(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)
Is it really needed, to make the world a better place, to make sure that only Free as in Freedom software is allowed to exist? Probably not,
for the reasons explained in the chapter on software protocols and file formats: if only formats and protocols which are Free as in Freedom, that is usable without any limit or discrimination with many different software programs, were used, at least by Public Administrations, all or most the excesses and abuses caused by today’s proprietary software technologies would vanish without further effort.
Software embedded in specialized, single purpose devices like cell phones, even if locked with technical or legal means, would not be a really dangerous attack to civil rights and free market. Not as long as it would still be possible, without artificial technical or legal restrictions, to build, sell and use alternative devices which perform the same tasks.
This would not be a defeat for the ideals of Free as in Freedom, or Open Source, software. As one of its advocates put it: “perhaps the moderate position is the most radical of all. That is, if you want to get something done that works for everybody”.
In a world where really free formats and protocols are the rule, there would be basically no more ways to establish or keep alive a software monopoly in any area where it would hurt the core rights of all citizens. Legally, it would be still possible for companies and individual programmers to sell single licenses of their programs, limiting or forbidding their modification and redistribution: at the same time, the fact that public and private end users could be really free at any moment to migrate to a competing program, because all their data would remain completely usable, would force proprietary software producers to play fair.
This doesn’t mean at all that a world where only Free as in Freedom software exist would be a bad thing, quite the contrary actually. It is just that it is probably possible to achieve that worthy goal without limiting any freedom (including the one to produce and use non-free software, when it doesn’t really hurt anybody!), and with less effort too. The key is to look at the problem from the point of view of that overwhelming majority of human beings: those who will never write, or wish to write, one single line of software.
Unfortunately, such an approach is still against the core mindset of several individual supporters of the Free Software movement. Up until recent times, this wasn’t a real issue for the simple reason that software was visible and relevant in everyday life only for a few specialists. Continuing today to look at the Digital Dangers only as a software hard core enthusiast, instead, may keep alive a split between well-intentioned activists and the general public which becomes more dangerous every year.
A similar danger exists with anti-copyright extremism. Limiting the extension and reach of copyright would eliminate all the current abuses without preventing creation of countless creative works, including those in the non-fiction field.
When ideals are an excuse
Almost all activists of the Free Software and Free Culture movements are very coherent people who are right on all the main points and honestly believe and practice without exception everything they preach. Acknowledging this must not lead, however, to ignoring or dismissing a not so pleasant reality. Far too many people have only vaguely heard some random bits of these ideals and proposals somewhere online, and mindlessly repeat them, to themselves and to others, as an excuse to just take what they need without compensating in any way those who created it. Such a “philosophy” was summed up very well in an online forum as:
Information, knowledge and culture want to be free!
…You mean that you want information for free, don’t you?
and it is very convenient, since it gives (apparently, that is) a noble justification to what is nothing more than lack of critical and independent thought, as well as of understanding of what is really happening. This attitude is particularly frequent among teenagers, who by and large:
are under very heavy pressure to consume without thinking
haven’t spent enough time yet to really think the whole issue over
do not have enough self-discipline or the right cultural preparation and are encouraged to stay that way (see point 1)
almost never have parents or teachers who are informed enough to help them
The purpose of this book is to solve the last problem, but the general issues remain: without a more balanced Free Software and Free Culture activism, or without a coherent and informed education, short sighted extremism and selfish opportunism will continue to favor the Digital Dangers, instead of fighting them.