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Free Software and two forms of liberty

Somehow, I missed a BBC Radio 4 series on A History of Ideas, both when it originally aired (2014-15) and then when it was repeated a couple of years ago. The ‘history of ideas’ is, of course, another name for the study of Philosophy, the subject of my first degree, and something which remains a lifelong interest of mine.

Starting with the beginning of the BBC series, I’ve begun listening to a philosopher, neuropsychologist, theologian, and lawyer debate what it means to be ‘free’.


There are fundamentally two types of freedom, as defined by great thinkers: freedom from and freedom to. Some people frame this as ‘negative’ liberty (i.e. freedom from) and ‘positive’ liberty (i.e. freedom to).

In general, I would say that it’s negative liberty that most of us mean when we talk about freedom. That’s the freedom from coercion, so that you can do what you like with your time, your body, or your possessions. This is different to positive liberty, which can be thought of as the freedom to participate in society on your own terms.


The question of technology is an interesting one to consider here, as I’ve always understood negative liberty to be the main driver behind the Free Software movement:

Free software (or libre software) is computer software distributed under terms that allow users to run the software for any purpose as well as to study, change, and distribute it and any adapted versions. Free software is a matter of liberty, not price: all users are legally free to do what they want with their copies of a free software (including profiting from them) regardless of how much is paid to obtain the program. Computer programs are deemed “free” if they give end-users (not just the developer) ultimate control over the software and, subsequently, over their devices.

Wikipedia

Interestingly, although the Four Freedoms talk about ‘freedom to‘ they’re actually, to my mind at least, all couched in terms of negative liberty. For example, the first of these is “The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose”. This could perhaps be more accurately be rendered: “The freedom from being prevented from running the program as you wish, for any purpose.”

In short, we in the Free Software community often miss the importance of positive liberty. While negative liberty frees us from the constraints of others, positive liberty allows us to act upon our free will, something that’s (sadly) often still a lot easier with well-designed proprietary services.


Ben Werdmuller, who has spent his career trying to push forward easy-to-use Free Software, said recently:

The only real way to avoid tracking and surveillance is to host things yourself, but that’s not an option because hosting things yourself is still too hard for most people and it’s easy to compromise on security. We need the iPhone of self-hosting.

Twitter

In other words, when it comes to technology, most people have the freedom to do things but not the freedom from some of consequences of using proprietary services. For example, it’s easy to express a controversial political opinion using Facebook, but not to avoid being tracked and surveilled on that platform.

I think we’re at a bit of an inflection point. There are those of us who have enough technical skills to be able to self-host and spin up a VPS to run Free Software. We can experiment and express ourselves however we wish. And then, sadly, there’s everyone else.

We Free Software enthusiasts value our negative liberty and use it to promote our positive liberty. Less technical people have only the amount of positive liberty allowed by proprietary services under capitalism. I believe we need to focus on enabling that positive liberty with Free Software under socialism, even if that means compromising a bit of negative liberty.


This post is Day 77 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at 100daystooffload.com.

New blog: Doug, uncensored

TL;DR: Head to uncensored.dougbelshaw.com or bit.ly/doug-uncensored for my new blog about freedom and decentralised technologies.


One of the great things about the internet, and one of the things I think we’re losing is the ability to experiment. I like to experiment with my technologies, my identity, and my belief systems. This flies in the face of services like Facebook that insist on a single ‘real’ identity while slowly deskill their users.

I’ve been messing about with ZeroNet, which is something I’ve mentioned before, and which gets close to something I’ve wanted now for quite some time: an ‘untakedownable’ website. Whether it’s DDoS attacks, DNS censorship, or malicious code injection, I want a platform that, no matter what I choose to say, will stay up.

To access sites via ZeroNet, you have to be running the ZeroNet service. By default, you view a clone of the site you want to visit on your own machine, accessed in the web browser. That means it’s fast. When the site creator updates the site/blog/wiki/whatever, that’s then sent to peers to distribute. It’s all lightning-quick, and built on Bittorrent technlogy and Bitcoin cryptography.

The trouble, of course, comes when someone who isn’t yet running ZeroNet wants to visit a site. Thankfully, there’s a way around that using a ‘proxy’ or bridge. This is ZeroNet running on a public server for everyone to use. There’s several of these, but I’ve set up my own using this guide.

