Why “open source” is a route to placating software proprietors.


For some time now, Firefox advocates have been discussing this web browser in terms of its popularity. Many have cited how Microsoft Internet Explorer’s usage shrinks because Firefox’s usage grows. One of the most recent of such arguments comes from Asa Dotzler, Firefox and Thunderbird product release manager.

I have no objection to the Firefox web browser, in fact I use it as my primary web browser and have for some time now. Before that, for many years, I used the Mozilla suite (a combination of web browser, email client, chat program, and webpage editor). However, the argument with which one is ostensibly convinced to use Firefox is particularly weak and has been repeated for so long those who espouse it are unlikely to closely examine why it fails to convince.

Here’s the theme, from the best essay I’ve seen on the philosophical differences between the free software movement and the open source movement (emphasis mine):

“Today many people are switching to free software for purely practical reasons. That is good, as far as it goes, but that isn’t all we need to do! Attracting users to free software is not the whole job, just the first step.

Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantage. Countless companies seek to offer such temptation, and why would users decline? Only if they have learned to value the freedom free software gives them, for its own sake. It is up to us to spread this idea–and in order to do that, we have to talk about freedom. A certain amount of the “keep quiet” approach to business can be useful for the community, but we must have plenty of freedom talk too.

At present, we have plenty of “keep quiet”, but not enough freedom talk. Most people involved with free software say little about freedom–usually because they seek to be “more acceptable to business.””

The next major release of Microsoft Windows will come with a new version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, a version which is already being tested in public and many users have had time to try it out. Like Firefox, this new MSIE features tabs, a speedy webpage renderer, and an interface to run extensions. But MSIE is proprietary software. How it works is a secret, so that you can’t easily learn what is happening to your data. Experts are equally stymied as the secret is kept from them too. The software may not be shared, so even if you discover that MSIE is doing something you don’t want it to do and you somehow figure out a way to change how MSIE behaves you cannot share that improved version. Being a good neighbor or a good friend is prohibited with proprietary software, thus proprietary software is an anti-social trap.

Free software is the exact opposite of this: free software is software that respects the user’s freedom to share and modify the program to help themselves, help their neighbors, and help their community. Everyone has the right to inspect, share, and modify the software for whatever purpose at any time so that they can make the computer behave as they want it to behave.

The problem with Firefox and MSIE debates from many Firefox advocates and corporate media

Sadly, the debate involving Firefox and MSIE is being framed in terms of features (or on the equally poor argument of “choice”) instead of software freedom. Particularly with well-financed, well-advertised proprietary software with the power to bundle something with the OS, proprietors can maintain a strong popular lead. The argument Firefox proponents offer doesn’t take any time to teach users to value their software freedom, thus these users have no reason to reject the next version of MSIE. Hence, popularity is both (1) a minor concern that (2) has yet to really be tested at all.

Choice is often an effective way to railroad someone out of something they value. In US presidential elections, narrowing one’s choices is a way to railroad most voters into voting for the interests of the wealthy (Bush versus Kerry). In the context of web browsing, choice meant railroading users out of their software freedom. Mozilla suite and Firefox are not needed to provide choice. At one time, well before the current Mozilla project was a part of our lives, the three most popular graphical web browsers were Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and Opera. Since there were at least two browsers in the set, choice was satisfied. But software freedom was not satisified at all because none of the browsers in that set were free software browsers. Hence, Mozilla suite and Firefox don’t give one “choice”, one had choices before these browsers came along. But one did not have software freedom.

Software freedom is something Microsoft chooses not to supply to its users. Software freedom serves the needs of the users and proprietary software is untrustworthy by default. Hence, the debate should be focused on technical concerns and features after one has whittled away the competition by asking which program respects the user’s freedoms to share and modify the software.

Why not discuss software freedom

The Mozilla Foundation and Firefox proponents often don’t discuss software freedom because they are advocates for the open source movement. This movement started over a decade after the free software movement. The open source movement was formed to be more business-friendly. To accomplish this, this movement’s founders decided that they could more effectively talk to businesses by touting practical benefits of so-called “open source” software—that software is developed faster, cheaper, and with fewer bugs when more people can have a hand in writing the software—while pushing aside any freedom talk. User’s freedom to control how their computers work is not a cause the open source movement fights for. Effectively, the open source movement is a call to value an efficient development methodology by getting businesses to leverage the talented hackers of the world to work for them at no charge.