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(en) The Free Software Movement - Anarchism in Action

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 24 Dec 2003 09:25:04 +0100 (CET)


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* Introduction: The free software movement has been around in at least since
1984, but there is little awareness or debate about it in anarchist
or general activist circles, beyond a vague awareness of "Linux".
A theoretical anarchist analysis of the movement and the lessons
we can learn from it seems to be conspicuous only by its absence. Yet this is
a movement which is currently affecting a revolution in the way individuals,
groups and companies use and create computer systems. I intend this piece to
stimulate further debate, as there is currently little. Also, I am no expert in
anarchist history or theory, so would be happy to receive
criticism of the inevitable shortcomings in my comparisons.

* Background

- Definition and implications of free software

Free software refers to "freedom" not price. It is defined by the
Free Software Foundation to consist of four main freedoms -
software that everyone has the right to: use, distribute, examine
and modify for any purpose, either gratis or for a fee. In practical
terms, to be free to examine or modify software requires free
access to the 'source code' of the software. Most software is
made by 'compiling' the source code that programmers write and
understand into 'executables' - the machine language that
computer processors understand. Software companies who make
most or all of their software non-free like Microsoft or Apple
keep the source code a tightly guarded "trade secret". This
secrecy has negative implications for the quality and security (1)
of the software as well as the level of freedom in its use,
modification and creation. Free software is all about increasing
freedom, something anarchists appreciate. Thus the free
software concept is libertarian. It is also socialist in that
everyone has an equal right to these four main freedoms. Also,
the right to charge a fee (even make a profit) does not give one
the right to stop others giving it away. In practice, this means
that published free software is almost without exception
available for no monetary charge over the Internet. In practical
terms free software means that not only can you give your friends
free CD copies of GNU/Linux, which you have downloaded from
the Internet (2) without breaking the law, but you could also get
your programmer friends to modify, say, one of the Indymedia
code bases to add extra features, or to make it more suitable for
your group's website. Non-programming users often contribute to
the community by submitting bug-reports (fixed much faster than
in proprietary software projects) and writing documentation.

- Copyleft - a revolutionary concept

Freedom, however, requires protection. The most revolutionary
idea in free software is "copyleft". Copyleft is a subversion of the
copyright system, using the law against itself. Under copyleft
based free software licenses such as the GNU General Public
License (or GPL), all copies and modifications of the software
must be relicensed under the same terms. This guarantee the
same freedoms for all. So, to carry on our two examples from the
previous paragraph: the people you gave the free CDs of
GNU/Linux to would be obliged to pass on the same rights to
anyone they choose to make copies of the CDs to; and your
friend's modifications to the Indymedia code base would have to
released under the same license. This creates a virtuous cycle, a
software commons that everyone can contribute to, but no one
can take away from. Unlike non-free software, copyleft code
ensures an increasing knowledge base from which individuals can
draw from and, equally as important, contribute to. In this way
everyone benefits as code can be improved by everyone. Because
of this, Microsoft has referred to the GPL as a "cancer" and
"un-American" (3) - a definite sign that they are worried.
Non-copylefted free software is unfortunately prone to being
poached by selfish parties. Apple's usage of the BSD internals
for OS X is one case of this, which we will look at in more depth
later.

- Some confusing terms to avoid: "freeware", "shareware" and
"Open Source"

To clear up some confusion, there are several terms we should
avoid if we are interested in promoting freedom in software. The
terms "freeware" and "shareware" do not refer to free software.
Freeware has no set definition, but usually means just a free
download, with no right to modify or examine. Shareware is "try
before you buy" type proprietary software which gives no right of
full use (it is often crippled with enforced trail periods or an
incomplete feature set), let alone the rights of examination or
modification. The FSF has a diagram (4) which explains the
differences in the various terms. The "open source" movement
largely overlaps with the free software movement, but has
ultimately different goals. In practice the vast majority of so
called open source projects are also free software projects, and
in fact most are copyleft too. Thankfully, the GPL is by far the
most popular free software license, covering many projects
including the mighty GNU/Linux (popularly shortened to "Linux")
operating system itself. However, while the main aim of the FSF
in particular and the free software movement in general is to
promote freedom in software use and creation, the aim of the
open source movement (including the OSI - Open Source
Initiative) is to improve efficiency of production. Basically, it is
free software rebranded to make it more appealing to CEOs,
scared by the "un-American" implications of "freedom". This
newer movement (5) has lead to something of a schism in the
free software community. In practice, the difference is often just
a matter of emphasis. However, the focus on asking business
leaders to behave better in terms of how they produce their
software has in the past led to unhealthy compromises. My
opinion is that, as people who believe in freedom before
efficiency, we should refer to "free software" and not "open
source".

