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The Free Software Foundation is even more relevant now than before (markwatson.com)
205 points by Tsiolkovsky on Sept 22, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 77 comments

Free software is nice, privacy and security are needed, yada yada. Yes, I absolutely agree. What does the FSF have to do with this? This an interesting claim in the title, but the post does nothing to explain the relevancy of FSF.

I used to be an avid supporter of the FSF, but in the recent years I've been shying away from them because I don't see how they're relevant to the well-being of free software. In fact I've come to see them as a lobbying group pushing their one-sided view of what free software is and how it should be. I much prefer to support free software projects and the people who actually write and maintain free software. I do this in the form of testing, code contributions, code review, bug reports, and user support. I'd also donate if I weren't living on a student's budget.

I used to be subscribed to some FSF mailing list. They kept asking for donations, but never did they give the impression that they're spending it on improving or making any free software I value. Sorry, I don't want to support their lobbying with my money.

These are reasonable complaints, but I think it remains the case that the FSF and GNU are the most consistent advocates of these issues. I too do not agree with their tactics in every case. I think we can say the FSF message is important now, if we take that to be their core ideals about software freedom. Whether you specifically go through the FSF in your support of software freedom is another matter.

Lately, their message usually seems to be that some new product they've decided to pick on (say, an iOS device, or a new version of Windows, or what-have-you) is evil and will enslave your children, or something. I know their message is supposed to be about free software, but it tends to get lost under the ranting and smear campaigns.

Actually, their campaigns (BadVista, Windows 7 Sins and whatever the newest one is) do outline valid issues and try to offer more reasonable alternatives.

Yes, they are blunt and provocative, but that's how you incite debate and bring about more attention to your cause. The main problem is that they aren't getting much traction for various reasons. One is that end users aren't aware of free software and major vendors aim to keep it that way, and another is that the benefits of free software aren't immediately obvious to the end user.

> Yes, they are blunt and provocative, but that's how you incite debate and bring about more attention to your cause.

Only if it's a cause people have any reason to care about. Otherwise you look like a crank. The FSF's lack of understanding of people who are not obsessively like them has delivered them firmly to "crank" territory and they have been there for most of the time I've been aware of their existence (so 12-ish years at least?).

They make more reasonable people and more reasonable arguments seem less valid to most people through their existence. Which is fine to me, I find "free software" distasteful and preachy, but if they actually wanted to be successful, they'd turn down the steadfast unwillingness to understand normal people a whole lot.

As someone who's tried to explain this issue several times to laypeople, there's not much else that can be done. It really just does not resonate with anyone who isn't in the field and doesn't understand what software really is or how copyright works; most people not in the business just download everything on filesharing networks anyway, they couldn't care less about software licensing.

The only thing that really can be done is to fund and promote the development of free software replacements for software that everyone wants to use, which the FSF is already doing and has been doing for quite some time.

Perhaps they're not getting traction because they're blunt and provocative?

I haven't heard of FSFE and FSFLA starting any campaigns of the sort, and they seem to be having some kind of actual effect.

I absolutely agree with you. Lately, the FSF is just being perceived as screaming about "this is bad" (and from their point of view almost everything is bad) and not "these other things are cool, support them!". That's the wrong approach, you can't just tell people how bad is everything because they'll end up ignoring your reasonings, even when those are completely logical.

>these other things are cool, support them!


It's not that they have a page about cool free software things. It's the message they transmit to everybody.

I agree. I respect Stallman and the FSF, and I think certain parts of their message are important, but I prefer to keep my politics and my software separate. IMO, this is one of the reasons people really like FreeBSD -- there's no political agenda behind it, just people who want to build and use great software.

As for this article, I'm curious to know why (or if) anyone would donate money to the FSF to be used for lobbying rather than giving it to an established lobbying organization like the EFF or ACLU.

politics and software are tightly coupled independent of whether you pretend it's not...

regarding your second paragraph, fsf needs money to carry campaigns to tell the people about the inconvenient truth.

I don't disagree that politics and software have close ties. But I fervently disagree with the particular politics of the FSF, even though we share common goals.

However, the FSF is absolutist and views their particular politics as inseparable from the goals, almost as if the politics are the goal itself. This is at best childish, because mixed in with their message that contains "inconvenient truth" they also include a lot of unnecessary BS. The logic that accompanies their political reasoning is patchy and convoluted at best, but these holes are pasted over with overwhelming passion and feeling.

I could support a more rational organization or lobby group, even if I didn't agree 100% with their politics, if we shared common goals. The FSF makes that impossible. They will therefore see no support from me, despite my continued support for our common goals.

