This is an early draft. So far, it only represents my personal opinion. This has just been submitted to the FSFLA board and observers from other FSFs, as well as to

Fighting Digital Slavery

Alexandre Oliva

Free Software Install Fests are a great way to spread the word on Free Software and to set people Free, or at least Freer. If a user decides to replace a non-Free operating system with a Free one, but finds out that she needs some non-Free Software to enable her to stop using the non-Free operating system, she will still be taking a step towards freedom, and that's good for the user. However, it may be harmful to the community.

As of a couple of centuries ago, all over the Americas, it was lawful to take away the freedom of human beings who hadn't committed any crimes. Wars took place in which those who took advantage of enslaved workforces defended their practices against those who found it unethical and immoral. Nowadays, such practices are not only immoral and unethical, but also illegal. Right?

As it turns out, in the information age, controlling and denying access to information is the mechanism found by the digital enslavers to hold everyone else captive. We are denied access to source code, to file format and hardware specifications, and even to cryptographic keys we could use to open some locks.

And, since we are born free, the only reason they succeed in enslaving us is because some of us let them. It's because some of us don't know to value our freedom, and give it up, often for short-term personal advantage, harming all of our community. Given that one's freedom goes as far as other's freedom starts, making a decision that harms the community (not to mention one's own freedom, in the long run) exceeds the scope of one's own freedom of choice.

Our only hope of keeping our freedom is that as many people as possible realize that digital slavery is immoral and unethical, and stand up for freedom just like earlier slavery opponents did.

This is why we're so concerned when people who spread Free Software do so in a way that does not spread this moral message, and that sometimes actually corrupts it.

Of course helping more people get closer to freedom is a good thing, but if they are offered freedom but don't learn to value the freedom, or if they get an impression that compromising their freedoms can be a good thing, they are more likely to give up their freedoms again.

In the long run, it is more important that people take the step towards freedom when they understand that taking this step is the right thing to do, than that they take this step to grow our user base. It is more important that people learn to stand up for freedom, even if they decide to make small compromises as they walk towards freedom, than compromising the user's freedom and our moral message for the sake of winning one more user.

If the user isn't properly educated, odds are that wrong decisions will follow, and they can be as bad as the user going back to non-Free Software, decided to never try Free Software again. This is why our main priority is not growing the user base, but growing the moral understanding of freedom. If we succeed at the latter, the former will follow naturally, and it will be much stronger.

Proof that this is the right strategy is that we often find Free Software advocates promoting distributions that contain non-Free Software, often without even realizing it. This is not about patent-encumbered software: patents don't make Software non-Free, it's the imposition of restrictions by the patent holder, and the acceptance of such restrictions by others, that does.

It's about non-Free Software, that many distributors often include along with Free Software in their distributions so as to make them more "friendly", as if chains and locks could possibly be friendly. There are only a few GNU/Linux distributions that are known to not contain any non-Free Software whatsoever.

Notwithstanding that there may be other 100% Free Software distributions that are not listed there, most others include non-Free Software that ranges from almost-Free Software (licenses that are not Free Software licenses by accident) to blatantly non-Free Software that is installed without even informing the user about it.

If even experienced Free Software users can be fooled by such distributions, what are the odds that new users will get the right message when offered such software? If they don't learn to value their freedom (and the best way to learn is by example), how likely is it that they deviate from the Stockholm syndrome and find the will to turn against those who hold them captive and to demand their freedom? (in Portuguese) (in Spanish)

It would be far more enlightening for users if they experienced the inconvenience of being denied information needed to use their computer in freedom, and demanded such information from the hardware and software vendors. They might end up temporarily settling for non-Free drivers or firmware, but they would understand that they're not Free, that they're held hostages and that we're all being inconvenienced. And this would guide them next time they go shopping for computers or parts.

This is why we're so disappointed when Free Software Install Fests are willing to install non-Free Software for participants, and that some organizers will actually fight for the "right" to promote non-Free Software, as if it were more important to spread (compromised) freedom than to educate users such that they will seek freedom themselves.

This is why FSFLA cannot endorse events that endorse non-Free Software: it undermines our most important message. We look forward to being able to endorse and support more Free Software Install Fests and other events, and we'll be happy to take part in informing organizers and participants as to what we believe needs to be done to ensure that, in the long term, the best outcome for our community's freedom is achieved.

Copyright 2007 Alexandre Oliva

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