The Party of Gno

It’s time for the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and other free software supporters to stop being the Party of Gno, and start thinking of positive ways to push for software freedom. The negative campaigns and telling users what not to use aren’t working. It’s time for change.

Let me start off by saying, I agree with the FSF’s basic mission and philosophy. I want to see free software, not just open source, succeed. Open source has really already succeeded. Look at any organization and you’ll see it using open source. Look at any major company involved in the software industry, including Microsoft, and you’ll see it contributing to open source to some degree. Much of the infrastructure we all use on the Internet every day is open source, and it will continue to grow.

The free software movement, though, seems to be shrinking. It still has its adherents, of course. But, when I look around at Linux events I see a sea of Mac OS X. Most contributors I know see no problem with proprietary services like Dropbox and Ubuntu One. With very few exceptions, most companies that work in the community have settled on some mixture of proprietary and open source services to try to find a working revenue model. In short, the free software philosophy seems to have gone out the window for most users and contributors. And I’ll freely admit, I’ve advocated the pragmatic approach — because after more than 10 years of working in the community, it’s clear that getting things done with a purist approach isn’t working.

Some free software supporters would say that’s an indication that the FSF needs to redouble its efforts and step up attempts to convince users that they shouldn’t use those services. Heaping more of the same on isn’t going to work, though. It’s time for a change in direction if there’s any hope of making software freedom important to the general public. A puritanical “thou shalt not” approach isn’t going to cut it with the majority of the public, most of whom don’t even have software freedom on their radar — much less something that’s worth sacrificing usability or functionality for.

Negative Campaigns Fail

It seems like every time I turn around the FSF is telling users what not to do, but not so much with providing constructive advice. Richard Stallman is stumping against “cloud computing.” The FSF attacked the launch of the iPad because it’s “bad for freedom.” (True, but where’s my alternative?)

The FSF has been running two particularly annoying and juvenile campaigns for a while, Defective by Design and Windows 7 Sins. The FSF isn’t wrong that Digital Restrictions Management (DRM — and yes, they’ve nailed that phrase) and Windows 7 are bad for users.

The problem? Two things. First, they’re awful campaigns if the idea is to reach a mainstream audience. Second, where’s the alternatives? If the goal is to give like-minded free software radicals some material they can high-five over, then mission accomplished. If the goal is to convince anyone outside that tiny circle that they should avoid DRM or Windows 7, then mission failed. The materials look like something rejected by PETA’s ad department for being too amateurish. Instead of reaching the target audience, the materials paint software freedom advocacy in a bad light. By being overly negative and preachy, they’re more likely to make Windows users feel attacked than to be convinced that they should switch.

Provide an Alternative

And speaking of switching, what would users switch to? Look at the get involved page for Windows 7 Sins. Not a single suggestion for projects to contribute to to provide alternatives to Windows 7. I will give points to DBD for at least pointing people to DRM-free music sites and alternatives, but they’re provided as an afterthought. The FSF would do well to find ways to promote DRM-free media first, and then say “hey, this is why this is better” rather than the DBD campaign with free music sources buried on the site.

In general, the programs are all about “no.” Or rather, “gno.” We all know how well anti-campaigns work. Any day now, “just say no” will have wiped out drug use for all time, right? And PETA will have convinced everyone to go totally vegan, too.

Yes, negative campaigns can be effective. However, they require the audience to be receptive to the overall message. Anti-smoking ads work, to the extent that they do, because they touch on a concern that the audience has: Its health. If the general public was concerned about its right and freedoms with regards to computers, then the FSF’s campaigns might be more effective. Actually, if the public was concerned about those things, the campaigns would be entirely unnecessary to begin with. But they’re not. And until the public is concerned about those things, the campaigns will be a heaping pile of fail, unless you consider preaching to the converted a win.

Concerned about software freedom? Really? Find ways to provide alternatives to users instead of telling them what not to do. Educate users about software freedom in a non-preachy way that works. This xkcd cartoon on the dangers of Facebook is more convincing than all of the DBD and Windows 7 Sins material combined.

Richard M. Stallman is right to worry about cloud computing. But telling users not to use Software as a Service (SaaS) is folly, pure and simple. Taking the FSF out of the game is the wrong strategy.


I criticize Stallman’s approach, but I have to acknowledge the enormous contribution he’s made in creating the GNU Project and Free Software Foundation. The world is a better place because of his work. But perhaps this is where others need to step in, because Stallman isn’t going to be able to fix the market and convince users to boycott SaaS and other forms of cloud computing.

What we need is a GNU 2.0. GNU succeeded wildly at providing a UNIX replacement, hand in hand with the Linux kernel. The Linux kernel and GNU utilities are being used as a foundation to build much bigger computing systems, and those are non-free. The only way to guarantee software freedom is build it.

And code alone isn’t going to be enough this time. There are some tricky business problems that need to be figured out to make it possible to sustain development and hosting for free cloud platforms. We need lawyers to tackle the licensing issues. Privacy experts and folks to sort out the data issues. User interface experts who can make the free stuff just as usable and feature complete as the proprietary tools. Without these things, any efforts are guaranteed to be relegated to a small subset of users who are willing to sacrifice usability and features in exchange for sticking to free software principles.

But if software freedom advocates actually care about the wider audience, then there’s a lot of work ahead that doesn’t involve telling user to say “gno”. It’s been ineffective so far, and there’s no chance it’s going to work in the future.

What will work, for folks concerned with protecting software freedom? Providing solid and useful free software alternatives. Finding ways to make those alternatives sustainable businesses (or non-profits, like Mozilla) so that contributors can be paid to keep those tools free and functional. The FSF should be at the center of this effort instead of trying to hold users back to the stone age of computing. But if they won’t be, then it’s time for others to solve these problems rather than joining the Party of Gno.

Originally published on Linux Magazine’s website in 2010 but it looks like that site has been domain squatted or hacked, as it displays some horrible online casino thing now. Resurfaced thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Was reminded of the post by this conversation on Hacker News.


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