- "Software Should Not Have Owners"

Uber-hacker Richard Stallman is a sort of hippie, programming
world equivalent of Noam Chomsky. He is the head of the FSF,
the GNU project founder and the originator of the GPL. He is
seen as the main founder and spiritual guardian of the concepts of
free software and copyleft. Although his primary work is
nowadays as a a sort of international propagandist, defender of
and zealot for the free software cause, he was once a prolific
programmer. He programmed the original versions of the Emacs
editor, the GCC software complier and worked on other vital
parts of the GNU operating system. In fact he worked so hard on
them, it is rumored that one of the reasons that he now rarely
programs is that he has developed repetitive strain injury in his
wrists from all that typing. He once described himself as "a sort
of combination between a liberal and a leftist anarchist. I like to
see people working together, voluntarily, to solve the world's
problems. But, if we can't do that, I think we should get the
government involved to solve them. " (6).

* Free Software Triumphant

- What is GNU/Linux?

GNU/Linux is a free operating system that is considered the
imminent successor in the IT world to all commercial operating
systems. It has an estimated installed base of some 18 million
users (7). It dates back to January 1984 when Stallman started
the GNU project. Its design broadly follows that of the
proprietary UNIX system. It was partially as a reaction to the
closing-up of the software culture at the AI labs in MIT where
Stallman had worked, that he started the project (8). The
ambitious aim was to create an operating system from scratch
that was completely free and unpolluted by inclusion of code from
any existing proprietary system. By the early nineties, this goal
was largely achieved. Only one vital component was missing -
the kernel. A kernel is the central hub of any operating system; it
communicates between programs, and between the software and
the hardware. In 1991 in Finland a computer student called Linus
Torvalds started a new hobby. He started writing his own kernel
(licensing it under the GPL) and added the GNU system tools to
make up a UNIX-like operating system. At first he jokingly
named it after himself: 'Linux', but by the time many other
programmers started to get involved the name had stuck. When
the system matured and started seriously taking off in the mid
nineties, Stallman and the FSF were unhappy about the name of
the system as it was popularly called: Linux. He argued that the
GNU project should be credited in the name, seeing as they had
done the majority of the work. There is one opinion that says that
'GNU/Linux' is too unwieldy to use in everyday speech, plus
Torvalds and the other kernel hackers had called the whole
system 'Linux' from day one. However, the fact remains that
Linux is really only the kernel, and the vast majority of the
system is GNU code. While GNU could not have worked as an
OS without Linux (9), Linux could not work at all without GNU.
Hence the preferred term: GNU/Linux.

Because of the nature of how GNU/Linux came to be, it has is no
single provider. Various vendors create 'distributions'. These
range from professionally polished distros by 'Linux companies'
like Red Hat, Mandrake and SuSE; smaller scale projects for
personal or more specialised uses, like Gentoo or SmoothWall (a
Firewall distro); and then there is Debian. Debian, to my
knowledge, is unique in the world of operating systems. It is an
operating system put together and maintained by a large
community of voluntary programmers. It has a Constitution, a
Social Contract which (unlike the 'Linux companies') guarantees
that only 100% free software will be used in Debian, a huge
community of support and many high demand users. All this runs
in a democratic fashion with no managers or bosses. Design
decisions are decided over mailing lists and in committees; a
'project leader' elected once a year handles higher level
co-ordination. Debian reflects the most pure form of the free
software ideal. Arguably, it is also technically the best
GNU/Linux distro, and is widely regarded as the second most
popular GNU/Linux distribution after Red Hat (10).

