The Rise and Fall of Free Software - 15 minutes read

By figosdev

Summary: “We simply need to make the movement less corporate, and more grassroots.”

As someone who writes Free software, discourages non-free software (and other setbacks in software freedom) and considers “open source” a corporate bait-and-switch tactic, I consider myself part of the Free software movement. I think Free software is important.

I also consider the Free software definition important, as basically our constitution. I think the FSD is more important than the FSF who maintains it, in the same way that I think the U.S. Constitution is more important than Donald Trump. I don’t think swearing an oath to defend the FSD is necessary, but there are certainly a handful of people at the FSF who would be in violation of that oath if they had.

And given that I believe the founder more honest and instrumental than the FSF lately, I consider the founder more important than the FSF as well. It would be nice if the FSF survived RMS, but only if it continued to serve the same purpose as it did previously.

Maybe if the new FSF wasn’t focused on glib soundbites and photo ops, and didn’t remain dishonest about what happened, I would feel differently. But if the FSF doesn’t stand for Stallman, it’s hard to believe it stands for us. If Stallman is disposable, we are all pawns to them as well.

If I wanted to be a pawn, I’d just use Windows. And if I wanted a system more or less dictated by IBM and developed on Microsoft’s own servers, I’d just use Windows. I went to a lot of trouble to get away from that sort of thing. For some reason, a lot of people suddenly don’t understand what used to be obvious to so many of us? Who knew the movement was so pliable?

I’m speaking very broadly, but this article is as much about the fine exceptions as the disturbing rule. I know the exceptions — I believe there will be more of you. That’ll be nice. I would prefer that Free software not be infiltrated and taken over, but I think the infiltration has already happened — which doesn’t mean it won’t continue or get worse.

My hope is that it would be like the purchase of Sun and OpenOffice that resulted in LibreOffice (albeit only for 64-bit these days — don’t you guys realise fighting e-waste is one of the reasons I love and rely on Free software? OpenOffice still offers 32-bit) and OpenOffice was a failure for Oracle, so they unloaded it on Apache. I think we have nobody to thank for that except the LibreOffice developers, so thanks. Now stop moving towards Github, please. Microsoft controls enough of our software already.

But Roy said (or quoted?) today, that good organisations that abandon their mission never really go back. There may indeed be a point to trying to hold off the coup — the principle of the thing, and buying time. I agree with those and likely more. However, I also agree that a movement ought to consider the long term. So as when I talked about Stallman being cancelled, I’m talking about the future.

We probably aren’t going to win the FSF back. Most people don’t realise that it needs to be won back, and that lack of awareness is the perhaps the second greatest loss of all. The FSF is still seeking pawns to support the shell of what it was previously. But what does it do to support the user? Less and less all the time. When they talk about freedom, I don’t believe them. Like with open source, their actions don’t match their words.

The takeover of America and of OSI, Debian, Red Hat, not to mention FSFE — these happened in the same five years. Whether they’re related or not, people should be able to learn from these experiences. I’m sure there are other takeovers that are similar, if unrelated — similar enough for people to understand.

Not everyone is going to give up. For some of us, this is just the beginning. I was once quite happy to promote Debian and Free software (without the non-free repos) but they certainly put a damper on that. When they stopped providing a good distro, I looked for alternatives. When I couldn’t promote Free software with Debian anymore, I figured maybe we could try to get more people into coding with Free software. But first, to make it easier…

It’s actually quite a thing to try to find an alternative to one of the best, oldest, most “universal” distros there is — but Debian isn’t universal anymore. I don’t think it is, and neither does 2nd-ever-DPL, DFSG author Bruce Perens. Why when you live up to that sort of hype, would you want to abandon it and even discourage the people who believe in it as a standard? Nonetheless, that’s exactly what they did.

I’m still looking, but I believe more in what Hyperbola is doing than anything else. It used to be Hyperbola and Guix, but it’s obvious that Guix is letting absolute scum gradually take over their project as well. Well, Guix is a nice idea at any rate.

Free software isn’t a cult for me — despite my admiration for Stallman, I agree with those who thought he should be taken down a notch. The fundamental difference is what constitutes just a notch. I didn’t want him gone from the FSF, I didn’t want him voiceless, in exile, I didn’t want some traitor spouting absolute bullshit in the style of a corporate boardroom over his legacy. If I wanted that, id just join OSI.

No, one notch would be plenty — just one notch small enough for them to build up to run Stallman-free for the day when he can’t do it anymore. Doing it with dishonesty and trial-by-media in a tech press that loves “open source” but not freedom — that’s unacceptable and traitorous.

