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Alyssa Rosenzweig: Software freedom isn't about licenses -- it's about power.

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GNU

A restrictive end-user license agreement is one way a company can exert power over the user. When the free software movement was founded thirty years ago, these restrictive licenses were the primary user-hostile power dynamic, so permissive and copyleft licenses emerged as synonyms to software freedom. Licensing does matter; user autonomy is lost with subscription models, revocable licenses, binary-only software, and onerous legal clauses. Yet these issues pertinent to desktop software do not scratch the surface of today’s digital power dynamics.

Today, companies exert power over their users by: tracking, selling data, psychological manipulation, intrusive advertising, planned obsolescence, and hostile Digital “Rights” Management (DRM) software. These issues affect every digital user, technically inclined or otherwise, on desktops and smartphones alike.

The free software movement promised to right these wrongs via free licenses on the source code, with adherents arguing free licenses provide immunity to these forms of malware since users could modify the code. Unfortunately most users lack the resources to do so. While the most egregious violations of user freedom come from companies publishing proprietary software, these ills can remain unchecked even in open source programs, and not all proprietary software exhibits these issues. The modern browser is nominally free software containing the trifecta of telemetry, advertisement, and DRM; a retro video game is proprietary software but relatively harmless.

As such, it’s not enough to look at the license. It’s not even enough to consider the license and a fixed set of issues endemic to proprietary software; the context matters. Software does not exist in a vacuum. Just as proprietary software tends to integrate with other proprietary software, free software tends to integrate with other free software. Software freedom in context demands a gentle nudge towards towards software in user interests, rather than corporate interests.

How then should we conceptualize software freedom?

Consider the three adherents to free software and open source: hobbyists, corporations, and activists. Individual hobbyists care about tinkering with the software of their choice, emphasizing freely licensed source code. These concerns do not affect those who do not make a sport out of modifying code. There is nothing wrong with this, but it will never be a household issue.

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