Don’t debate using arguments your opponent can best you with.

I read that the GNOME hackers are starting up an effort to market GNOME to teenagers. The GNOME Wiki has a section for this work.

But Seb Payne, who announced the effort, says:

“Many young people are stuck on Windows 98 and Office 2000. Why? Microsoft software is just too damm expensive.”

And thus falls into a common trap which the open source movement pushes in order to steer the conversation away from software freedom: talk about price, not about freedom.

When the discussion centers on price the discussion will turn to how many people can get proprietary software at no fee (either legally or illegally). This ignores the limitations to be good neighbors and recognize that you’re better off when you don’t have to beg a monopoly for support.

People see this problem when it comes to their car, their house, and a variety of other services; they don’t want to be tied down to getting the work done by only one source. Some people even want to do the work themselves, even in small measure (like changing one’s own lightbulbs, or mowing one’s own lawn). Thus, they need the information to do the work and they need the legal freedom to get the job done.

Free software is quite comparable — free software is free as in the freedom to share and modify. Free software gives you the freedom to work on things yourself, hire others to do work, and share the work with others (including charging for copies of the software). For the free software movement, proprietary software is an intolerable lack of freedom, to be avoided entirely except for writing a free software replacement.

The open source movement pitches practical solutions such as faster development, cheaper development, less buggy code, which are fine things to have but don’t go far enough to ensure that you the user of the software have what you need to be a good neighbor, build a business, or tend to your own needs. The open source movement was formed to dismiss software freedom and adopt a framing of the debate that would attract businesses. For the open source movement, proprietary software is merely less technically efficient at reaching business goals than “open source” software.

Payne continues:

“Most of them suffer with security problems – usually spyware or viruses.”

While true, this (again) is just a technical matter of writing software that doesn’t have these holes to be exploited by viruses, trojan horses, and such. Some proprietors accomplish this task, and thus is another poor argument if one is trying to frame the debate in terms of software freedom. Spyware, software that tracks what you do and reports the findings usually via a network, is a different issue entirely and has to do with running proprietary software. If you don’t want spyware, you shouldn’t run proprietary software.

Hence, I’m not an open source proponent. I’m a free software proponent.

Update: More no-freedom-talk recommendations from Christine Spang in “Free Software Without the Beer and the Politics“. She’s apparently trying to gain popularity for a message she refuses to give voice to.

3 thoughts on “Don’t debate using arguments your opponent can best you with.

  1. I’m not sure what you’re getting at. Different people will respond to different things, depending on their wants and needs. If cost and less problems are a selling point for some people, why not use it?

    I’m pretty sure I sold the parents of an incoming freshman at my university on at least trying a few days ago, and the two most important points to them was that it would meet their son/daughter’s needs, and that it would save them a couple hundred dollars since they wouldn’t have to buy MS Office.

    While I agree with you that not having to beg a monopoly and not being tied down to corporate whims is a good thing, if an open source program will meet someone’s needs, sell them on whatever point will get them to give it a try.

  2. First, it’s great that you are introducing more people to free software. But I have to wonder what will make people want to stick with free software when proprietors reduce their price to zero to tempt users away?

    Cost is easy for any proprietor to meet but no proprietor can supply software freedom. For large seat clients, proprietors are occasionally willing to foot the bill because of the promise of sales down the road. Not that long ago, the New York Times discussed an internal Microsoft memo which revealed that Microsoft maintains a slush fund to cover the license costs of giving away licenses to their proprietary software. Microsoft uses these licenses to sway clients away from switching to free software. The memo read, in part, “Under NO circumstances lose against Linux[sic]”. Many educational institutions buy site licenses and distribute licensed proprietary software to students for a reduced fee or zero cost. There is significant incentive for proprietors to participate in site licensing with educational institutions because it trains impressionable young students early.

    For small seat clients, copyright infringement or gifts will displace the cost of proprietary software. In your case, someone could have bought a Microsoft Office license for those parents and saved them some money. If cost was the most salient issue in the discussion, it’s reasonable to believe that these parents would have thought that someone was doing them a favor by helping them put on the shackles of proprietary software at a low price.

    The cost of proprietary software is rather easily pushed aside for a lot of computer users, but the lack of software freedom is not. If cost is of chief importance, users will have no reason to stick with free software when faced with a proprietor’s offer of a reduced price. When users can get a copy of the proprietary software without paying for it, they will see that as a bargain because cost was framed as the most important consideration. I’m not against discussing cost, I’m against discussions of cost that exclude any discussion of why software freedom is important. Low cost is a side effect of the freedom to share. But unfortunately there seems to be no time for freedom talk. I think excluding freedom talk is a step in the wrong direction because we can’t expect people to value what they don’t know anything about.

  3. Ok, now I understand what you’re saying. I agree 100% with cost and features not being the most important reasons to switch to free software. Open standards and no vendor lock-in are far more important.

    The problem I see, though, is that some people are never going to care about the politcal side of F/OSS. Ever. They’re going to look at us all as liberals trying force socialism down their throats, or they’re just not going to have the time or interest in helping yet another cause. However, if you can sell these people on cost or features, because they are quick and easy sell, they will still help break the grip of propietary software (for a time, at least) whether they know it or not. How many Firefox users are using it because they care about web standards (me), and how many are using it because it doesn’t get spyware (my mom)? But every user means more market share, which means web developers have to take Firefox (and thus web standards) seriously.

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