This man is like Einstein — you know, Einstein had a few rough edges. Did you see what he wrote to his wife? Divorce used to be less common, and what Einstein decided was that she could remain married and living in his house, essentially as long as she didn’t bother him.

I mean, that’s sugar-coating it slightly, but I guarantee that judged by today’s standards, Einstein could have gotten kicked out of some prominent associations related to physics. The world is still in debt to his brilliance, and I don’t think he was any sort of monster (though I wasn’t there.)

The point is, we can judge him. we have that power, at least on a social and philosophical level. Whether we use that fairly is up to us, isn’t it? That’s not at all what happened in September, and the people who sat by, knowing the truth, while one of the better people on earth was driven out from something he built to help humanity are people I want nothing to do with.

I also note the double standards at play with Stallman’s ousting, as well as the feminist who came out in his defense and dispelled some of the rumours and outright lies (thank you, by the way.)

Like Stallman, and indeed every genius that ever lived, Einstein wasn’t right about everything even if he had few (if any) intellectual equals. He was absolutely wrong about string theory! Of course Einstein never planned to be a household name (it was Buckminster Fuller who predicted that, before Einstein was the sort of person you could read about on Wikipedia.) Expecting him to be a posterchild for IQ itself, or an authority on every subject was never in the cards as far as he was concerned.

As to whether Stallman still matters… Stallman will always matter. He’s neither too old to learn from nor to contribute. People talk about discrimination, while ageism runs rampant in Free software and narcissists try stupidly to beard-shame. Isaac Newton still matters. Thomas Jefferson matters. And per my taste in languages, Grace Hopper has a lot more influence on my coding than Stallman, though it’s Stallman’s activism that I’m most inspired by.

One of the great things about history is that we can still learn more from these people, even though they aren’t around to add anything. But Stallman is still here, and letting him go to waste is just stupid.

As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing the least bit ironic about grouping him with Einstein, Hopper and Jefferson. They were important, but they were still people. And most people quickly abandon their own understanding of just where we would be if the Free software movement hadn’t started in the first place — this is largely a side-effect (or simply an effect) of open source constantly rewriting history to marginalise the people who actually cared about freedom.

In every way that they have accused Stallman of countless times, these people have grown obsessed with details and avoided the larger picture — and the truth. Then they have mistaken those details for the picture itself, and asked us to join in their numbing, absurd superficiality.

I’m not at all impressed by the people who have stolen his seat. That should have gone to someone who earned it — only to someone who could do better. As it is, that seat is going completely to waste. I’ve spent years keeping track and only know a handful of people worthy to even try it. What do I mean by worthy? Someone fit to do the actual job!

People have spent literally decades trying to unwrite Stallman’s legacy — corporate sellouts who rewrite history to serve their agenda. Disgusting, but not the least bit new. It’s not like such tactics were invented for Stallman in particular.

You can help Free software by learning history and helping keep the record straight despite these scheming revisionists. The history of Free software is the history of what we do, and wise people learn from history to serve the future — they don’t alter it to serve the short term — that’s what fascist and other power-corrupted regimes do. Most of what I’ve noticed from the FSF lately is just gloss, no substance. When there are exceptions I note them and share them.

Despite all this, I agree that the movement matters more than the founder. I really mean it, too. But the people who think hurting Stallman on this level is going to help us at all are liars, fools or both. If you count everybody involved, it becomes ridiculously obvious who benefits the most from this — and it isn’t Free software.

Spread among the ranks are people who have spent years undermining software freedom, for any excuse they can find. I admit that I’m very sad and a bit surprised that Ian Jackson is among them. That one doesn’t make a lot of sense, but he is just one person on the list. He really doesn’t seem like he belongs there.

What to do about the FSF would be so much more relevant if it weren’t the fate of most non-profits to ultimately sell out and abandon their mission, even betraying their members. At a certain point, members are little more than donation fodder. They will promise them the moon, and deliver next to nothing. I did like ShoeTool — for one, I’ve spent years and years protesting the FSF’s mixed, almost Janus-like relationship with Free culture, and ShoeTool is another important step in the right direction — as are the LibrePlanet videos. Overall, I’m not happy with the direction LibrePlanet has taken, but putting the videos under a free licence is a good thing.

No one should be fooled by the exceptions that prove the rule. 2019 was by far the worst year the FSF (and Free software) ever had, and if 2020 isn’t worse it will not be a long respite. They have no business asking people for money now, except of course that it’s one of their primary reasons to exist as a 501c3 corporation.

