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Chapter 1. Introduction: How I Discovered Free Software and met RMS

Beyond Open Source: Free Software and Freedom




The Netherlands government has taken an important step by establishing a plan to switch step by step to freedom-respecting software.
However, viewing and discussing the matter in terms of "open source" means the government has not yet focused its and the public's' attention on the heart of the matter: freedom for computer users to cooperate and to control their own computers.

Free software stands for freedom and community; where proprietary software keeps users divided and helpless, Free Software respects the user's freedom and encourages cooperation.  A program is free software if the users are free to run the program, free to study and change it, free to redistribute it, and free to publish modified versions of the program.  Since any proprietary program denies these essential freedoms, the way to keep your freedom is to insist on free software always.

In 1984, when we started the Free Software Movement, it was simply impossible to do that; you couldn't even come close, because hardly any free software existed.  You couldn't even take the first step without giving up your freedom, because the computer can't run at all without an operating system, and all the operating systems for the modern computers of the day were proprietary.  It was impossible to buy a PC (or any other real computer) and use it in freedom.

To make it possible to get and use a computer without giving up your freedom, we developed the free software operating system GNU.  (See for the history of GNU.)

In 1992, the GNU system was nearly complete, lacking mainly the kernel.  In that year, the kernel Linux became free software, and filled the last gap in GNU.  The resulting GNU/Linux operating system was the first self-sufficient free software operating system for modern computers, and made it possible to use a PC in freedom for the first time.  Although some components such as Linux and X11 were developed by others for other motives, the system as a whole is the result of our persistent determination to be free to cooperate.

Since then we have moved on to develop graphical desktop interfaces, office suites, and a wide variety of applications.  Our target now is to provide free software for all the jobs that users want. Computer users should never feel they "need" to give up their freedom in order to do important jobs with their computers.

In the 1990s, as the combined GNU/Linux system became popular, it attracted millions of users whose primary values were mainstream (economic).  A large segment of our community had learned to appreciate the practical, economic consequences of freedom, but rejected our philosophy of freedom as "too idealistic".  (Especially in the United States, it had become normal to elevate economic criteria above everything else in life.)

When the term "open source" was coined, in 1998, those people seized on it as a way to talk about our free software without alluding to the idea of freedom.  In effect, they separated our free software from the ideals that gave birth to it.

Open source supporters cite practical, economic values, not social and ethical values.  They recommend on a "development model" which they say will usually lead to more powerful and reliable software, but this is no more than a recommendation: they don't say that non-open source is wrong, only that it tends to be inferior.  They don't talk about how computer users can live in freedom, or even recognize the concept of freedom as relevant.

The open source supporters like to say that they are "pragmatic" and "do what works."  This is true but misleading, since the free software movement is equally pragmatic; we too try to do what is effective. The question is, effective for what?  That's where the difference is--in the goals and values.  Where open source supporters aim to make computer use more convenient or more cost-effective, our goal is to win freedom for the community of software users.

This is an ambitious goal.  We have been working pragmatically towards this goal for 20 years, and we have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.  Open source supporters find it easier to claim success, because their goals are smaller.  Whenever a free software package is useful and popular, that counts as success in their terms. In free software terms, that is just a step towards success.  We have made many such steps, and we are determined to go all the way.

The open source ideas have an easier time spreading because they avoid the deeper issues.  But since they are not as deep, they are also not as strong.  If a person persuaded of open source ideas comes across a powerful, reliable, non-free program, she may think it admirable. "I'm surprised they were able to do this without using the open source development model," she might say, "But I can't deny that it works well."  When a free software advocate looks at the same program, she sees a nasty, unethical license.  "I don't care how 'powerful' it is, if it takes away my freedom," she will say.  "This program is an affront to our community.  Let's start writing a free replacement now!"

The open source ideas were designed to appeal to corporate executives, by omitting whatever they might be expected not to like--hence the focus on shallow practical convenience rather than freedom.  In the free software movement, we are not against corporations; we are happy when our software is useful in business. 
But we do not accept the assumption that the corporation is the measure of all things, and we do not adapt our views to what executives would like.  Thus many corporations prefer the open source ideas, and have major role in limiting public debate to to open source concepts.  For instance, a number of software companies distribute both free and non-free software together; naturally they prefer the philosophy that sees nothing wrong in this.

The corporations that direct attention toward open source ideas rather than free software ideas are not all supporters.  Microsoft contributes assiduously to this campaign.  Of course, Microsoft does not support either free software or open source, but it directs its opposition exclusively at the latter.  Gates in his speeches criticizes open source and never mentions free software.  While I cannot know his motives, I can propose a possible explanation.

Open source proponents criticize Microsoft's methods, but they and Microsoft cite the same values: powerful, reliable, cheap software- that is to say, short term practical benefits and nothing more.  Their disagreement is solely about how to achieve these values. Microsoft can argue against open source: it claims to deliver what the open source proponents say they want.  This may not be true, but at least it is not obviously absurd.

The free software movement stands for something deeper: freedom to control your own life and cooperate with others.  Microsoft cannot claim to deliver these values; it would be too obviously absurd.  No one will believe for a minute that Microsoft EULAs respect the user's freedom.  When people demand freedom, Microsoft has nothing to offer them, and knows it.  Therefore it tries to distract people from these ideas.  When Gates criticizes open source, his speech does double duty: focusing attention on the criticism he try to can argue with, and away from those he cannot.

The government agencies of the Netherlands naturally want to carry out their jobs more correctly and cost-effectively.  It's not wrong for them to be concerned with the economic values associated with the term "open source"; we all prefer more powerful, reliable, and inexpensive software.  But government agencies have responsibilities to the public, too.  Every government agency has the responsibility to maintain control over its data processing and not allow control to fall into the hands of any private party, and this means rejecting non-free software.

Each government agency has its own job to do, but the primary mission of every government is to protect the freedom and well-being of the citizens.  In the area of computer use, this means leading society as a whole out of the shadow of proprietary software, into the light of free software.

However, it's not enough just to use more free software.  People who don't value their freedom tend to lose the freedom they have.  To fulfill its mission to protect the freedom of the citizens and residents of the Netherlands, the government should teach the citizens to value freedom in this area as they value it in other areas.

Copyright 2004 Richard Stallman
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted
worldwide without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

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