everything wrong with free software
"obedience breeds foolishness"
*originally posted:* mar 2021
*updated:* aug 2021
theres a danger in conflating a solution with the cause it serves-- its easier for adversaries to attack a solution than the cause.
richard stallman, the true and only founder of the free software movement, has spent decades teaching the world what free software means. it will ultimately be up to the movement to prevent that from turning into something else-- something watered down or corporate-controlled. that movement is broadly failing.
to be certain, there have always been compromises-- they are in the very nature of the free software foundation. the fsf takes a conservative approach, moving carefully and methodically. in times of stability and growth thats actually a good policy, while in times of crisis and decay a conservative approach can fail to address certain tragedies properly.
one thing you have to be careful of (which being conservative and careful helps to avoid) is the idea that doing anything is better than doing nothing. it isnt true, and a lot of terrible plans are launched with the idea that its better to do something-- anything-- than to do nothing at all. as if it isnt possible to make a bad situation worse.
we ought to be careful about that sort of thinking, because in times of crisis its very tempting to think that way. but it can also be tempting to hold onto a failing approach that always worked before.
freedom is not an approach-- it is a goal. it is a thing we strive for. the fsf isnt a movement, its an organisation. when organisations decay, they try to become the embodiment of their cause, to conflate their image with the cause they used to serve. the fsf is not free software. gnu is much closer to the embodiment of free software than the fsf is.
but the fsf does officially control the free software definition, and we see how precarious that is in a world where osi wants to change the definition of open source. change the board, and change the organisation.
what the board of the fsf has done is move into exile, where there is a public board that gives a face to the organisation and another group of unnamed people (whose names we actually know) who still influence and vote.
at least some (perhaps all) of those people we want and need to have influence, but they definitely feel their new position is helpful-- even if all these problems started when people providing a "face" to the organisation moved to oust them, and they have now added another layer of facade (as in people who are facing the public).
the goal of course is to turn steps back into steps forward, but pretending theyre the same thing is insipid. asking others to pretend theyre the same thing is a conspiracy of silence that talks down to activists and focuses too much on image. there is even something orwellian about pretending everything is alright when it isnt, and many activists wont stand for that sort of thing. it weakens the movement against further attacks, and it puts a cabal (even a benevolent one) in charge of reality itself. again, many activists will not stand for that.
with that said, we should only present unfixable things as unfixable. our opponents would love for us to abandon things that work, just as much as they would love for us to rely on things that they can (and do) sabotage. there are no easy answers as to which are which, we are going to make mistakes at times (just as the fsf has) but we need to be careful to keep those mistakes from ending the movement. the movement will most likely continue in some form or other, but the more careful we are (within reason) then hopefully, the better off the movement will be.
but i think its pretty clear, when so much ground is lost to github and other forms of influence by microsoft and giafam-like corporations, that the fsf has gotten pretty careless. and the movement, also carelessly, has supported this.
when too much trust is put in a broken organisation, people neglect to rebuild and reform what has been attacked and corrupted. apathy and superficiality are terrible responses to attacks on freedom. thats not what the free software movement is for.
unfortunately, apathy and superficiality (and image over reality) are what the fsf are all about. this is a bad sign-- because open source is also about apathy and superficiality and image over reality. as the fsf becomes more like that, it has to gaslight people into thinking it is still the real thing-- to conflate their ability to understand the world for what it is, with mental illness. to take an actual coup and turn it into a conspiracy theory-- or to simply treat it as a taboo subject, banning the old guard and saying "lets move on now, weve got better things to do".
actually, no-- there was a similar situation in north america last year, and that problem hasnt simply gone away. the people in that scenario who want to just move on are the attackers, and that should tell you something. for one, it should tell you that the coup isnt over. and yet this is about far more than whether the fsf remains salvageable or whether the coup is really over-- its about who really defends your freedom.