Like Charity Navigator (who have smiled on the FSF 7 years in a row — 6 of those with Stallman at the helm, 6.5 when you figure he was only ousted 5 months and about a week ago — but suddenly it’s so important… Look at us! Next they’ll be jumping up and down about a good BBB rating…) I have no qualms about how the FSF spends its money.

Unlike Charity Navigator and more like the Green Party US, I take more issue with who they get their money from than where it’s going. I care about who has the FSF by the pursestrings — and if you care about Free software, I think that should matter to you as well. Especially since there is more than a likely coincidence regarding when they started to change and when they got more funding from these dubious sources — dubious to freedom, not to Charity Navigator. Are they a Free software organisation? No, they only care about transparency in funding.

But Charity Navigator doesn’t care if the FSF or FSFE are funded predominantly (as in the largest share, not necessarily a majority) by companies literally trying to destroy Free software with patents and other nastiness.

If you think members get any real say for their “majority” funding, think again. Members have no say at all what the FSF or FSFE does. When that means the FSF does a better job defending Free software, I can hardly complain about that. But when people start lying to you and throwing the fight against Free software, you still have no say.

I don’t think members should be able to tell the FSF to abandon its mission, but that’s very hypothetical. What’s not hypothetical is the fact that you can’t force the FSF to be honest, except by leaving. And when you do, they will just find more donation fodder. You’re powerless, but the FSF has got your back! (Unless you’re Stallman. Or really, not at all.)

For the rest of us, who still care about Free software no matter what the FSF does, or what they tell us — I (almost) don’t know why more people aren’t creating their own organisations yet. The way Free software was built was through activism and writing software. The way it will be carried on is through activism and writing software.

I still think it’s very likely the Free software movement will survive. One of the advantages of leaving the FSF behind (not what Stallman wants, I realise) and moving forward would be providing him with more venues and support.

Of course it will be gradual if it happens; the FSF and the GNU project are already moving towards what at least looks like an eventual legal separation. A spinoff organisation would be good, if that’s what happens. Which isn’t to say I assume they know that’s the direction they’re headed in, or that I’m sure of it myself. I was more or less right about Red Hat, and we practically predicted Stallman’s ousting.

What I’m saying is, it’s going to take more than the FSF to put things right again. And the rest of us would benefit from something that actually defends our freedom — while the FSF continues to lie and put on a show.

Lying to us and treating us like naive fools hardly endears me to them. Their main claims to fame were creating the GNU operating system, and having Stallman, and a few people like him. What have they got now? A coup they won’t say anything about, for self-serving reasons (we are supposed to believe it helps in some way. That’s another lie.) We have some talks on video of people who have abandoned and excluded their founder, and some other people trying to take over the last refuge of someone who did more for freedom than they ever will. And they’re still trying to subvert the GNU project, because “The World is Not Enough” (for greedy corporate assholes.)

But they’ll have funding, don’t worry about that. “National” “Public” Radio was taken over by corporations, and sheep still pull out their chequebooks and fall for that old “Listener-supported” line.

Corporate “indie” cred, aplenty! The world isn’t short of people who are happy to dole out a dollar or two to hear DJ Sullivan play that old song on the radio one more time, while Satya Nadella and Jims Whitehurst and Zemlin sing along. Still waiting for earplugs with the FSF logo; they probably only cost 50 bucks.

As for fond memories for old time’s sake, remember those days when if you hated a piece of software on your supposedly freedom-respecting operating system, you could “just uninstall it” and just as easily put something else (also free) in its place?

Completely unlike Internet Explorer before the antitrust lawsuits? And it didn’t typically take five freaking years to get a stable, reliable system after that not-so-giant change either.

Exactly what the hell happened to that, anyway? I’m not even 50 yet, but I’ll take out one of my Dyne:bolic earplugs so you can speak into my “good ear” and explain it. Go ahead, I’ve probably heard this one…

Even without the FSF (pretending they’re) fighting for us, Free software still has a chance. But it’s never easier to get good work done among too many traitors, liars and backstabbers.

I don’t believe in the McCarthy approach to this sort of thing — that’s basically what drove Stallman out in the first place, a good old-fashioned McCarthyist tribunal. We simply need to make the movement less corporate, and more grassroots. No more of this (increasingly well-funded) astroturf bullshit, please! █

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

Share this post: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.

Permalink Send this to a friend


Powered by