> the FSF is absolutist and views their particular politics as inseparable from the goals

I often see this kind of hyperbole and it seems very meaningless to me. Their particular strategy has remained pretty consistent and has managed to fund development of a good number of successful projects. If it's their PR you have a problem with, what is it that you want them to say? That it's okay to support the use of proprietary software sometimes, even though that's completely against the whole point?

the FSF is absolutist

If that were true they would have never created the LGPL.


Can you explain to me why, in your opinion, politics and software are tightly coupled? Or perhaps provide a citation to an explanation from a (preferably unbiased) source?

Without any evidence, I really don't see why these two things must go together.

I wouldn't cite Lawrence Lessig as unbiased.

Perhaps not, but it's an obscure enough question that it's not going to be analyzed in any depth by someone without some interest nearby. And the parent did say "preferably unbiased", leaving some implication that a biased source is acceptable absent others. Regardless, the arguments can be evaluated on their merits - Lessig is certainly a serious participant in the discussion.

Consumption of _anything_ has political implications, albeit trivial ones: you support whoever made it, and the process by which it was made.

I don't think there's anything which can truly be declared apolitical, because people can always _make_ it political. Not necessarily "party" politics, but any case where there are costs and benefits which accrue to different groups.

Good question. I wrote the original article (a month ago, surprised to see it now on HN). My wife and I have also increased our contributions to both the EFF and ACLU in the last few months. Seems like a good investment.

The FSF is about advocating for Free Software. From their point of view (and I think this is mostly true) the conditions are in place where society doesn't actually need to use proprietary software (outside of device drivers, and they are actively working to improve that situation). Sure, you personally have to use proprietary software because the rest of the world does and proprietary solutions are often superior (either technically or in terms of usability), but we would get by fine, as a society, if we did away with proprietary software. Further, so long as proprietary software is used by most people, and most developers are getting paid to develop proprietary software, technical superiority is almost guaranteed. I think that the FSF long ago realized that the battle field is in public opinion, not in delivering quality software. Sure, the software needs to be "good enough", but once the software is "good enough" then no killer feature is going to shift people away from the proprietary software that they know and that the vast majority of the world is using. Now, there could be meta-killer features in terms of responsive development, transparency, and privacy.

So, I can completely understand that the FSF feels that their time is best served by getting the public to change their views regarding Free Software vs proprietary software. I don't think that it has been very effective, but it is a heck of an uphill battle. But doing this in combination with their other work (lobbying, writing briefs for court cases, acting as a GPL violator watch dog, and publicizing when large organizations have selected Free Software over a proprietary alternative) also help the cause more than funding any particular project I can think of.

I think the issue is that the stallmanites cling too much to the state. They think the state is there to apply rule of law(something which in practice rarely happens even for serious crimes like murder) and that it can effectively apply law to itself; this has been proven wrong time and time again, and is one of the failings of contemporary societies.

I am enchanted by the freedoms of free software, just as I am by freedoms in broader life; Freedom is part of the product when I pay for software, and the understanding is that I will come back to the author if I want the work of the people who best understand it, rather than the people who refuse to let me.

I just wish "free software" wasn't owned by Richard(for whom I have no personal gripe), because Richard has a government addiction(even when it comes to problems widely caused by government to begin with, such as software patent litigation).

If we can learn to separate our understanding of justice from our misguided best wishes for the state, I think free software, and freedom in general can prosper.

Where are you getting these sentiments from? The free software movement has nothing to gain from being anti-government. By itself it's a relatively non-partisan political movement. Copyleft licensing is just another tool they use to promote themselves. Furthermore, a stated goal of the movement is to encourage the use of free software in public institutions. As long as these public institutions exist, they can and should be using free software. None of this has anything to do with perceptions of "justice," it's about promoting the message and the attitude.

> I just wish "free software" wasn't owned by Richard

Just because Stallman is the most vocal voice behind Free Software Movement doesn't mean he owns freedom or free software. He is doing a wonderful job of bringing about awareness of free software (not just "open" software).

If Stallman is doing such a wonderful job, why are parties, like the various BSDs, making a concerted effort to move to software that is not bound by the restrictions on distribution the organization he leads requires? I'd argue that in releasing the GPLv3, with its increased politicized language, and increased restrictions on use, has fragmented the Free Software community, and made their goals all that more difficult to reach.

