperpunk genre, Neuromancer, tells the story of the anti-hero hacker travelling in and out of cyperspace (a term that this novel popularised) and stealing information. The term ‘hacker’ originated in the 1960’s, to describe someone who likes to explore the limits of what is possible, in a playful and clever manner. Initially, the term wasn’t exclusively used for programmers, though nowadays it is mostly prevalent in the software scene. The word hacker has also gained negative connotations in recent years, since it is mostly used by the media to describe illegal activities in cyberspace. Hackers try to distance themselves from this, referring to their illegal counterparts as ‘crackers’.

Growing up in the nineties, those tending toward nerdy would not aspire to be Olympic athletes, football stars or rugby heroes, but rather opt for the annals of wired magazine — to be acknowledged in their pages as one of the most brilliant hackers alive. Not to be known by a given name, but rather an alpha-numeric alias, which would make IT support teams of large tech companies cringe with feelings of inadequacy. The kind of hacker that inspires cyberpunk legends.

The aspiring hacker would have to start training early, just like any athlete. And she is soon to discover that an average computer contains not nearly enough equipment to learn the necessary skills. For on the average PC, most of the code, the inner workings and the precious mechanics are hidden from the end user.  You are not allowed to analyse, tinker, or change your purchased software. New versions need to be purchased regularly, and may only be used on a certain number of computers at any time. Use is regulated by online activation processes, to make sure you are adhering to the regulations.

Most computer users never stop to think about these processes and restrictions in detail. We have come to accept this as the nature of the beast, as necessary rules to curb “piracy”; “piracy”, a term that is used ever more liberally by the producers of software, film, and music. Most users would also find that these restrictions don’t affect their use of the product to a great extent. They can still edit documents, read email and browse the web. Pay for the product, and don’t worry about what is happening behind the screen.

This indifference is probably the cause of the software revolution’s unknown nature. A revolution that has been on-going since the early 1980’s, it centres around one central point: that software should respect freedom. It is mostly referred to as the free software movement and is often misunderstood as advocating software that has zero cost. Though most free software is also free of cost, the pertaining freedoms of free software go much deeper. It can be summed up in four main freedoms: (1) The freedom to run the program for any purpose (2) The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (3) The freedom to redistribute copies of the original so you can help your neighbour (4) The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. A proliferation of these freedoms can be experienced through the operating system GNU/Linux or one of its many variants, and the accompanying software.

In a world where programming is becoming more widespread, these freedoms might start to matter sooner than we expect. Being able to read and write, as well as having access to reading and writing material, is empowering. This applies to software as well as books. However, in an age where computer literacy is becoming more and more important, the knowledge needed to understand and create content is becoming more specialised. While it is still easy to consume content – using software – the deeper understanding that goes with being able to create content – producing software – is dependent on the ability to program and the ease of learning it.

It would be a mistake to focus on the argument that software freedom would not make an immediate difference to one’s life. This is true to the same extent that speech freedom would not make an immediate difference. Although most of us will never get on a pedestal with a bullhorn and exclaim our political opinions, we still demand free speech. Why then, although most of us might never wish to modify, improve, or see the inner workings of a program, do we not demand free software?

In part, it is due to the fact that we have gotten used to non-free software (also known as proprietary software). It is the accepted standard, they are the programs used in education and most of commerce. The standard stems from powerful software companies who lock hardware vendors into contracts to distribute only certain types of software pre-installed. They provide users with a black box, where a certain input generates a certain output, but you are not allowed to look inside.

Though it is possible (at least at the moment) to remove the non-free software and run free programs on computer hardware, some stumbling blocks usually prevent users from doing so. Transferring to free software requires moving from the tried and trusted programs to something new. The changes may be very small, but to many who still regard their computer as a sparring opponent rather than an ally, even a small change can be dramatic. If a small change to the operating system is already a daunting step, then moving to a whole new system only to do the same basic tasks as before, albeit with freedom, isn’t worth the hassle.

History has shown that freedom is seldom free. The price for free software is education, and time spent arming yourself with technical knowledge. This cost is often deemed too high, considering that proprietary software doesn’t seem that evil. Despite this, free software has had some influence on the larger software market place. A visible example is Firefox, which is regarded as the jewel of the free software community. Do people who choose this popular browser realise that it is free software, not because it has zero cost, but because it respects their freedom? The same goes for Android.

Non-free software aims to keep users at consumer level, it keeps you dependent. You are urged to pay for the convenience of not having to think about the workings of the program. The fact that you aren’t allowed to see them is brushed aside as the collateral damage of this increased convenience. If you were to learn too much about the source, proprietary software companies would become obsolete. This might seem unlikely, but antitrust lawsuits exposing the boycott of free software by software companies show that it may not be too far fetched.

Free software empowers. It gives access to knowledge, it gives you the right to know, to contribute, to use and to share as you see fit. Overall, a large-scale revolution with angry protesters wielding laptops and carrying demotivational posters is improbable. Rather, this revolution spreads slowly. Like a virus, it infects and liberates one system at a time. The code behind it has a similar attribute, for when a piece of source code is released under a free license, the freedom may never be removed and any program built on this code must remain free. It is not surprising that software companies refer to free licenses as “viral”.

Still, most of us go by our daily computing without realising that behind the fancy graphical user interfaces, there is an on-going revolution taking place. We can only hope that by the time we realise the importance of the outcome, it will be in our favour. Unless we feel comfortable with patents that, for instance, allows a company to use the webcam of a smart TV along with facial recognition software to spy on the viewers, making sure that no one watches more than their paid-for allowance – such as the patent filed by Microsoft recently. Once tasting free software, one can never again be satisfied by the dictatorial nature of proprietary programs.



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