- Not Just Operating Systems

There is now a free software equivalent to almost any Windows
or Mac software you can name. In terms of network oriented
software, free software far outstrips the number of native
Windows and Mac offerings. For example, the Apache web
server is by far and away the most popular web server software
in existence (11) and is often acknowledged to be the best there
is. Large corporations including HP, Apple and the BBC use it for
high-demand web sites. Also, free software effectively runs the
Internet. Several of the software packages used for the
fundamental infrastructure of the Internet are free software:
BIND makes domain names (like www.enrager.net or
www.bbc.co.uk) work and sendmail is responsible for delivering a
large proportion of the world's email traffic. From the beginning,
GNU/Linux has been most popularly used for Internet servers of
various kinds. It has traditionally been weaker on the desktop,
giving Microsoft free reign. Since the late nineties, this has no
longer been the case. GNU/Linux is rapidly maturing into a very
user-friendly desktop environment with a whole host of free
software applications for the normal user. Email clients, several
web browsers, CD burning software, office suites, graphics and
audio software: it's all there. There are even powerful free
software database packages, such as MySQL. The only major
packages currently lacking are mature desktop publishing and
video editing software. Give it three years and it will all be in
place. Many IT world pundits are currently predicting the
imminent conquest of GNU/Linux on the desktop. This being
Microsoft's main revenue source, it is unsurprising that they
attack GNU/Linux. The only serious factor holding up GNU/Linux
on the desktop is Microsoft's monopoly practices. Most normal
computer users will just use what they find already installed on
their computer, and at the moment, Microsoft has ways of making
sure that that will remain Windows. Another factor here is
hardware support. But this has improved greatly over the last few
years with hardware manufacturers opening up their interfaces so
that the community can write free software drivers for them, or
even releasing their own drivers under the GPL.

In addition, GNU/Linux is not the only free (as in freedom)
operating system. There are also the various BSD based
systems, some of which pre-date GNU/Linux. They include
FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD. These are free software but
are not protected by copyleft. Free software has gone way
beyond a computer geek's play thing. It is a force to be reckoned
with.

* The implications of free software for anarchists

- The Copyleft concept beyond software

In his lectures about copyright, trademarks and patents, Stallman
himself notes that the copyleft concept used in the software
world may not be appropriate for all spheres of life. Indeed, he
notes that it is the conventional conception of copyright that
enforces one model for all kinds of works, technical or artistic.
Stallman goes beyond rejecting the capitalist conception of
"intellectual property" and rejects the term entirely ("I have no
opinion about 'intellectual property', and neither should you" (12)
). His reasoning is that it is simply a "propaganda term" that
capitalists use to conflate several entirely separate concepts:
copyrights, trademarks and patents. The free software and
particularly the copyleft concepts represent a frontal assault to
the right of large corporations and unaccountable bodies like the
WTO and WIPO to comodify ideas, information and even genes
and living organisms.

What would result if the spirit of these concepts were adapted to
other spheres? There have been several movements in this
direction. As well as the GPL the FSF developed the Free
Documentation license, because "free software ought to have
free documentation". This has helped spread the copyleft
principle to written works of several genres. O'Reilly, a computer
books publisher popular with the free software community
publishes some of its works under the FDL and make them
available for no charge on its web site. The excellent, voluminous
Anarchist FAQ is licensed under the FDL (13). There is also an
FDL licensed on line encyclopedia called Wikipedia. The name
comes from the fact that the site runs on "Wiki" software. A
Wiki is another libertarian concept. Quite simply it enables
anyone to modify any page of the website, with all versions of
each page retained. This means that vandals usually don't bother.
Skeptics may think that this would result in chaos, but in fact it
has resulted in an encyclopedia of excellent quality, with over
168,000 articles and counting. Wikipedia is also generally more
free in its ideological range, giving space for various points of
view. It has some good anarchism related articles (however,
many of the country articles are in serious need of (our) help, as
the starting point for many of them was the CIA World
"Fact"-book...). There is also a copyleft law project. Wendy
Selzer who runs Openlaw says, "We deliberately used free
software as a model. The gains are much the same as for
software. Hundreds of people scrutinise the 'code' for bugs, and
make suggestions how to fix it. And people will take
underdeveloped parts of the argument, work on them, then patch
them in." Those involved with Openlaw strongly believe that the
open strategy is a particularly effective way to help citizens
rights and community groups (14).

- Organising Methods of the Free Software community

GNU and copyleft have captured the world wide hacker
community's imagination, for both practical and political reasons.
The copyleft agreement has became a symbol of idealistic and
technical achievement as well as of personal and political
integrity. Here anarchists can see a vindication of their ideas
working out in the real world. But what about their organising
methods? Most smaller free software projects are written by
small groups of hackers working over the Internet. This is done in
spare time or during a day job if they can get away with making it
(officially or unofficially) a part of their job description. Many are
students and academics. The small scale and voluntary nature of
these projects make them effectively libertarian. The small size
of the groups also makes them very affective, while still being
able to draw on the power of the wider community via peer
review, testing, patches and bug reports. A lesson for us in that
perhaps? However, some of the larger free software projects are
often meritocratic or even authoritarian in their organising
structure. The organisation around the Linux kernel itself is
perhaps best described as a 'meritocratic dictatorship'. It is
collaborative in the sense that hundreds of patches and bug
reports are submitted by large groups of people every week, but
ultimately it is 'Linux', and Linus has the final say on what goes in
and what does not. There is also a small scale meritocratic
hierarchy of people appointed by Linus; those considered the best
people for the jobs at hand based on the skills and knowledge
they have demonstrated in previous contributions. It would be
instructive to see how a kernel created in a more democratic
fashion would pan out.

