On Software Freedom and the Free Software Foundation

I have been using free software for literally my entire literate life. My earliest memories of actually using a computer involve writing emails to my dad in pine on my stepdad’s computer (circa 1993 or so). However, it wasn’t until I started interacting with free, open-source software (FOSS) communities that I really became aware of the Free Software Foundation. But more on the FSF later.

My nearly-lifelong history with free software has, in part, led me to support FOSS and, more importantly, community-oriented software development. It is my belief that FOSS can, should, and must empower marginalized communities, and it is in fact a fundamental component of justice.

Justice is not about the legal system, though the legal system is what most people think of when they hear ‘justice’. But justice is not about what is legal; it is about what is humane. Is it humane for children to go hungry through no fault of their own? Is it humane for a blind person to have to pay for proprietary software in order to use their computer effectively? Is it humane for a person to be subjected to close confinement to await trial for stealing a loaf of bread? The answer to these questions should be short and obvious, and the same.

And yet, the FSF is not at the forefront of these issues. It has fallen upon other organizations to provide accessibility softare for Linux. Richard M Stallman’s apparently-intentional reputation as an anti-social serial harasser has driven women away from FOSS communities where it is likely that they will have to interact with him. He is known to scream at people when he perceives that they are wrong, e.g. when someone uses name-brand noise-canceling headphones in his presence. He is incapable of being kind, in short.

And the Free Software Foundation has not only enabled his bad behaviour, it has actively endorsed it. The board not only chose to have a vote on reinstating him on it, a majority voted in favour of his reinstatement. In response to the controversy surrounding and the open letter written in response to this vote, only the board members with integrity resigned. The remaining members have chosen only to condemn both RMS’s social behaviour and the community’s response to it.

Beyond all of that, RMS’s sabotaging of dotGNU (by assigning leadership to someone who pivoted it to his personal PHP-based groupware project) and rejection of LLVM being included in to GCC has had significant and unfortunate consequences for software freedom. Microsoft effectively owns all implementations of .NET, and has only in the past few years begun to open-source it. The lack of LLVM integration in GCC has made it significantly harder to incorporate support for new languages such as Go and Rust. Moreover, his leadership has rendered GCC’s Java compiler irrelevant to modern software development. And those are only the technical failures that I know about.

It is therefore clear to me that the Free Software Foundation must be dissolved. That every contributor should exercise their right to withdraw from the copyright assignment agreement. That every distribution should, wherever possible, replace GNU software with competently-executed alternatives. That every sponsor should withdraw their support.

A new organization for the advancement of software freedom is urgently needed.

2 thoughts on “On Software Freedom and the Free Software Foundation

  1. While I largely agree with what you’re saying, combined with your earlier post “OSI Considered Harmful”, it seems you propose eliminating, rather than reforming, both the FSF and OSI. This would eliminate most or all of the organizations understood to have some moral authority to certify licenses as FOSS.

    If you look at e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apache_License the FSF and OSI give it stamps of approval, and it is noted to be “Debian FSG compatible” and “GPL compatible”. Possibly the Debian organization would be the only organization left standing as a widely accepted reviewer of licenses. The Software Freedom Conservancy would have some weight in the copyleft community, but what org would be left with control of the GPL if the FSF dissolved?

    I’m not saying that the FSF or OSI should necessarily continue, but they would need to be wound down in some sensible way that doesn’t leave FOSS licensing in chaos, and there would have to be some generally agreed successor(s), otherwise you could end up with multiple conflicting antipopes of FOSS. I wonder if it is even possible to get the community to agree on anything, given the number of people who still are making excuses for RMS at this late date, and the increasing investment in open source by corporations like Microsoft.

    1. Yeah. I’m really not sure what can really be done about it. The FSF damned themselves to irrelevance a long time ago, so any claims of moral authority on their part can be considered to be dubious at best. The OSI could have been an effective counterweight, except the OSD doesn’t consider user freedoms at all. That’s really the crux of the matter, I think.

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