Using Free Software to Look for Freedom

Eben Moglen’s Software and Community in the 21st Century speech is brilliant. I have been thinking about the relationship between commons production and community for some time now. I believe a commons of ideas underpins democracy and is important for community and identity. It is inspiring to see someone take those themes and extend them to social justice in general. It is thrilling to see the developer community at large (me included) waking up to the political implications of what they care about and what they do.

Is Moglen’s vision just a beautiful idea, or will it really happen? Free software can bring justice to the world: “We have a third way in our hands for dealing with long and deep and painful problems of human injustice . . . for the first time in lifetimes, we can get it done.”

Moglen is an optimist. I am a pessimist. Two decades ago I dreamed computers would make the world a better place. And they did. And the reaction to them, the increasing control of ideas at the same time as the tremendous expansion of information and knowledge, is threatening to make it a worse place than before we started. For me, free software isn’t the tool we can use to solve the world’s problems – though I’m sure it can help. It is, above all, the defense we need to save ourselves.

The increasing control of ideas. Yes, I know, you can download any song any time on the Internet. You can watch television. You can debate politics, you can join an activist group, organize a protest. All this is true. You can also smoke a joint if you want to, or trip on LSD, or pop some E and dance all night. And the ecstasy might be pure, and you might be in good company for the trip, and you might not get busted for the Mary Jane. But if you’re some old guy with cancer, and the dope dulls the pain, you could be out of luck. And if your the parent, and your kid gets caught licking stamps, he might not be able to get a passport, or a job, or if you live in the wrong place they might seize your car or if you leave some in your luggage they might even kill you.

The question isn’t what you can or cannot do. When speech is illegal – and that’s exactly what proprietary expression is when you’re not alowed to copy it, or comment on it, or embed in technology – people don’t speak. Or they don’t all speak (only the ones who know how to crack the encryption on a DVD), or they only speak to their friends, or they say something different than what they would like to have said, or they say it anyway and they break the law. I don’t only mean they violate it, I mean they damage the contract on which our society depends. (If they obey the law, that can break it too; broken laws break themselves.)

I’m not suggesting doing drugs. I’m not suggesting those drugs are good or safe, or that you should take them. I don’t know; I’ve never tried any of those things. It’s sad I feel the need to say that, but I might as well: it’s true. And I’m not suggesting infringing copyright. I’m saying the law matters. When information is digital, communication becomes copying. If that copying is illegal, the law starts to break. When the law is wrong, there is no right answer. And that breaks the public space of ideas on which democracy depends. It breaks the contract between governors and governed. It breaks the relationships that make community.

That’s why we need free software. It’s so embeded in our technological infrastructure that it’s impossible to ignore. And because it can’t be locked down, or it’s hard to lock down, it has become the basis for so much communication – so much copying – that that can’t be ignored either. Copyright has a business case – though it grossly oversteps the business case, though it is questioned by economists and artists alike – despite that, it is on the business case that it is judged. So if copyright affects speech, then speech needs a business case too. Free software makes that case. With every blog post; every Wikipedia article; every modification some programmer makes to an application because it’s what she wants, not what Hollywoods wants; with every day that passes, that case gets stronger. Without it, the law would break faster and more intensely than it has done. We leak less freedom when we stand up to speak. We leak less freedom because some software is free.

Moglen is making the argument for what comes after: what we do when we can already speak. He’s also making the argument to get us there. Reacting to the law is no way to build a society. Freedom needs to be more than an alternative to how things are; it needs to be more than a business case. Moglen presents a moral vision of justice because if all we do is present a technical response to the law, all we can expect is a technical change to the law. If we want freedom, we must ask for freedom. Moglen says, “we have been looking for freedom for a very long time”. I think we will continue looking for freedom for very much longer. We must never stop.