Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 23rd Jul, 2007

Free as in choice

A little while ago I had an energetic debate on IRC with a couple of people about the nature of choice in relation to F/LOSS. It stemmed from my rather scathing comments on the colour of the Software Freedom Day 2007 T-shirt, and in particular my questioning how the choice of colour was made - which seems to be have by committee fiat without any actual community input or choice at all.

I should just clarify at this juncture that by 'community input or choice', above, I do not mean 'everyone specifies their own particular shade, and somehow we will source T-shirts of that precise colour'. Nor do I mean 'everyone specifies their own particular shade, we then offer the entire gamut up for people to vote on in a two-stage election process that is democratically fair and representative across the entire world.' If Pia had given us a choice of four colours and anyone who wanted could vote on them, then that would be just dandy. It is the complete absence of any community involvement that I am annoyed at (besides, of course, the colour). I certainly never heard of any attempt to involve the community in this, though I wait in hope. But this is somewhat beside the point of this post.

On IRC, one of the well-known people on the #linux-aus channel on FreeNode, presumably thinking e was defending this unilateral decision on T-shirt colour, made the statement, "Open Source is not about choice". And, technically, this is true: nowhere in the Open Source Initiative definition, the Free Software Foundation's definition of Free Software, or the Wikipedia entry on F/LOSS does it actually use the word "choice" in the definition. Likewise, the key theme of the debate on IRC was that "too much choice is bad" - that making a new user pick between the hundreds of Linux distributions will lead to choice 'paralysis' and therefore the user would instead stay with their old, comfortable, familiar, expensive, proprietary, locked-in solution rather than have to make a pick based on a dozen factors including the exact license used, what window managers were offered and the software packaging method used by default.

All of which I totally agree on.

But this to me is misrepresenting the issue. To me, the fact that choice does not appear in the definitions is akin to the fact that a chemical definition of air would not need to include the statement "essential to human life". Air is not defined solely by its breathability by humans, and FLOSS is not defined as being solely an alternative to proprietary, for-money software. Likewise, air is not defined in terms of people choosing which air to breathe, and FLOSS is not defined in terms of people choosing amongst the variety of FLOSS offerings. But to say, therefore, that FLOSS is not about choice is akin, to me, therefore as being like saying "air is not about breathability". While pedantically true, it completely misses the point of what FLOSS offers the community.

And, ultimately, we look at the industry itself and see the real truth of this statement. With GNU/Linux, you have the ability to choose every level and every component of your operating system, from the kernel up; distros exist to provide pre-packaged 'known good' sets of software, but at every level these choices can be overridden by the user. The whole philosophy of user choice permeates the entire process of open source software creation and use, and the whole community supports your ability to choose what you run and how you run it. The efforts open source developers go to to provide users with a open, no-cost alternative to a proprietary product, or support for hardware on open, no-cost platforms, is legendary. While I'm walking close to that dangerous ground of quoting The Castle and saying "It's just the vibe of the thing", I believe that choice is an essential, integral and desirable part of F/LOSS development and use - that it is basically a emergent property of the definitions. And people are obviously choosing F/LOSS software and operating systems, despite any theoretical danger that they might be put off by the notion of choice.

Contrast this to the typical offerings of the proprietary software world. With Microsoft or Apple, the culture of not giving the user a choice goes beyond their simple offerings, in themselves designed to offer the user one window manager, one file system, one desktop, one browser, one suite of applications. They also lock the user into paying for their operating system in the future, lock the user into buying their own products rather than competing ones, and lock other companies out of competing with the software they offer through a variety of means fair and foul. Microsoft is legendary for ignoring or perverting standards simply to lock users into using Microsoft products, for hiding abilities in their operating system to make competitors products inferior to their own, and for abusing their own power in the desktop market to increase their server marketshare. And for a developer, the whole proprietary software industry is about secrecy - learning from each-others code is a matter of patents, licensing deals, lawsuits, agressive headhunting and infringements. Forget about trying to learn how to do something well based on someone else's code, or even trying to implement something that you've seen someone else do.

Look at the Four Freedoms, or the Open Source Definition. What's the point of all that freedom if you don't have choice? How do you run a program if the choice is denied you? What if the company dictated the purpose of you using it rather than you choosing your purpose for using the software? How do you study the source code if that choice is denied you? How do you redistribute copies, or improve the program, if you can't choose to? The very questions are absurd. You can basically replace 'freedom' with 'choice' throughout the definition and it makes perfect sense.

Anticipating the debating hand-wave from the "open source is not about choice" people, I would simply say that while it is trivial to create situations where one might choose to break the Open Source Definition, or the Principles of Free Software - for example, proposing that I can choose to write software that discriminates against a group of people and release it under an open source license - this is in fact a red herring. It's akin to proposing that, because people break the speed limit, that speed limits can't be used to increase road safety. Choosing to break the license doesn't imply that the license is wrong.

We should still want the freedom and right to to choose, even though we can make bad choices or can get presented with too many choices at times.

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