Free software is software that respects users’ freedom and the community around them. Users of such software are able to use, copy, distribute, study, change or improve the software. “Free” in this case refers to the freedom, not the price, of the software. “Free software” does not mean “non-commercial”. A free program must be available for commercial use and it can cost money. In fact, commercial free software is a very important part of the ecosystem.
Many things in life are “free” in this sense (remember we are not talking about the price). Concrete things like furniture and cars or more abstract things like scientific research all have the aforementioned freedoms. You can use, copy (if you have the tools), distribute, study, change or improve these things as you like. Would you ever buy a table that you’re not allowed to re-paint? Or buy a car you’re not allowed to change tires on? I don’t think you would.
Why is free software important?
In my opinion, one of the biggest threats to our general freedom and democracy is the influence and power that corporations have on and over our governments and elsewhere in our society. It’s usually manifested through lobby groups, corruption or controlling what should be publicly owned infrastructure like roads, energy production, or hospitals. People are no longer the owners and ruling entity of our society, corporations are. A very interesting book on this subject is John Perkins’ The Secret History of the American Empire.
Corporate power is also exercised by controlling important software. When a company controls important software, like in the examples below, it gives them unparalleled influence and power in our society.
- Microsoft Windows is controlling many people’s computers
- Google Search is controlling and organising how many people find information in life
- Apple iOS is controlling many people’s mobile devices
- Facebook Messenger is controlling how many people share private information
The problem is that the aforementioned companies produce only non-free software. This means the companies control their users with unjust power, putting profits first and users second (if even). For example, with non-free software companies will spy on their users and sell their private data to other companies. This is a fact, and unfortunately not uncommon. Edward Snowden proved it.
Companies will claim that their software is no evil, and that their software is what gives them a competitive advantage, not to be shared with others. And those are reasonable claims to make by a for-profit company. But freedom and privacy must be more important than an individual company’s profit. We, as users, must demand something different that respects our freedom and privacy first, and company profits second.
How can companies make money with free software?
If companies would let everyone distribute and study copies of their software, how could they ever make any money?
Although all companies I mentioned earlier produce software as the primary product, the primary value they deliver is something else. And that’s the key. Software is very important, but software is a commodity, and doesn’t have much value by itself.
For example, the value with Microsoft Windows isn’t the software itself. There are alternative software that let you do the same things. The value Microsoft delivers is in how they package, integrate and support their software. They pre-install everything on cheap computers that work anywhere, making it very accessible for people to use.
To take one more example, the value Facebook delivers is not the bits and bytes in their code. Because there are alternative software that also let you message friends and share interesting links. Facebook’s value is the wide-spread adoption and reach of their platform.
What I’m saying is, companies do not have to oppress a user’s freedom and privacy with non-free software. Companies should be able to live sustainably off their primary value alone, delivered with software that respects users. There are many, many companies that do. And if a company has to spy on their users and sell their private data in order to make a profit, I’d argue there isn’t a sustainable business model to be made.
Switching from non-free to free software isn’t something companies will do by themselves, because profit is their first interest, not user’s freedom. Instead, if enough people refuse to use non-free software, companies will have to follow.
What are some options to non-free software?
- Instead of Microsoft Windows, use a computer pre-installed with Ubuntu, such as these Dell computers
- Instead of Google Search, use DuckDuckGo. Although not fully free, this service respects the user’s privacy.
- Instead of Apple iOS, use a phone pre-installed with Replicant, such as these Tehnoetic phones
- Instead of Facebook Messenger, use Telegram
Why I do free software
I do free software to respect my users’ freedoms. Users can know, by studying the software, that they are not being spied on. If the user doesn’t know how to study the software, a friend who knows can help.
I do free software so that users are able to make improvements to my software. If the user doesn’t know how to improve the software, a friend who knows can help. This helps the community and society at large to move forward in a sustainable way, not depending solely on me as the original creator.
I do it this way, because I prefer freedom over anything else.