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Why 'Free as in Freedom' is More Important Than Ever for Linux Users

Happy Puppet Dancing on a String

  • November 17, 2009
  • By Bruce Byfield
Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation is having a video contest on the subject "Why is free software important to you?" It's a timely topic, with Windows 7 just out and with the free software community's bickering so bitter as of late that common goals sometimes seem in danger of being forgotten.

I lack any talent for making videos, but the contest has me thinking: Why is free software important to me? And why isn't it important to most people around me? The two questions are more closely connected than you might at first think.

A change in software and relationships

In some ways, I can explain what my interest in free software is not about more easily than I can explain it is about. My coding is mostly limited to scripts and modifications of existing code, so having the source code is only an indirect benefit to me.

Similarly, covering free software as a writer has few benefits for me. Probably, I would have more markets and larger audiences if I wrote about hardware, Windows, or even OS X.

Nor do I care much that the software is free for the download, because for years I have been able to write off software purchases on my taxes. If anything, using free software is an inconvenience when I calculate my taxes, because it means fewer expenses I can claim.

I cannot even claim any great hatred of Microsoft -- my attitude would be more accurately described as a deep distrust and a desire to have as little to with the corporation as possible.

Still, it is true that Microsoft helped steer me towards free software. I hadn't had my first computer for a month before I began to chafe at the limitations of DOS and replaced it with 4DOS. 4DOS was shareware -- free software being unknown to almost everyone then -- and its additional features cured me once and for all of the notion that the presence or lack of a price tag had any relation to quality.

Pursuing quality also led me to choose OS/2 over Windows 3.0, which taught me to expect customization in my software.

But IBM's abandonment of OS/2 under pressure from Microsoft taught me the even more important lesson that I couldn't count on corporations to protect my interests as a consumer. When I discovered free software, I realized immediately that my interests as a computer user were more likely to be protected by a community. At the very least, the availability of the source code made it less likely that my interests would be abandoned.

Over the last decade, developments in business and technology have only strengthened such convictions. In a sane era, computers and Internet technologies would have been developed with cooperatively developed standards and public regulation, much as TV and radio were in Canada and Europe. But, because computers and the Internet emerged in the era dominated by American conservatism, they were developed largely by corporations.

The result? Compromised quality, planned obsolescence, and almost a complete absence of user control. Windows and OS X users do not even own the software they buy; they simply have a license to use it. According to the terms of those licenses, they do not even have the right to control Microsoft's or Apple's access to their hardware or information.

From a consumer's viewpoint, this situation would be unacceptable with any technology. Who would tolerate similar limitations placed on their car or coffee maker?

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