Denouncing vs. Advocating: In Defense of the Occasional Denouncement

Sunday 11 October 2009 by Bradley M. Kuhn

For the last decade, I've regularly seen complaints when we harder-core software freedom advocates spend some time criticizing proprietary software in addition to our normal work preserving, protecting and promoting software freedom. While I think entire campaigns focused on criticism are warranted in only extreme cases, I do believe that denouncement of certain threatening proprietary technologies is a necessary part of the software freedom movement, when done sparingly.

Denouncements are, of course, negative, and in general, negative tactics are never as valuable as positive ones. Negative campaigns alienate some people, and it's always better to talk about the advantages of software freedom than focus on the negative of proprietary software.

The place where negative campaigns that denounce are simply necessary, in my view, is when the practice either (a) will somehow completely impeded the creation of FLOSS or (b) has become, or is becoming, widespread among people who are otherwise supportive of software freedom.

I can think quickly of two historical examples of the first type: UCITA and DRM. UCITA was a State/Commonwealth-level law in the USA that was proposed to make local laws more consistent regarding software distribution. Because the implications were so bad for software freedom (details of which are beyond scope of this post but can be learned at the link), and because it was so unlikely that we could get the UCITA drafts changed, it was necessary to publicly denounce the law and hope that it didn't pass. (Fortunately, it only ever passed in my home state of Maryland and in Virginia. I am still, probably pointlessly, careful never to distribute software when I visit my hometown. :)

DRM, for its part, posed an even greater threat to software freedom because its widespread adoption would require proprietarization of all software that touched any television, movie, music, or book media. There was also a concerted widespread pro-DRM campaign from USA corporations. Therefore, grassroots campaigns denouncing DRM are extremely necessary even despite that they are primarily negative in operation.

The second common need for denouncement when use of a proprietary software package has become acceptable in the software freedom community. The most common examples are usually specific proprietary software programs that have become (or seem about to become) “all but standard” part of the toolset for Free Software developers and advocates.

Historically, this category included Java, and that's why there were anti-Java campaigns in the Free Software community that ran concurrently with Free Software Java development efforts. The need for the former is now gone, of course, because the latter efforts were so successful and we have a fully FaiF Java system. Similarly, denouncement of Bitkeeper was historically necessary, but is also now moot because of the advent and widespread popularity of Mercurial, Git, and Bazaar.

Today, there are still a few proprietary programs that quickly rose to ranks of “must install on my GNU/Linux system” for all but the hardest-core Free Software advocates. The key examples are Adobe Flash and Skype. Indeed, much to my chagrin, nearly all of my co-workers at SFLC insist on using Adobe Flash, and nearly every Free Software developer I meet at conferences uses it too. And, despite excellent VoIP technology available as Free Software, Skype has sadly become widely used in our community as well.

When a proprietary system becomes as pervasive in our community as these have (or looks like it might), it's absolutely time for denouncement. It's often very easy to forget that we're relying more and more heavily on proprietary software. When a proprietary system effectively becomes the “default” for use on software freedom systems, it means fewer people will be inspired to write a replacement. (BTW, contribute to Gnash!) It means that Free Software advocates will, in direct contradiction of their primary mission, start to advocate that users install that proprietary software, because it seems to make the FaiF platform “more useful”.

Hopefully, by now, most of us in the software freedom community agree that proprietary software is a long term trap that we want to avoid. However, in the short term, there is always some new shiny thing. Something that appeals to our prurient desire for software that “does something cool”. Something that just seems so convenient that we convince ourselves we cannot live without it, so we install it. Over time, short term becomes the long term, and suddenly we have gaping holes in the Free Software infrastructure that only the very few notice because the rest just install the proprietary thing. For example, how many of us bother to install Linux Libre, even long enough to at least know which of our hardware components needs proprietary software? Even I have to admit I don't do this, and probably should.

An old adage of software development is that software is always better if the developers of it actually have to use the thing from day to day. If we agree that our goal is ultimately convincing everyone to run only Free Software (and for that Free Software to fit their needs), then we have to trailblaze by avoiding running proprietary software ourselves. If you do run proprietary software, I hope you won't celebrate the fact or encourage others to do so. Skype is particularly insidious here, because it's a community application. Encouraging people to call you on Skype is the same as emailing someone a Microsoft Word document: it's encouraging someone to install a proprietary application just to work with you.

Finally, I think the only answer to the FLOSS community celebrating the arrival of some new proprietary program for GNU/Linux is to denounce it, as a counterbalance to the fervor that such an announcement causes. My podcast co-host Karen often calls me the canary in the software coalmine because I am usually the first to notice something that is bad for the advancement of software freedom before anyone else does. In playing this role, I often end up denouncing a few things here and there, although I can still count on my two hands the times I've done so. I agree that advocacy should be the norm, but the occasional denouncement is also a necessary part of the picture.

(Note: this blog is part of an ongoing public discussion of a software program that is not too popular yet, but was heralded widely as a win for Free Software in the USA. I didn't mention it by name mainly because I don't want to give it more press than it's already gotten, as it is one of this programs that is becoming a standard GNU/Linux user application (at least in the USA), but hasn't yet risen to the level of ubiquity of the other examples I give above. Here's to hoping that it doesn't.)

Posted on Sunday 11 October 2009 at 11:35 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization.

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