the way that the fsf defended your freedom before the coup (and there were warnings about this, including from me personally) was to let people take over, and they said nothing about it. the way that the fsf defends your freedom after the coup is to hide and act like it never happened. this is fucking unacceptable, and demonstrates zero respect for the people who donate. it is glib and condescending and terribly inadequate. whats more, it is extremely dishonest. freedom doesnt come from lying to people and pretending things are okay. thats like something china or russia would stereotypically (or if you like, just typically) do at a time like this.
thats unacceptable. and if you lie, and paper over problems, and fail to stand for (read: speak up for, openly resist the attacks on) whats right, and turn everything into fucking public relations tactics, the people who felt most passionately about your movement are going to leave.
of course, the organisation isnt the movement-- and if the organisation fails, the movement will or wont stop without it. hopefully it continues, even as the organisation pretends things are alright and papers over problem after problem-- even things it used to warn about will suddenly be less important. this is organisational decay.
sadly, while the gnu project was separate from the organisation, maybe it was not separate enough. gnu could have learned something about modularity from unix perhaps (thats not unfair, stallman is quoted as saying he never cared about the unix philosophy. maybe im reading too much into that however). gnu should have been a completely separate project that the fsf has no control over, but only provided resources to. thats not impossible, many projects have received support from the fsf without actually relying on them to exist.
also, the coup attacked both the fsf and the gnu project. the gnu project arguably fared better, but im not sure-- the situation with the fsf is stallman is still the head (they tried to decapitate it) but hes not the president, and hes hidden. the situation with gnu is stallman is still the leader but he has visibly lost a lot of ground-- with several projects moving to github against advice he gave even before it was purchased by microsoft.
in both instances, stallman is still the leader but its difficult to tell how much that means-- and this is not an effort to downplay his importance, only to question how effectively he is preventing both things from slipping further into the corporate "open source" abyss.
i have stressed in many things ive written before, the importance of bolstering and rebuilding freedom. the fsf wants you to rely on them and "bolster" them with money. i think the fsf is acting like a corrupt organisation-- you cant fix corruption with donations. you can try bolstering the gnu project with code, but i feel you do so at your own risk.
as i said before the coup, the best way to bolster free software is to build up a new fleet. at the time, i called them "lifeboats". and then the coup happened.
im not particularly enamoured with sea life, its just a metaphor that gives itself so readily to free software. gnu was the flagship of free software. the fsf was the navy. stallman was the captain.
eventually there was a mutiny. i also called for him to step down voluntarily before the mutiny, though it was to protect the fleet (not to dishonour him, which is how the mutiny attacked). i asked him to choose a replacement and continue the rest of his business in the open-- instead he got knauth (a mediocre leader, to be charitable) and he hides in the shadows. which is better? and why did roy pretend that my way was suspect when he knew well otherwise? (arsehole). my way would have protected both the fsf and stallman a lot more. granted that was mostly just luck, and its pretty moot now. but it was also the right thing.
gnu is a failing flagship, and its easy to think its just because of people-- we can get rid of the traitors and pat the rest on the back and get back to work. but there are too many things wrong with the ship anyway, including the fact that its trying to carry more than its capacity. when you overload a ship, its ultimately a similar problem to overloading a plane.
gnu is salvageable. bash and wget are two great examples. emacs has immense value both in practical and historical terms. obviously we can enshrine the entire gnu project somehow, but "salvage" refers to going forward. getting projects out of github is important; those we cant convince to stop propping up microsofts attempted takeover of free software, we should really stop supporting (to the best of our ability).
take gnu radio for example. it would be better politically for some enthusiasts to fork it than to support the gnu radio traitors. theyre not going to stop turning it into a microsoft / open source project. gnu is NOT open source! or rather, the real gnu is not open source. gnu radio probably is. if some people are willing to leave gnu radio (or take it over) and develop it outside of github, thats better than using or supporting gnu radio.
