Free Software Is About Power

Sat, 6 Jan 2024

In software, the concept of freedom and the question about what rights the software users should have often seemed to take a backseat to things like features and functionality, deeming the software to be "powerful" if the software has enough.

Features and functionality can be good, but not at the cost of our freedom.

True power lies in the freedom to run and study, change, and share the program.

The philosophy that it is unethical to deny users these rights forms the bedrock of the free software movement and provides the basis for these rights.

At its core, the free software movement is about empowering users. Proprietary software, where the source code is kept secret, and modifications are restricted, exemplifies an exercise of power over others, trapping them in a digital cage. They are beholden to the whims of the software developer, who has already decided what the users of the program can or cannot do. As software increasingly governs our lives by appearing in everything (or seemingly so) and silently deciding what you're "allowed" to do, the question of who controls the software turns into the question of who controls you through it and becomes a matter of ethical and political significance. This lack of user control over the software is wrong, and there are plenty of examples of how the user's absence of power over the software directly harms them and society at large.

Free software, in stark contrast, liberates users from this digital bondage. It grants them the four essential freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program for any purpose.
  • The freedom to study how the program works and change it.
  • The freedom to redistribute exact copies of the program.
  • The freedom to redistribute modified versions of the program.

In a world increasingly dominated by software, the free software movement offers a powerful antidote to the forces of control. By embracing free software, we can reclaim our power as users, shape it to fit our needs, and retain the control over our computing.

The GNU General Public License (GPL) manifests this philosophy. It's designed not just to allow users to use and modify software but to ensure that these freedoms are preserved for all users. The GPL embodies the belief that users should have control over their software, mirroring the spirit of the Bill of Rights in its function to guarantee individual freedoms against overpowering entities.

The free software movement aims to empower users, ensuring that software serves them and not vice versa. This movement, therefore, stands at the intersection of technology and human rights, advocating for a world where software empowers rather than restricts and unites rather than divides​.

So, the next time you reach for a piece of software, recognize the importance of having control over the software you use and ask yourself: do you want to live in a cage, subjugated to a master who decides things for you, or do you want to be a free person? I hope you choose the latter.

I encourage you to visit https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/ to learn more about the free software movement and spread the word about the importance of free software.

Together, we can build a free world powered by software that serves us, not vice versa.