Tragic Myopia, or What FLOSS Advocates Are Missing

Eben Moglen, former chief counsel for the Free Software Foundation, delivered an impassioned speech at last week’s Freedom to Connect conference that’s been getting some good linkjuice from the usual places. He makes a number of excellent points about the economic consequences of funneling money to large corporations during times of economic austerity, but his supporting statemements strike me as commonly wrong-headed. While they’re heartfelt and well-intentioned, they remind my why I grow more frustrated with FLOSS-is-freedom ideologues with every passing speech and article.

Disintermediation, for example, is not a consequence of open source. Rather, open source’s widespread success is an example of disintermediation. Confusing the nature of that relationship is an ongoing problem for those who believe that software licensing is one of the great evils of our time, rather than A Way Some Companies Extract Value From Their Work. Open Source and open computing platforms are not the trigger events for a wave of innovation: they’re pretty standard examples of distributed user-driven innovation that’s been around in many industries for centuries.

I mean, I get it – it’s an article of faith that a core human right is the ability to legally modify and share modifications to any piece of software or hardware you encounter in daily life. Like faith in the power of markets to make life better for everyone or an unwavering belief in biblical inerrancy, the idea that open software makes for better lives appears everywhere. The problem isn’t that FLOSS is bad, or that closed devices are inherently good, it’s that these ideologues mistake their own frustrations for the rest of the world’s pain points.

“Increasingly, around the world, the actual computing artifacts of daily life for individual human beings are being locked so you can’t hack them,” says the speaker – except that the real change is not increasingly locked down traditional computers but an explosion of smaller microcomputing devices. “The individual computing laboratory in every 12-year-old’s pocket is being locked down,” says the speaker, alluding to a generation of smartphones and table devices that are not out-of-box hackable. Except that they are hackable by anyone with a USB cable.

The problem is not that FLOSS is bad, or that commercial licenses and/or closed platforms are good. The problem is that FLOSS-is-Freedom advocates behave as if root access to hardware devices is the only barrier between People and What They Want Or Need To Do. In the real world, lots of things – economics, fundamental lack of device or software features, lack of technical expertise, lack of legal access to make customizations, lack of sufficient time, and more – keep individuals from realizing their goals with technology. The locked-down world of walled gardens and restrictive licenses is just one of many barriers, and they all need to be addressed.

As long as FLOSS ideologues pretend that licensing issues are the be-all end-all – the primary obstacle – they will continue to be applauded by like-minded programmers. Like artists who insist that “making art” is the basis for all human society, though, they’ll be a sideshow to the real action of solving peoples’ larger problems. That’s a shame, because the FLOSS advocates do have a really important piece of the puzzle.

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