most (though hardly all, as roy has downplayed it more recently) of the github problem is about things that gnu relies on-- like perl and python. if you dont think that perl and python are vital to the gnu project (at this time, at least) then you havent checked. or maybe youve been with the gnu project for years and you can tell me otherwise (ill likely be sceptical, but im certainly interested). automake uses perl, for one. its used in tests in countless places (actually i counted, but i cant promise i got them all). theres a lot of perl and python in gnu, not just projects that are perl or python-based. try gcc or gnu libc.
every graphical application uses zlib1g for png support, most programming languages use libffi from github. gnome and emacs use harfbuzz from github. guix uses elogind, so even gnu shepherd wont save you from bits of systemd that are hosted and maintained on github. not to mention that microsoft controls linux kernel development. i wasnt joking when i referred to gnu/linux as legacy technology. but much of gnu can be salvaged.
other shit thats designed to be giant and corporate ultimately cannot-- it needs corporate support and thats the point of it. it adds huge amounts of cost and the gains are to the companies that wield it. dbus, systemd and rust are all in this category. mono is also in this category, its an older concern that hasnt really gone away. mono was designed to give more control of free software to giafam, and its bizarre that people cant tell that systemd is the same insidious trick when they see the problems mono caused (and was designed to cause).
its not a theory, anyway. these companies talk about what theyre trying to do, it gets leaked, then they admit they were trying to do that but insist theyre changing their tactics (while doing it again, even bigger than before). imagine google coming out tomorrow and saying "we are tired of being a spy machine-- from now on, we wont log any personal data-- no more targeted advertising! we are going to be privacy-centric as of today."
haha, good one, google!
microsoft is willing to burn cash to maintain control. its not just a side project, its the way theyve done business forever. they learned it from ibm, so thats no better. google is young, but all these companies want power at the users expense. and the fsf has gotten really soft on this-- not for months at a time but years at a time.
corporations are doing a fine job of undermining our freedom and privacy-- its up to us to do a fine job of defending our freedom. when they spend years dismantling our organsiations and projects, we need to salvage and rebuild.
note i said salvage and rebuild. the things we can salvage, we owe it to ourselves to salvage those things. the things that actually need rebuilding, we owe it to ourselves not to change our jobs from building free tools to constantly babysitting and cleaning after corporate saboteurs.
open source was always about infiltration and co-opting. the fsf said it was (in so many words) then eventually allowed it to happen.
then they acted (and still act) like it didnt happen. theres the problem.
if we dont learn from this mistake, we are simply going to continue to be ruled. thats not the goal of software freedom. software freedom isnt serfdom with a free license. but if we dont salvage our flagships, we will be at best, serfs with freely licensed software and no possible hope of controlling our computing.
saying the license makes you free to fork systemd is like saying the license makes you free to fork the linux kernel. neither of those things are going to happen-- these are not community-based technologies. they are technologies that put corporations in charge of users.
if the fsf doesnt get that, its not our job to beg them to understand. its our job to keep fighting for our freedom, with or without the help of an organisation that constantly apologises (actually lies) for and papers over the problems of giafam.
those of us who are tired of being lied to know where the door is, even if it takes a long time to get there. the more we do this, the closer we can get people to that door.
its that, or stay and be lied to. eventually the decision becomes not so hard anymore. lies, or freedom? you have a choice.
to make the movement more robust, we should do more to educate people about computers, not just educate them about freedom. people who understand computing are more likely to care about why they have control over it. everybody should care about their computing freedom, but education helps.
a note on progress, gnew is no longer a mere rhetorical device-- there are people actually working on a gnew project. i would love to say more than that-- i can at least tell you that im not running the show. the people that run the gnew project like my ideas enough to take them and do something with real effort towards freedom, and thats progress.
with that said, i think gnew shows great promise, and its likely something i will encourage people to contribute to. one thing i can say its not a monopoly-- if you have ideas you want to work on, you are encouraged to help build free software 2.0-- not open source or floss sellout 2.0, but something that actually helps the user get control of their computing back.
its been too long, but now is still a good time to stand up for freedom.