Changing management won’t fix an unethical system

The BBC brings us the latest essay from Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, with “It’s not the Gates, it’s the bars“. Stallman explains why it’s a mistake to focus on any particular proprietor (individual or organization) rather than focusing on the unethical system of proprietary software.

Recently the One Laptop per Child project announced they will switch to using Microsoft Windows on the XO laptop. I understand the plan will be gradual: New XOs will offer either the current Fedora GNU/Linux-based system or Microsoft Windows XP. Later only Microsoft Windows XP will be offered by default. This is a remarkably bad move for anyone who took the OLPC’s initial educational mission seriously—even if the Microsoft Windows-based XO has some free software running on it, the switch is a net reduction in user’s freedoms. Users running the current GNU/Linux system have are free to fully inspect, run, share, and modify their system (with the exception of one non-free program to control the wireless device). These freedoms are why the software is referred to as “free”, the use of the word free in this context is not a reference to price. By contrast, under Microsoft Windows far more of the operating system will remain off-limits to users. No proprietor would reject an opportunity to hook anyone, even the poorest people in the world, into dependency.

Users would prefer to not be spied on without their consent. But some proprietary software programs spy on their users (including KaZaA, RealPlayer, Windows Media Player, and Microsoft Windows) reporting back to its owner. Users shouldn’t have to sacrifice their privacy to talk to one another. But Skype, a popular proprietary program which lets users make telephone calls over the Internet, routes all calls through a central switchboard run by the proprietor thus allowing the proprietor to record the calls. Because Skype is proprietary, users cannot improve the program to include free software encryption which would render such recordings useless, or use a different switchboard server to bypass Skype’s switchboard entirely. Users would also prefer not to get a downgrade when they believe they are upgrading to the latest version of a program. Yet Apple did just that with iTunes effectively reducing the usefulness of the program. One so-called upgrade resulted in users losing music they purchased through the iTunes music service. No iTunes user, even skilled programmers, had the option of improving the program and publishing their improved iTunes so other users could avoid losing their purchased tracks.

As Stallman told the Boston Review:

The remedy is to give the users more control, not less. We must insist on free/libre software, software that the users are free to change and redistribute. Free/libre software develops under the control of its users: if they don’t like its features, for whatever reason, they can change them. If you’re not a programmer, you still get the benefit of control by the users. A programmer can make the improvements you would like, and publish the changed version. Then you can use it too.

The free software movement presents the only principled challenge to proprietary software. Society must ensure that users are free to organize to help themselves and one another according to their own goals—social solidarity.