The "Open Source" Trap: Why Language Matters

Mon, 25 Mar 2024

Open source is promised as "higher quality, better reliability, greater flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in," but noticeably absent is the most crucial concept: ethics and freedom.

The focus on purely technical merits is a trap. Sure, there are examples of robust and polished free software, but plenty of subpar free software exists. Moreover, an emphasis on technical features forces a scramble to explain why it is only sometimes technically better - a task that only muddies the waters. This variability is beside the point. When the conversation centers on purely technical qualities, as open source does, we teach people to evaluate software solely on that basis. Inevitably, some proprietary but technically superior program will arrive, and people trained to think this way are susceptible to its allure, with no concept of the higher cost to their freedom. After all, they've been conditioned to judge software in this limited way.

Free software is not a technical issue - it's a social and ethical one. The fundamental problem with proprietary software isn't whether we can make a technically better program. The primary injustice of proprietary software is how it subjugates its users. It's a matter of ethics and control. Proprietary software, regardless of its technical merits, perpetuates power structures and puts the power firmly in the hands of the developer, not the users. Ultimately, the developer dictates how we can (or, far more often, cannot) use the very tools that shape our lives. This power dynamic is unethical because it curtails your liberty over the digital tools you increasingly rely on in modern life. If we only discuss technical matters like performance or features, we concede the argument before it's even begun.

By framing the issue ethically, the free software movement does a vital thing: it creates a bedrock principle where we can teach people to evaluate software by the control it affords them. This creates an unassailable argument in favor of free software. Regardless of whether it's technically slicker, a free program respects users' freedom, while a proprietary one inherently does not and cannot.

"Free" in "free software" refers to freedom, not cost. This ethical foundation, a social imperative, is wholly missing from the "open source" framing. The choice of words matters. How can we prioritize freedom if we don't even speak its name? Let's not fall into that trap.

If you prioritize ethics and freedom as a core value, it's time to break out of the "open source" trap and use the language of liberation: "free software." Only then will we communicate the profound importance of software freedom and work towards a world where everyone has it.