Can you force freedom and it still be freedom?
So back on this topic again today. I am going to take a look at a few different statements here in this post, and then I’m going to go over them and explain why these statements are or are not correct. Should you wish to verify any of my information, you’re more than welcome to do so—just make sure you actually know what you’re talking about before you call me “wrong” on this one, or I will absolutely ignore you. I have other—and more important—things to do than put up with trolls who cannot do basic research (of course, this means that I expect that you know how to use Google and Wikipedia and will do so before writing your responses, but hey, I could be expecting too much).
That someone could even come up with this one is just amazing to me. Note that this is not an exact quote, but it is the summary of Friday’s topic. For example, this summary comes from the idea that Canonical is bad for considering making mainstream non-free software available for Ubuntu based on user preferences. It does not matter who came up with it, of course, but the important thing is that it be called what it is: patently absurd. The ability to choose is a major part of what freedom—or liberty—is. If you cannot make a choice on a matter, then by definition you do not have freedom in the context of that matter. It is quite simple and self-explanatory. Canonical is seeking to increase freedom here, not take it away. Some people actually want to use non-free software; others may not want to use it, but aren’t aware of alternatives. The latter group of people should have our focus with regard to education (but then we should let them make the choice for themselves!).
Note that I am not one of these people: I would rather use free software because of the liberty it gives me that I have come to expect over the years. But I am not going to tell someone else that they are harming me because they would rather use non-free software that is familiar to them. All I can do is show them that there are free alternatives that exist. I cannot—and I will not—make them use it or make them feel bad for not using it. I may not like proprietary software for a variety of reasons, but I will defend people’s right to use it just as I will defend even a stupid person’s right to spew nonsense by way of speech or written word. In other words, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” or perhaps more appropriately, “I [may] disapprove of what [software you run], but I will defend to the death your right to [run] it.” Even I use a package or two that is proprietary in nature (though it is looking like I will not have to do so for much longer, given the efforts to replace these packages with equivalent free software).
It is worth it to note that by adding non-free software to Ubuntu, the free software that is already there does not change. The mere existence of non-free software within its repositories does not make Ubuntu somehow bad or evil. It would add choices that do not currently exist, and that one such as myself or yourself can certainly opt out of—I most likely would, for the most part, as I do not need to depend on non-free application software, and I only use non-free drivers if I have hardware where anything else is nonviable (and only until there are functional free software drivers). Did you know that Ubuntu has an option in the installer to only install free software? Can you say that for your favorite desktop operating system distribution, whatever that might be?
The response to this idea, then, is that without choice, there is very little—if any, really—freedom. The thing that gives us freedom with free software is that we are able to to download the source code, to review/audit it, to change it to fit our needs or fix a problem, and to share those changes. If we cannot do those things, then it is not free software; see the essential freedoms. But non-free software inside a distribution is not something that should not cause you great consternation even if you are among the most dedicated of freedom advocates, for if you are a true advocate of freedom then by definition you must respect a computer user’s freedom of choice. Remember that we choose to run free software because of the benefits it brings to us; we choose to improve upon free software for much the same reason. Eventually, I think that free software will once again become the norm for computer software, on merit alone, for no other reason than the development, release, and usage of free software is a highly practical solution for many things ranging from library code to application software to complete operating systems. It is worth noting that free content—which is similar in concept to free software, which itself is merely a specific application of freedom itself—also appears to making major headway towards becoming mainstream; it is doing so more quickly than free software is, but there is every reason to believe that free software will follow, for it is already.
Imagine that you are in a store, because you need some milk for dinner some night. You always get 1 gallon of 2%. But, the store has stopped carrying it, because more people buy whole milk and they were throwing away the 2% milk—demand was low, supply got to be too high, so they just stopped carrying it altogether. You leave the store and head to the next in the same town and you find the same thing there. You have a choice of stores to go to, and you have made the choice to go buy yourself some milk. But there is only one type of milk. You no longer have the choice to buy 2% where you are, and so effectively, your freedom to buy it has been taken away. (Of course, you can make 2% milk from whole milk (and make whole from 2% even, or even butter), but I suspect just as many people want to do that as want to write their own free software that they demand simply must exist, but doesn’t yet).