Lets first not confuse the issue too much, and note that the number of GPL licensed software projects is increasing by each year. The "fragmentation" you are talking about is not a clean cut. GPLv3 added a bunch compatibility with GPLv2 incompatible license, which for example MPL users was quite happy about. This has clearly helped brining the free software community closer, rather than more fragmented.

As for any added restrictions, GPLv3 added two things exactly:

1#) they added a clause that says users should have the right to exercise the permission given by the license to devices those users own. Adding technical, rather the legal restrictions is equally restrictive to the user.

2#) They copied the patent clause from apache license, and included the term "patent agreement" to it.

If you do not intend to add technical restrictions to customers owned devices, and you or your business partners don't intend to sue for patents when people use software that you distribute under GPL, GPLv3 will give the exact same legal instructions as GPLv2.

Many BSD projects approves of Apple use of BSD. Apple will add technical restrictions to devices owned by their customers, and Apple will sue for patents if they see a business edge in doing so. GPLv3 and FSF do not approve, and that cause the BSD and GPLv3 to view Apple in different light. If you need to take a "side", feel free to do so, but I won't see either BSD or FSF as evil, nor do I think its appropriate to view their disagreement in that light.

Might I ask, what do you think the FSF should do regarding software patents?

The state impose the fact that there is software patents. FSF don't want software patents. Ignoring software patents resulted in the Novell deal and Microsoft "be very afraid tour". The tour which is explained by (http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9019238/Update_Micros...) and (http://www.patentlyo.com/patent/2007/05/microsoft_foss_.html).

What would the FSF best action be here? The kernel team's opinion seems to be that we should be ignoring the patent situation in favor of contributions from companies who have lawyers who will take the broadest possible interpretation when assessing patent scope. (http://lwn.net/Articles/200422/)

I can understand the kernel team point of view, and FSF. Both is valid approaches, but at the end you got to pick which devil you want to fight against. Currently, I dont see any patent agreements being levied against FOSS users, nor do I see any patent owners trying to claim ownership of the linux kernel. Maybe the GPLv3 patent agreement clause wasn't needed, or maybe the linux kernel is an exceptional project. I will need more data before claiming which "side" is right, or if both are.

Right, in personal use software, I can essentially ignore the existence of software patents; however there's an ongoing chilling effect if I distribute the software, and especially if I choose to sell services around it.

I would personally prefer something as destructive as patent be extinguished along with the only institution capable of enforcing it, but that seems like a stretch goal.

I implement all sorts of things personally which I'm only comfortable sharing with friends, which is the real problem. I'm not sure the FSF has any leverage to help people in the free software community freely express their implementations of various restricted technologies.

I have no idea what the FSF should be doing, and it seems they don't have much more of an idea.

Free software is definitely high on my list of priorities right now.

However, what seems equally important is data-ownership. If you can't obtain ownership of your own data, what does it matter which software you run?

In that regard, this commment on reddit has some good leads to get started taking your data back from Google:


Free software stands in opposition to free data. When software is free data becomes the center of value and therefore is hoarded.

I think you're confusing free software (e.g. Linux) with ad-supported software and services (e.g. Google).

That Google or any other ad-supported product is free is utter bullshit. There is no free lunch. Advertising simply shifts the cost of the "fee lunch" to the price of the advertised products. But with advertising, it's actually much more expensive:

  Cost of thing itself +
  Cost of advertising overhead + 
  Opportunity cost of inferior product +
  Cost of our identities and privacy (as bought and sold to the highest bidders) +
  Social cost of advertising
To me the last item is the most expensive of all.

I'm not confusing anything, although I agree with you about Google. The point is that if source code is always available the value of software goes to zero, and the only value is in information. This leads to the existence of companies like Google, who rely on the data they hoard to make money. It also accounts for the "do consulting" explanation for how to make money out of free software.

Having relevance conceptually and having a vehicle internally that knows how to communicate beyond its sycophantic core audience are two radically different things. The FSF has never been good at messaging; even its best speaker, Eben Moglen, has effectively cut his own path.

The FSFs ardent dogmatism serves a kind of barometric reading of a key segment, but it has little to offer as a "big tent" player in the broader discourse.

I always thought that "free" in the FSF and other names stood as "for free", no payment needed, did not realize it actually stood for freedom. I think it might be that other people also mistake free software with some spam foundation, since the more common association of "free software" comes from spam malware filled websites offering "registry cleaners".

This unfortunate dual meaning of "free" in English is the reason for Richard Stallman saying:

> To understand the concept, you should think of "free" as in "free speech," not as in "free beer".


And this all could have been avoided if they were known as the Software Freedom Foundation...