- Crossover

There are currently some points of contact between the free
software movement and the anarchist movement, as well as the
wider anti-capitalist movement. One example is the ActiviX
group, who arrange training days to help activists learn how to
use GNU/Linux. There are also an emerging culture of 'HackLabs'
in several European countries, open computer access in political
spaces. One is currently being set up in Freedom Press book
shop in London. Such work should continue and increase and the
connections need to be drawn more. Anarchist theorists would do
well to seriously consider the implications of the movement for
anarchism as a social and industrial theory. For too long anarchist
theorists have had to point to past examples of more libertarian
ways of creating and maintaining complex systems. With the
advent of GNU/Linux, we no longer need to rely on the past
alone. Caution should be used in such analysis. As noted above,
the free software movement is not totally anarchist, nor even
fully libertarian. The facts and their implications should be
studied with humility, seeking for learn more than we seek to
teach. Also, we should not be overly concerned with interest
shown in the "open source" movement by Troyskyist and other
left groups. Small groups of free software programming groups
jealously guard their independence by instinct.

- Our favorite web sites use free software

It is also worth remembering that anarchists and activists in
general use plenty of free software already (though we could
stand to use it on the desktop more). If you are reading this
article on enrager.net you are using free software as you browse,
even if you used a Windows or Apple machine to access the site.
You are using GNU/Linux and other free software every time you
use the following web sites (only a few among thousands):
Indymedia UK and international, Infoshop, flag.blackened.net,
AK Press UK. Many of the community based online software
systems, forums and open content packages for web sites are
free software, including the Indymedia code bases.

- Engels' "steering a ship" argument

In his campaign against anti-authoritarian ideas within the First
International, Engels asked in a letter written in January 1872
"how do these people [the anarchists] propose to run a factory,
operate a railway or steer a ship without having in the last resort
one deciding will, without a single management?" (15) Anarchists
know full well that the way in which co-ordinated work takes
place - authoritarian hierarchy or by freely co-operating groups
electing recallable delegates where needed - makes all the
difference. Now we have in GNU/Linux and the rest of free
software movement many compelling examples of complex
systems that have no leader, no central government or
management (Linus may be the 'dictator' of the Linux kernel, but
attempts no domination of other projects, even if that were
feasible, which it is not).

- The contradictory role of big business

Big businesses with a vested interest in GNU/Linux like Sun, HP
and IBM often employ their programmers to adapt it to add a new
feature which will make it more usable with one of their hardware
products. The nature of the GPL, however, means that these
modifications and additions must be shared with the community.
Why would large corporations give stuff away for free? It should
be remembered that these are generally companies who make
their money from hardware, not software. Software is regarded as
an expense. Being able to draw on the resources of the
community is a big plus for them, and this is something that the
Open Source movement has often argued to get them on board.
This accounts for the corporate embrace of GNU/Linux and "open
source" in recent years. Apple's OS X uses as its core the BSD
UNIX operating system. However, because BSD uses a more
permissive non-copyleft free software license, the freeness of
BSD did not 'infect' OS X and it remains non-free. The core of the
OS (without the nice graphical Mac interface) is maintained
separately as the free 'Darwin'. This is a good example of why
copyleft should be used to protect common property.

* The Future

So anarchists should realise that although free software pushes
the boundaries of freedom, ultimately, it works within capitalism
and could never 'infect' the whole system. It does nothing about
more general wealth-sharing, decision making in other industries
(or even many in its own), or wider social relations. Although the
concept of copyleft (expressed in the software world mainly by
the GNU GPL) is revolutionary, we should not be fooled into
thinking such concepts alone will lead to a free society.

At one point or another, the free software movement is going to
meet its limits. Either limits in its own vision, limits imposed by
the system of capital itself, or even limits aggressively imposed
by threatened businesses. In fact, we can see the beginnings of
this in current threats to free software: things like the Microsoft
anti-GPL propaganda, SCO's law suit against the Linux kernel
and the advance of software patents in the US and threat of them
in the EU. The limits are very real ones, especially when you
consider that the Internet itself is, in the words of Chomsky "an
elite institution", with the majority of the world's population not
even having used a telephone. Free software would certainly be
one part of a future free society. Although it can not fully thrive
under capitalist conditions, like independent media, it should be
encouraged to go as far as it can - pushing back the walls of our
current prison.