Now, the point here is that there is more than one freedom in play: the freedom of the store to stock (or not stock) various products, which affects your freedom as a consumer to buy the product you want. In the case of software, and choice, if the software you are running gives you all the choices you want, then it fits your needs. If it does not, then you are not going to be able to use it the way you want. Now you have two choices: you can do the work that it would take to make your desired choice possible, or you can use another system (free or proprietary) that will give you the choice that you want. Many people will choose the latter, especially if they are non-programmers. Though I’ve seen programmers also choose to use proprietary systems for something that they could themselves implement. That is their choice, of course. After all, if you really wanted 2% milk, you would have the same choice: make it yourself, or drive to the next town over which might have it available for you (assuming that there is some in stock and that the stores neighboring towns have not also decided to stop stocking 2% milk).
Ubuntu One: The Reason Behind This
This discussion came up because someone on identi.ca made the claim that Canonical is forcing proprietary software into Ubuntu by way of the Ubuntu One client software. I cannot even begin to state just how woefully incorrect this point of view is. First off: the only thing added to Ubuntu is the ability to connect to Ubuntu One, and the software that was added to Ubuntu do to that is licensed under Version 3 of the GNU General Public License. The claim made in response to that was that Ubuntu One is only partly free software, because the server is somewhere else and has not been released. As we shall soon see, that claim is nonsensical—it depends on an extremely naïve view of how software actually works in order to make sense, really.
So, first things first: Ubuntu One, which was added to Ubuntu 9.04, is not proprietary software. The proof rests in the fact that it GNU GPL v3.0, and we know a priori that software licensed under the GPL is free software, so we do not need to go further on that point.
Now, because the software in question added to Ubuntu is free software, we can read it. The essential freedoms granted to us by truly free software ensure this, and the GPLv3 is indeed a truly free software license because it grants those freedoms. Because we are able to study the software and see how it communicates with the server. Once we know how to communicate with the server, we can write that up and design a server that communicates exactly the same way. From there, it is just a matter of patching the sync dæmon that is in Ubuntu to talk to an arbitrary, Ubuntu One compatible server. To determine how to do that, one need only read the Python source code contained in the
python-ubuntuone-client packages. If you do not know Python well, you might expect to spend several days doing that, but if it bothers you so tremendously that you are going to practically start a flame war over it, you may find it worth it to do so.
Of course, the other side to that is this: if you really want Ubuntu One to talk to an arbitrary server that runs free software, and you want that free software to be written, you can fund the effort to write the free software. Approach a proficient developer somewhere out there on the Internet and ask them how much they’d charge to write a server for Ubuntu One. You might not be able to afford the fund the project entirely, but if you get a number from someone, you can start a coordinated effort to raise the funds. If you are lucky enough to be able to fund the whole project, then do so: it is but one way that you can help provide something back to the community. This does not apply to just an implementation of the Ubuntu One protocol, it could apply to anything that you see that is missing and needs to be created. Or you could spend time learning what you need to learn to pick up the project yourself, if you care for the project that deeply. The most important attribute that a person can have in order to get started with development is motivation—James Westby reminded me of this a couple of years ago, something which I had forgotten.
Perceptions: Another (Possible) Reason
It was suggested to me that another possible reason that people would object to having non-free software inside an operating system distribution such as Ubuntu is that they are afraid that the proprietary options have higher quality, or offer superior features, or provide functionality that is not offered by any existing free software. Thus, they have this perception that by adding such non-free software into a distribution like Ubuntu, people will automatically use and prefer it over free software. This simply is not the case. Sure, some people will use iTunes if it is available on Ubuntu. Maybe many people would. I might even do so, if it were legally available for me to use that way and if it supports the purchase of DRM-free music. However, if there were a free software client for the iTunes store, I’d much prefer to use that. To my knowledge, however, there is no such thing that exists.