I encourage you to download and experiment with ZeroNet but, even if you don’t, please check out my new blog. You can access it via uncensored.dougbelshaw.com or bit.ly/doug-uncensored — the rather long and unwieldy actual IP address of the server running the public-facing copy is 165.227.167.16/1PsNi4TAkn6vtKA6n1Se9y7gmVjF4GU3uF.

Finally, if you’re thinking, “What is this?! It’ll never catch on…” then I’d like to remind  you about technologies that people didn’t ‘get’ at first (e.g. Twitter in 2007) as well as that famous Wayne Gretszky quotation, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been”.

Choose your silo (or, Why are we partying like it’s 1999?)

Depending on when you first got online, images like this that adorned the bottom of web pages 15 years ago may or may not be familiar to you:

Best viewed with IE / Netscape

To me, it’s a symptom of what happens in unregulated emerging markets with an inexperienced audience. Companies attempt to provide shareholder value by aggressively adding users and making the cost of switching to a competitor high. They do this through incompatibility with alternative products. It’s an example of attempted ‘vendor lock-in’ and, at the end of the day, is all about enclosing things for profit.

It’s nothing new. The Agricultural Revolution in England 250 years ago provides another example. Here, common land was literally ‘enclosed’ for private profit. The people on the land protested, but rapacious capitalists forced legislation through by way of ties with the government. In unfettered Capitalism, public goods are sacrificed to the sword of private profit. The trouble is that we’re see this in the digital world again and again. It’s sad to see the lack of collective awareness.

In software development, a ‘feature’ is something that is meant to be there and is (usually) good for users. The opposite of that – something that’s bad for users – is a ‘bug’. For some reason we tend to treat a ‘bug’ of a the wider ecosystem as a ‘feature’. For example, this (despite how shiny your chosen silo might be) is not the mark of a mature and healthy marketplace:

App download icons

Forcibly erecting a wall to make apps inoperable provides temporary profit, but is not in the best interests of users. Even on a basic, financial level, re-purchasing apps because you switch device is frustrating. But, more importantly, it means that users have to make forced decisions before they even start using the apps for work or pleasure. As vendors look towards tighter integration between hardware and software for competitive advantage, software decisions are increasingly also hardware decisions. Am I going to purchase an iPhone so I can access this set of apps, or an Android device, to access a different set?

Often, decisions around software are made on behalf of users. For example by schools attended by students, businesses worked at by employees, or even by family members who ‘know more about technology’. The problem here is that the person making the decision has little option but to hitch their wagon to the roadmap of a company pursuing shareholder value. That company is then only likely to consider interoperability as a last resort.

Thankfully, the world is not simply full of companies trying to make money. There’s also non-profits and people innovating on behalf of users. I’m a paid contributor to the Mozilla project, but I also used the Firefox web browser when it was still called ‘Phoenix’. Open standards and interoperability matter. If you haven’t yet explored Firefox OS then I would encourage you to do so. There’s also, amongst others, Jolla’s Sailfish-powered smartphones, or Canonical’s upcoming mobile Ubuntu devices. What’s different about these mobile operating systems is that they’re putting users first; not just in the sense of creating a delightful user experience, but also in terms of giving users freedom and choice.

Let’s learn from our mistakes. As users, let’s not be seduced by ‘free’ as in ‘free beer’ but actively fight for ‘free’ as in ‘liberty’. Given the amount of time we spend on mobile devices, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that part of the future of human flourishing depends upon it.

Image CC BY-NC-SA .keeva999

5 reasons I’m using less and less Open Source stuff.

I’m not attempting to get into a flame war with this post. It’s a personal reflection and more of a statement than an argument. Please comment appropriately! 🙂

In a perfect world, everything I use would be an Open Source product and have been produced using Open principles and philosophies. I’ve been part of a Becta-funded project into the use of Open Source Software (OSS) in schools, spent time with Linux as my sole operating system, and have given away (to anyone who’d have them) CDs and DVDs containing OSS.

But, without consciously aiming to do so, I’ve found myself using less and less Open Source stuff over the last year or so.  Why? There’s several reasons.

1. Standards are to innovate upon

The reason that we have ‘standards’ in any area of life is to ensure compliance. But that isn’t meant to limit creativity and innovation, but to serve as a basis upon which it can flourish. Whilst there’s a lot of wonderful work going on in the OSS arena, there’s also a lot of people and projects engaging in catch-up.

