Sat 27 Mar 2021 11:46AM

Proposal to patch gaps in the definition of free software

A Akshay Public Seen by 52

Through various discussions in the last few days I have come to the realization that the definition of free software as espoused by FSF (and referred to by FSCI) lacks some crucial elements which are required to address freedom in society.

Till last week I was reading the free software definition in an expansive way where I read into the definition various rights like freedom from oppression. Whenever I was introducing free software to people, I have been talking about free software in the context of these larger freedoms too.

But, as events during last week made me realize, the definition of free software is focused purely on software and the benefits to human kind are incidental side-effects.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

1) Imagine North Korea or China (or say India) government uses a software that is designed to surveillance of citizens of the country and centralize data collection. If this software is released under AGPL license, it would be called "free software" by most people. It would then also be able to build on top of the work of several others who build libraries and frameworks and release it under copyleft licenses.

I don't think such software should be called "free software" or be able to utilize the work of other free software contributors

2) Imagine that the source code of a software is littered with comments that are abusive towards a particular gender identity or a particular group of people. As per the definition of free software, this software, as long as it is licensed under a license approved by FSF would be called free software.

Even just by going with the free software definition, those abusive comments hamper the right of a user targeted by those comments to meaningfully realize the freedom to "study" or "modify" such software.

But the definition of free software does not explicitly mention such rights and common people will misunderstand these software to be free.

This frequently leads to the confusion that it is enough that a software is released under a particular license for it to be "free software" or for it to stand for user freedom.

I propose that we explicitly address this misunderstanding by including this in the website and other places related to FSCI:

"For a software to be free, it also needs to respect fundamental human rights like right to freedom of speech and right against exploitation. Meaningful exercise of freedoms can only be possible in an environment where users are able to interact with each other without fear, intimidation, or inhibition. Free software is not the end by itself. Free software is only the means to freedom of all humans."

Of course the text may need to be made better to solidly address the lacunae in the present mission as I pointed above.

Here are some related resources/readings:


Ravi Dwivedi Fri 2 Apr 2021 7:08AM

What I understand superficially at this point is: 1. You want to expand the meaning of "freedom" that free software provides: 2. In RMS definition, it was the user who was granted freedom. To whom does free software provides these freedom is also expanded.


Pirate Praveen Fri 2 Apr 2021 8:04AM

I think it is also a matter of using the right tool. I don't think using copyright law is the right tool to fix all the problems of human society. The idea of Free Software is for users to be in control individually or collectively to modify it to fit their needs. So in case of surveillance the govt is the user of the software. I think political action is required to fix govts, copyright law cannot. I still think it may be sufficient to stop US department of customs from profiling immigrants. I'm not sure if the proposed changes are really worth the trouble of excluding a lot of people who want to use software under current definition of Free Software or Open Source. A concrete example is having to stick with an older version of VCR rubygem in debian since it switched to Hippocratic license. It'd need forking Debian to allow Ethical Source licenses to be accepted. Also in general forking and creating new definitions and projects are better to avoid confusions. If more people joins the new movements, it will eventually replace Free Software or Open Source.


Akshay Fri 2 Apr 2021 8:28AM

I agree. Not that I was proposing to use copyright law here. We could have expanded the definition of free software without any mechanism to enforce it. That would lead to there being no (or very few) free software. But I don't think that it is necessary that the definition should lead to a very large/successful collection or community.

Anyhow, that community/movement is better off starting from scratch. The baggage of free software will only slow it down.