The deceptive value of freedom to choose.

I happened across a blog post discussing a dilemma between “my capitalist “do-what-you-want-with-your-money” ideals with my free software ideal “omg-you-don’t-know-what-you-are-doing-with-your-money.””. The poster concluded that he “ultimately, [believes] in choice.”. It’s a good thing that this blog entry says there are better free software arguments. I’ve heard better arguments too, so I’ll try to lay out one such argument I’ve found quite compelling.

One of the problems of focusing on “freedom of choice” (as it is often framed) is how easily restricted one’s choices become when one ignores important freedoms such as the freedoms to run, inspect, share, and modify computer software at any time for any reason (collectively known as “software freedom”). For example, consider web browsers: Not that long ago there were 3 web browsers people generally paid attention to—Netscape Navigator, Microsoft Internet Explorer, and Opera. Choice was satisfied: there were at least two options. But software freedom was nowhere to be found. Software freedom was not among the choices.

The freedom-of-choice argument frames proprietary and free software as points on a spectrum of equally valid alternatives. Any ethical examination of how the software treats the user is tossed aside in favor of technocratic examination (which program is more powerful or reliable, for instance). The free software movement’s philosophy removes a proprietor’s metaphorical seat at the table by showing how proprietary software is unethical; a choice of dependency or enslavement to another’s control over your computer (and, as we become more dependent on computers, control over your life) is no choice at all. Thus a freedom-of-choice argument reverses the effect of the free software movement’s philosophy. Anyone who argues for freedom-of-choice is arguing to replace that seat at the table and invite proprietors to fill that seat, offering us less software freedom.

Even if free software programs aren’t as powerful or reliable as their proprietary alternatives, free software is better because it respects the user’s freedom. It is wiser to choose free software because free software can be improved to become powerful and reliable but it is rare when a proprietary program can be made free. In other words, we can collectively fix what’s broken when we have the freedom to fix it but when we’re stuck with broken proprietary software we’re at the proprietor’s mercy. We are always better off improving the programs we have which respect our software freedom rather than entering into dependency with a proprietor.

There are technical reasons to exclusively choose free software as well, but none are quite as compelling as the ethical reasons: all programs have bugs but free software lets technical users help you fix those bugs. If you’re not a developer, you can help developers by sending in detailed bug reports and installing improved versions of software. The more free software you run, the more developers can help you diagnose and debug what went wrong. Proprietors sometimes offer to let you send in bug reports, but they might not choose to fix your bugs. If the proprietor is uncooperative you have nobody left to turn to for help; all proprietors are monopolists.