2. Willingness to pay for software

When I was younger I had no or very little money. I’m far from rich now, but can nevertheless afford to pay for software that improves my productivity and/or outputs. This means that I’m using iWork instead of OpenOffice.org, for example.

3. Ecosystems and things ‘just working’

I was sorely tempted to purchase an Android-powered mobile phone recently. The main reason I didn’t? It had nothing to do with the specifications of the phone I had in mind. It was to do with access to the iTunes store. I listen to a lot of podcasts but, since moving completely to Spotify for my music, no longer sync my iPhone at all. Whilst I would be able to use software such as DoubleTwist to get content onto an Android-powered phone, it would mean syncing again and no access on-the-move. That, as they say, was a dealbreaker for me.

The other thing about tightly-controlled ecosystems is that, for all the whinging about control, DRM and monopolies they provide a seamless, enjoyable and fairly risk-free experience to the end user. I know, for example, that I’m going to get well-made app in the iPhone app store, and that books are going to be formatted correctly when using the Amazon Kindle store.

Finally, ecosystems mean that things ‘just work’. I continue to use Google’s online offerings because they all work together so well. I can get data in and data out easily, and transfer information between applications quickly. Taking any longer than necessary to do tasks isn’t high on my list of desirable features for any technology with a thesis to write…

4. Too much choice

The mantra of the ‘noughties’, if it had one, would have been ‘choice, choice, choice’. We were given a plethora of television channels, luxury goods and even hospitals to choose from. More choice, it was argued, led to higher standards.

However, the problem with too much choice is that you become paralysed in the process of decision-making. You need some kind of kind or heuristic to apply to the situation. Think about purchasing a laptop. There are so many makes, types, shapes and colours that it would take a great deal of time even to whittle it down to three choices.

The same goes with software. Once I’ve found a reputable and high-quality source of hardware or software, I’m likely to stick with that source unless something disastrous happens. So who do I look for when I’m making hardware purchases? Apple and Sony. Where do I look first for my online apps and software? Google.

5. Free is not OSS

I still use a lot of free software. But much of it is not OSS. There are new models evolving where the end product is made available either temporarily or permanently to users for free. (think of ‘freemium’ models, sponsored apps and the like!)

The fact that it is (usually) free is, like it or not, the biggest selling point of OSS. Whilst I and others completely buy into the philosoph(ies) behind it, with the increasing availability of free (as in beer) software undermines the appeal of OSS.

Conclusion

I am not advocating that people ignore OSS in favour of proprietary products. Far from it. What I am pointing out here is that the landscape is changing and OSS advocates need to change their approach. My recommendations:

  • Much more emphasis placed on the ‘four freedoms’
  • The building of an OSS ecosystem
  • An app store for OSS (seriously)

What do YOU think? Have you been using less or more OSS recently? Why? :-p

Beyond Creative Commons: uncopyright.

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Background

Jonathan Lethem (via Harold Jarche):

Copyright is a “right” in no absolute sense; it is a government-granted monopoly on the use of creative results. So let’s try calling it that—not a right but a monopoly on use, a “usemonopoly”—and then consider how the rapacious expansion of monopoly rights has always been counter to the public interest…

Seth Godin:

So, how to protect your ideas in a world where ideas spread?

Don’t.

Instead, spread them. Build a reputation as someone who creates great ideas, sometimes on demand. Or as someone who can manipulate or build on your ideas better than a copycat can. Or use your ideas to earn a permission asset so you can build a relationship with people who are interested. Focus on being the best tailor with the sharpest scissors, not the litigant who sues any tailor who deigns to use a pair of scissors.

Leo Babauta:

This blog is Uncopyrighted. Its author, Leo Babauta, has released all claims on copyright and has put all the content of this blog into the public domain.

No permission is needed to copy, distribute, or modify the content of this site. Credit is appreciated but not required.

Terms and Conditions for Copying, Distribution and Modification

0. Do whatever you like.

Motivation

Be the change you want to see in the world (Gandhi)

Response

I’m here to change things. Do what you like with my stuff. It would be nice if you referenced where you get your ideas/resources from, but no longer necessary. From now on, my stuff is uncopyrighted.

CC BY laihiu

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