The FSF has never been very relevant so saying it's more relevant than before is not setting the bar very high. Besides, that's probably what you'd expect to hear from someone bragging they've been supporting it for 30 years.

I appreciate the value that free software brings but what differentiates me from the people at the FSF is that I also realize that free software is not a panacea and that closed source, commercial software is a necessary complement to the existence of a healthy ecosystem.

As I gain experience over time, it begins to appears to me that free software is the only long-term viable option.

I think this is perfectly reasonable, after getting burned for the umpteenth time by proprietary software vendors. (Or vicariously discovering that yes other people have indeed been burned yet again)

On the flip side, I've been burnt by Open software vendors who have decided that their commercial needs mean discontinuing support and funding for their own projects. The Insight frontend for gdb, for example, was fantastic, but has languished since RedHat bought out Cygnus. I can also point to the support policies of many Open operating systems -- I can still get support, patches, and bugfixes for Windows Vista, which was released in 2007, but can no longer get support, patches, and bugfixes for any Linux distribution released in a similar timeframe. While I can see more and more of the market moving towards Open solutions, I can only see FSF-created solutions dragging us down.

It is pretty disingenuous of you to claim that you can't get support, patches or bug fixes for any Linux distro from 2007. You can easily get those things. Just not for free. Just pay from the money you saved by not buying Windows Vista, and attribute some of this to the cost of not upgrading your operating system for six years.

The message of the FSF is not particularly relevant to economics. Free software does not mean "non-commercial," it's free as in freedom. If you want to have control of your own computing then proprietary software is not necessary for any purpose; avoiding it is a must.

> Free software does not mean "non-commercial," it's free as in freedom.

Stallman strongly disagrees with you about that.

No he doesn't.



Please don't use “commercial” as a synonym for “nonfree.” That confuses two entirely different issues.

A program is commercial if it is developed as a business activity. A commercial program can be free or nonfree, depending on its manner of distribution. Likewise, a program developed by a school or an individual can be free or nonfree, depending on its manner of distribution. The two questions—what sort of entity developed the program and what freedom its users have—are independent.

In the first decade of the free software movement, free software packages were almost always noncommercial; the components of the GNU/Linux operating system were developed by individuals or by nonprofit organizations such as the FSF and universities. Later, in the 1990s, free commercial software started to appear.

Free commercial software is a contribution to our community, so we should encourage it. But people who think that “commercial” means “nonfree” will tend to think that the “free commercial” combination is self-contradictory, and dismiss the possibility. Let's be careful not to use the word “commercial” in that way.

You are quoting the FSF's stand on the issue (which I don't have a problem with) but not Stallman's.

Stallman has always believed that software should not be sold, either directly or indirectly. For example, a quick Google search returned this interview [1]:

    > BYTE: A cynic might wonder how you earn your living.
    > Stallman: From consulting. When I do consulting, I always reserve the right to give away what I wrote for the consulting job. Also, I could be making my living by mailing copies of the free software that I wrote and some that other people wrote.
Stallman has been consistent for decades in holding this view.

[1] http://www.gnu.org/gnu/byte-interview.html

What I am quoting was, as is noted at the foot of the page I linked, published in "Free Software, Free Society: The Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman" and I am pretty confident it was in fact written by him. It strikes me as consistent with his other writings.

The interchange you cite doesn't conflict with this view at all (or if you really think it does, please explain how). First, "selling software" is not the sum total of "commercial software", which is what was being discussed. Second it is not "selling software" that Stallman opposes, first order, but restrictions on freedoms of users to the end of selling software. This should be apparent from the fact that Stallman himself (as is noted in the OP here) sold copies of EMACS back when copying was less trivial. It's certainly the case that triviality of mass copying plus the FSF's "freedom 2" means that it is practically difficult to sell anything but the first copy (because people can simply get a copy elsewhere) but I'd argue that is precisely what Stallman is doing when consulting: selling that first copy.

>Stallman has always believed that software should not be sold, either directly or indirectly

I'm not sure how you drew that conclusion from that statement. Nothing in there says that.

Actually, I was at a lecture by RMS where he said "if someone wants to pay Eur 30K for your work, by all means, charge them Eur 30K".

Often it's not practical to charge for the software itself, because people know they can typically download it for free (as in beer) . In that case, you should charge for consulting. (Which is what RMS does)

> Stallman has always believed that software should not be sold

There is very little in this world any more completely and clearly false as that statement. Stallman has himself sold software and advocates that others do so too, in fact selling software is one of the freedoms he advocates that must be protected!