* References

1 Software whose source code can not be openly peer reviewed
is more liable to compromise - either by third party attackers (so
called "crackers") or by the bosses of the institution that controls
the software itself. A case in point is the software controlling the
recently introduced touch screen voting booths in the US. PGP
encryption is also an example of the importance of peer review in
security software.

2 Or in the case of the Wombles last Xmas, not just to your
mates, but to random people on Oxford street! GNU/Linux CDs
were a part of the WOMBLES free shop in solidarity with the
Argentinian social movements on Oxford street 22nd December
2002. See
http://www.wombles.org.uk/news/article_2002_12_21_2158.php

3 John Lettice, "GPL Pacman will eat your business, warns
Gates" - http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/19836.html

4 The Free Software Foundation, "Categories of Free and
Non-Free Software" -
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/categories.html

5 The OSI group originated around about 1998, and started
pushing the term "open source". Ostensibly, this renaming of free
software was to clarify the substantial differences between free
software and other terms such as "freeware". It is no secret that
a closely related goal was to make it more appealing to corporate
America. In this it has achieved no insignificant success.

6 http://vancouver-webpages.com/vanlug/1999-3/0475.html

7 The Linux Counter, "Estimating the number of Linux users" -
http://counter.li.org/estimates.php

8 Richard Stallman, "The GNU Project" -
http://www.gnu.org/gnu/thegnuproject.html

9 The past tense is used here because the GNU project's kernel
(called the HURD) is now finally operational, though not yet
mature.

10 Netcraft, "Debian Linux distribution 10 years old today" -
http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2003/08/16/debian_linux_distribution_10_years_old_today.html

11 Netcraft, "October 2003 Web Server Survey" -
http://news.netcraft.com/archives/web_server_survey.html

12 The Free Software Foundation, "Some Confusing Words
Worth Avoiding" -
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/words-to-avoid.html#IntellectualProperty

13 "An Anarchist FAQ"; Introduction -
http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/1931/intro.html

14 Graham Lawton, New Scientist. Cited in "SchNews of The
World: Copyleft Hackers" -
http://www.schnews.org.uk/sotw/copyleft-hackers.htm

15 The Marx-Engels Reader, p. 729, cited in "An Anarchist
FAQ", section H 1.11

* Recommended web sites

The Linux Emporium
http://www.linuxemporium.co.uk
A good place to buy cheap (sometimes even gratis) GNU/Linux
CDs if you do not have access to broadband.

AktiviX
http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/aktivix1.html
Project to train activists to use GNU/Linux

Community/Linux Training Centre Project
http://www.fraw.org.uk/cltc/
Another group of GNU/Linux trainers

Freedom Pres Media HackLab
http://www.freedompress.org.uk
http://www.hacklabs.org/wiki/wiki.pl?Freedom_Hacklab
When the Freedom Press web site is up it will no doubt contain
details of the new Media HackLab

Debian GNU/Linux
http://www.debian.org
One of the best technically and certainly the most libertarian
distribution of GNU/Linux

Red Hat Linux
http://www.redhat.com
A corporate, but user-friendly distribution of GNU/Linux

DistroWatch
http://www.distrowatch.com
Provides good reviews on the different distributions

Savannah
http://savannah.gnu.org
One central point for development of free software. Should give
you an idea of the amount of stuff out there.

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
http://www.wikipedia.org
A collaborative encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Covered by
the GNU FDL

The OpenLaw project
http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/openlaw

* Further reading

The GNU Project and FSF website.
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/
The philosophy section of the FSF site is vital reading on the
reasons for free software.

Richard Stallman, UNESCO and Free Software
http://www.unesco.org/webworld/portal_freesoft/stallman_011001.shtml
A brief introduction to Free Software and GNU/Linux.

Introduction to Linux
http://linux.com/article.pl?sid=02/03/09/1727250
A good primer to GNU/Linux for complete newbies. No
experience required!

Richard Stallman, "Why Software Should Not Have Owners"
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/why-free.html
Seminal essay on the importance of freedom in software use and
creation.

Glyn Moody, "Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source
Revolution", Penguin Press, 2001

Copyright (c) 2003 Asa Winstanley. Permission is granted to
copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of
the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later
version published by the Free Software Foundation. See the GNU
Free Documentation License for more details:
http://www.gnu.org/licenses/fdl.html

--------------------------------
Copied from infoshop.org


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