Magazine Opinions Volume 70, Issue 8

Free, as in Freedom

Written by Michael Brodskiy

WAIT . . . see, that is exactly what your computer should be doing . . . a computer waits to receive instructions — if it is not computing, it is waiting. But, who is supplying the instructions to your computer? Is it you, or is it someone else?

Remember this: if you do not control the computer, then the computer controls you.

  With a rise in the prevalence and complexity of technology, many questions on ethics arise. These questions range from privacy and tracking protection to whether business models should be incentivized to make their software proprietary, and therefore obfuscate their products. The underlying argument of the Free Software Foundation, abbreviated FSF, essentially lies in a dichotomy: if the user does not control their system, then the system controls the user. Nowadays, business models profit off of clueless users by forcing them to pay, perpetually, not for the product, but for a license to be able to use said product. This immoral business model limits the users’ ability to properly use the software, thereby dividing the user community and establishing dominance over the user. 

Richard Stallman (RMS), the  founder of the FSF, has been fighting for the rights of users since the early 1970s, when he graduated with a degree in physics from Harvard University, and joined the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.  Stallman argues that, for a piece of software to be free (that is, free as in freedom, not price), it must follow the four freedoms: first (or the zeroth term, the way Stallman numbers it), a user must be able to run the program for any purpose. Second, a user must be able to study the program and change it to their needs. Third, a user must be able to redistribute the program to help out their neighbor. Finally, fourth, a user must be able to improve the program, and release said improvements to other members of the community. 

Now with codified requirements, Stallman was able to benefit the community with a license for the community. This was established as the GPL, or General Public License, which has since reached its third version. Of course, many questions come with the idea of free software. For example, it is frequently asked whether a hacker/company may receive compensation (usually as financial support) for creating a piece of software. Of course, this is not only allowed, but moreover encouraged. For example, a widely-used, real-life example lies in the Canvas Learning Management System. Introduced to our school this year, it is especially used in many universities. Canvas itself is licensed under a derivative GPL license. The question about money is often asked because the main point of the FSF is inadvertently misconstrued. The FSF refers to free software as relating to liberty, not price. Furthermore, the Free Software Movement concerns us, as students, in that non-free software has become ubiquitous in today’s classrooms. One major example is our school’s teleconferencing solution, which has faced hundreds of privacy and rights infringement lawsuits. As is well known, due to the rise of distance learning, many schools have been faced with a transition to online environments. With this transition came a necessity for an in-person replacement, and, as a result, learning establishments (as well as many companies) turned to the same teleconferencing platform our school currently uses. A great, decentralized, GPL variant for our needs as students is Jitsi Meet. In Jitsi, the user is able to host the server for meetings on their machine, without the need for an account or centralized control from any one commercial entity. This means that Jitsi can be used, both privately and securely, which makes it more efficient, as well as a safer environment for students and teachers alike. 

In an FSF article, entitled “Why Schools Should Exclusively Use Free Software Stallman outlines the main reasons for schools to transfer to freedom-respecting software. Stallman says that schools have a social responsibility, “to teach students to be citizens of a strong, capable, independent, cooperating and free society.” As such, by using non-free software, schools are fostering a dependency for their students on monopolistic corporations that are antonymous with education, thereby creating students unprepared to face the world. Often, the idea of an “educational license” that many companies give out “for free” is brought up . Although it may appear that this is free in price, it is ultimately the students who pay for it. These licenses are purposely made so that students become hooked during their formative years to using unjust products, which, in the long run, generates such businesses more money, as students graduate and pay for the license to be able to use non-free software. I would like to underline that a license is not the ultimate solution, as, if all software is free, there is no need for a license. Therefore, it is in the best interests of society to teach students using free software and programs.

What can you do to help?

  • Consider transitioning to Free Software
  • Educate yourself (visit the FSF website to learn more)
  • Most people continue to use freedom-denying programs simply because they are unaware of alternatives. Try spreading the word.