Sorry, you're just misinformed about this: http://www.gnu.org/gnu/thegnuproject.html

Seemingly most relevant bit:

"Since “free” refers to freedom, not to price, there is no contradiction between selling copies and free software. In fact, the freedom to sell copies is crucial: collections of free software sold on CD-ROMs are important for the community, and selling them is an important way to raise funds for free software development. Therefore, a program which people are not free to include on these collections is not free software."

I think the intent was to say that the FSF message is relevant, i.e. the message about software freedom. And that message has been very relevant regardless of how many people are open to it.

That is indeed different than claiming the FSF's relevance, but I think that was the intention.

Agreed, so take the message and ignore the organization that promotes it, especially when that organization has such a track record of being led by people who see the world as black and white and who are not open to an ounce of compromise about their views.

> I also realize that free software is not a panacea and that closed source, commercial software is a necessary complement to the existence of a healthy ecosystem.

Necessary? Is that just because it pays salaries?

The author's own "wishlist" and bullet points are very reasonable for almost any of us to do. In such an environment, one has the freedom without sacrificing too much convenience. Esp. the cloud backup using encrypted archives on periodic basis.

We need a truly open source mobile operating system.

"We need a truly open source mobile operating system."

We have one - Firefox OS from Mozilla: http://www.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/os/

Because of over dependence on Google money, Firefox are essentially an arm of Google at this point. I've lost trust in them. The first thing a fresh install of Forefox does is ping Google.

Don't mistrust Mozilla because of their Google relations. Such conflicts of interest are complex, but this is a case where things are quite complex. It may be less than ideal, but Mozilla is still overwhelmingly positive.

They'd get money from Bing [1] if Google dropped the contract in 2014. Firefox sell a commodity product - their default search engine - so have no need to be blackmailed by their customer.

[1] e.g. see "Firefox with Bing" move last time renewal came up: https://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9221226/Mozilla_Micr...

It would be nice if they had an option during install to pick your search engine. Google, yahoo, bing, duckduck.

If Firefox is supposed to be Google's serf, why aren't they supporting NaCl and Dart?

So? I'm sure ~90% of all non-darknet sites in the world ping Google in one way or another. Do you distrust all sites? Do you not store a password on any of them?

Look at Replicant OS, the GNU foundation's effort to put a free Android system.

From their wiki, Replicant is really bare-bones at the moment: forget 3D or having your camera work and it will probably need proprietary drivers for the foreseeable future. Also, very few models are supported right now, fewer than Cyanogenmod on which it is based on.

How is it better than regular android?

It removes proprietary parts of the system.

So it's worse, but it confirms to FSF's philosophy.


In the mobile space, a race to bottom of the price point along with operating in China is making it increasingly hard for hardware companies to maintain their IP. Life sucks when your team's design has been stolen.

Let me guess-- you're going to "no true scotsman" all the actual existing open source mobile operating systems.

Which ones? Afaik, every 'open source' mobile operating system requires proprietary software to actually function.

Has there ever been a Free Hardware Foundation or an effort in this direction ?

There are some efforts (e.g. opencores), but as discussed here: http://electronics.stackexchange.com/questions/61873/why-is-... , and the famous Arduino is "open".

The "freedom to redistribute copies" and "freedom to modify" aspects of Free software really don't translate well to hardware. There is work and cost associated with copying a board, and much more associated with copying an ASIC (modified or otherwise). It's simply not going to be within the reach of the average user in the forseeable future.

Another factor is rapid obsolescence. Some of the open UNIX software is thirty years old; GCC is about 25 years old. Open hardware will generally have a shorter time before it starts looking horribly obsolete. This is especially true of all the things that people really want to be open: processors, graphics hardware, wireless interfaces.

(You could have an open replacement for e.g. the 555 or LM741, which would be more timeless, but what would be the point? How would it differ materially from the current ones?)

There is certainly scope for "community" hardware development, but that depends on having a stable, sensible community that can agree what it wants and is willing to pay for. Again, requires a lot of work.

I guess we'll have to wait for not too expensive, electricity efficient and fast FPGAs.

By the nature of their technology, any FPGA will always be more expensive and energy hungry than the inflexible ASIC counterpart. No silver bullet.

What's more likely is interesting SoCs with partially reconfigurable analog blocks and accessible graphics co-processors.

I understand that the flexibility of FPGA has a great cost, but with them we might have a better chance to ensure what the processor is actually doing.

I like your idea.

The top comments here are well correlated to the current state of privacy in the US :)

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