A free software conference or an open source conference?

linux.conf.au describes itself as a “conference about Open Source Software, including Linux that brings together the world’s community of Linux enthusiasts who contribute to the Linux operating system“. The description is apt because it clearly states how focused on the “open source” philosophy that conference is. Their views and conclusions would differ if they focused more on software freedom instead. “Free software” and “open source” are terms expressing different values and different values give rise to different conclusions.

The free software movement is primarily concerned with building and defending software freedom—the freedom to run, share, and modify published computer software. This is an ethical consideration borne out of considering how we ought to treat one another using computers and software. The open source movement pushes aside software freedom and pursues attracting business to the open source development methodology. To that end they concern themselves primarily with speaking to programmers who can help business develop its software. These concerns share some common ground but they can reach polar opposite responses to practical questions as the aforementioned essay illustrates:

It is remarkable that such different philosophical views can so often motivate different people to participate in the same projects. Nonetheless, there are situations where these fundamentally different views lead to very different actions.

The idea of open source is that allowing users to change and redistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable. But this is not guaranteed. Developers of proprietary software are not necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program that is powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users’ freedom. Free software activists and open source enthusiasts will react very differently to that.

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, “Your program is very attractive, but I value my freedom more. So I reject your program. Instead I will support a project to develop a free replacement.” If we value our freedom, we can act to maintain and defend it.

If linux.conf.au were more concerned with teaching people about software freedom they’d recognize that the Linux kernel is a part of an operating system, not the whole thing. If you have only the Linux kernel on your computer you don’t have all the software you need to do things people expect a modern computer to do such as browse the web, compute in spreadsheets, and play movies. The Linux kernel allows an operating system to share computer hardware resources harmoniously so Linux is an important part of an operating system (for instance, a GNU/Linux system or a Busybox/Linux system as one might use on their home computer or Internet router) but we should give credit where credit is due. Calling attention to the name “GNU” helps draw attention to the cause of freedom and cooperation.

linux.conf.au hosts many talks and broadcasts them online in live streams. Apparently the live streaming is an opportunity for the online audience to install some non-free software, Microsoft’s Silverlight, via the conference’s live stream webpages. This year, linux.conf.au is hosting a talk by Robert O’Callahan, a hacker for Mozilla (makers of Firefox) who is giving a talk on “why open video is important for free software“; an important topic for free software activists everywhere. Viewers are given a mixed message when talks like these are streamed via patent-encumbered protocols over a proprietary program instead of the protocols and software O’Callahan will likely cover. A message rooted in freedom is subtly undermined when free and proprietary are presented as equals. Other conferences around the world have no problem streaming their talks in formats one can play with unencumbered free software (Debian’s conference, a very large Brazilian conference). The technology O’Callahan describes is viable today but if “unencumbered baseline codecs are critical for the Web and for the free software community” one wonders why this approach is not used exclusively to publish these live streams. Viewers/listeners to the online stream should be directed to install a free software browser which supports playing Ogg Vorbis+Theora not directed to install proprietary software.

3 thoughts on “A free software conference or an open source conference?

  1. “Open source” is the exact term Microsoft wants people to call FOSS, as it obfuscates the true and ultimate goal of FOSS that Microsoft fears the most: software freedom.

    I always have the impression that Australia is basically in bed with Microsoft (government are on long-term contracts with MS, all of my relatives over there only use and praise MS products). I still had some hope when hearing about FOSS news over there occasionally, but this is just confirming my feelings.

    Thanks for bringing up this issue, we should always emphasize freedom as our guiding star.

  2. I wouldn’t draw so strict a line between the two camps. There’s no reason why open source people couldn’t behave just like free software people in the described example case, they just don’t want to make a black-and-white ideology out of it. They respect people’s ability and freedom, as adults, to choose for themselves how and what kind of software they want to use instead of trying to tell everyone how they should behave.

    It doesn’t benefit the free software movement to alienate more and more users and developers if free software promoters don’t paint a balanced picture of their closest allies in the OSS camp.

    Besides, the basic ideas of the FSF, like the GPL, are not actuallu so much about freedom but about cooperation and sharing. I suppose, all the talk about freedom is supposed to convince Americans who are obsessed with the concept of freedom in all their talksm and culture. Everybody is supposed to be defending freedom in the USA, although they might be fighting for totally opposite causes…

    But what’s wrong with the concept of cooperation? I hope the FSF and Stallman wouldn’t be so stuck in their abstract freedom-this freedom-that discourse but could emphasize the practical benefits of sharing and cooperation as that is what the GPL is really all about too.

  3. In regards to the preceding post, my opinion is that the FSF is, in fact, primarily concerned with software freedom. The misunderstanding stems from how this freedom is practically derived: distribution (i.e., sharing). It is through the GPL, the mechanism which promotes share and share alike, that software users and developers can use and modify software in any way they like. Ironically, nothing in the GPL actually forces anyone to share their modifications of GPLed software, it is just that if they do, they must provide the source code, thereby ensuring the freedom to make further modifications. Finally, if you consider how easy it is to comply with the GPL (Eben Moglen would call it making ice in the winter time), it is clear that it is truly about freedom. If its authors were more concerned about sharing, they could have imposed other strictures which would have made sharing more likely (but these would have come at the expense of freedom).

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