If there is not a free software alternative for a non-free component inside a distribution of software, if you are offended by that, then by all means, create a free software alternative for it! As mentioned above, you can start on such a project’s development, or you can look for people that would be interested in volunteering for it and coordinating them, or you can put up funds to pay developers to implement it. If you have money, this can be the easy part: find someone who is willing to accept payment for the service of implementing the free software alternative for whatever it is that someone else has funded, wrote, and released as proprietary software. It is not like free software is developed without cost (and if you think that it is, then you seriously do not understand what free software is or anything about the world of free software and have no standing to be getting mad when a company spends money writing software and does not release it as free software. You can try to write companies that write such software and ask them if they will give you any form of written specifications for the software, or an interface definition, or something along those lines. The worst thing that could happen is that you will be told “no”. And do so nicely, or they’ll be more inclined to tell you “bugger off” instead of simply “no”.
“Allowing users to choose proprietary software is anti-freedom.”
Nothing could be farther from the truth; it is the same, in fact, as the above statement that one can have freedom without choice. For example, if Ubuntu adopts iTunes and makes it so that you can “sudo aptitude install itunes” in the future, that is not a bad thing! How can it be—It contributes to the ability to choose, and thereby contributes to the freedom of the end-user. If you are a die-hard free software supporter and do not want to run non-free software on your system, then there is a very simple solution for you: simply don’t install it. That is a valid solution to the problem. There are tools already available that can be run as a cron job and report on any non-free software that you might have accidentally (or even intentionally) installed. If you are worried about additional non-free software getting into Ubuntu, then help enhance those tools. Or write a GUI front-end for something like the virtual RMS program and work to get that included into Ubuntu as well, perhaps something that can run every time you login to the computer, or that runs as a persistent process that watches the package database on your distribution of choice for updates and then checks to see if newly installed software is non-free and alerts the user. Of course, it’d be most effective as an opt-in system, and not an opt-out one where it would just be annoying.
There is no way, then, that freedom is actually reduced in this way when another choice becomes available. If iTunes were to be included in the repositories (and I suspect it would be, like the restricted, universe and multiverse repositories, a separate opt-in repository; perhaps simply “proprietary” would be fitting), this does not reduce your ability to choose to run a free software media player and manager like Banshee, or Rhythmbox, or even AmaroK if you are so inclined to run that KDE stuff.
Once upon a time, FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) was the tool of Microsoft. We (the free software world) completely hated it when Microsoft would put out FUD, because we would then have to fight that FUD by way of explanation and demonstration. Well, some time ago, a subgroup of the free software world decided to start using FUD themselves—it was done with Mono, and it is being done now with just a survey asking people what sort of software they would like to see in Ubuntu. Now, those of us who are left who are advocates of liberty—both personal and societal—are stuck potentially fighting two battles. One with Microsoft’s FUD—such as the constant notion that you have to pay for software—and one with the “free software evangelists” FUD, who have even gone so far as to say that people should not use certain types of free software (the one who calls himself “The Open Sourcer” even still today tells people to remove certain truly free software from their systems). The truth is somewhere in the middle, between these two ends of the spectrum.
Back to the point at hand: to say that giving a person a choice is a constraint on that person’s freedom, that is doublespeak.; it is saying that “slavery is freedom,” albeit to a lesser degree than that very melodramatic extreme—it simply does not make sense. The concept just does not make sense unless the words that are used to express the concept are dramatically redefined to mean things vastly different from what standard English dictionaries define them to be. The only reason that one has to try to convince someone that additional choice is a constraint on freedom is to try to convince people of things that are not true; to install fear, uncertainty, and doubt into people. This is the sort of behavior that—no matter what community it originates from—is completely immoral, unethical, and absolutely unacceptable. It’s dishonest, and for those of you who know me personally, you know what I think of dishonesty.