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Free Software: Phase Two

By Lysandra Ohrstrom | March 29, 2010

Free software is ubiquitous. It runs everywhere on (almost) everything. The question that dominated most of the discussions at the Libre Planet Conference in Boston about a week ago is what now? How can the community capitalize on its achievements to make the movement more inclusive and reconceive the relationship between free software and privacy?

Most attendees seem to agree that it's time to proselytize to the non-hacker masses and get them to care about the privacy, freedom, and control they sacrifice when buying proprietary technology. At John Gilmore's group discussion on the future of free software Saturday morning, people proposed making the user interface more friendly; addressing freedom in the browser space; developing a solid gaming platform for free software. "My experience is that if you give people who play games the option to improve them they will," one attendee said. "I know people who became programmers so they could improve the games they played."

The SFLC's founding director, Eben Moglen, said in his talk that the movement has reached "a point of inflection." The challenge it will face in "Free Software: Phase Two" is to explain the relationship between privacy, the integrity of human personality, and free software. The movement will have to figure out how to convince people they need a solution to a problem they don't know exists, he said. "It's not about we're done. The war is over. It's about, what's next."

I think ordinary people who don't write computer code or think about the consequences of proprietary technology are aware that there is a problem; that they are forfeiting too much control over the tasks and relationships that make-up daily life to unknown forces in the digital world. The cyber security threats, malicious hacker attacks in China, car malfunctions, and voting booth problems that dominate the news cycle can all be traced back to potential software glitches. People know about these problems. They just don't know how the problems are connected or how to fix them.

The challenge facing the free software community is to explain how the Toyota recall and Google's withdrawal from China can be traced to one cause: namely giving for-profit companies monopolistic access to the source code of the thousands of software programs that we are increasingly reliant upon. What's lost in the mainstream media coverage of these seemingly unrelated events is an explanation of a solution that already exists: open, auditable source code that anyone can view and detect flaws in.

The first step for the SFLC and attendees of Libre Planet is to connect the various news headlines to a central problem: restricted access to source code. Then explain that it doesn't have to be this way. The technology wasn't designed to infantilize users. It was designed to give users a set of tools to collaborate and communicate in a digital world.

I think the long-term challenge facing the free software community is even more fundamental than telling people they need a solution to a problem they did not know existed. You need to remind people that they don't know how the machines they interact with every day work. You need to open the doors of the community to the end-users for whom the difference between C++ and Java Script is as foreign as Dari and Pashto. The challenge is to encourage people who are used to having a passive relationship with the technology they use to search inside their computers; to show them that digital citizenship is about more than curating the photos you post on Facebook and limiting the information you transmit online. It's about self-sufficiency. It's about first understanding how computers work and customizing them, and then taking control of your own information and the activities you have entrusted to Wizard of Oz-type entities for no other reason than you didn't think you had a choice.

Please email any comments on this entry to press@softwarefreedom.org.

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