Until we no longer need lists

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 30, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Joshua Gay at the Free Software Foundation has asked me if I would be interested in writing about the fact that ThinkPenguin's Penguin Wireless N USB Adapter for GNU / Linux  has earned the FSF's Respects Your Freedom certification. I'm happy to provide the signal boost, but sad to reflect that such announcements are still necessary in 2013.

For those who have never heard of it, the Respect Your Freedom program is a list of hardware that does not use so-called Digital Rights Management or proprietary firmware -- in other words, of hardware that is free-licensed in every sense of the word. It doesn't restrict how the hardware can be used, and doesn't spy unasked on how it is used. As the title of the program reflects the fact that such software gives users the same rights in a piece of hardware than they would have in any other consumer item.

I am heartened by the fact that some manufacturers find this certification worth having. If nothing else, it saves people like me search time on the Internet. But, while ThinkPenguin's CEO Christopher Waid and the FSF's executive director John Sullivan rightly praise the program, I can't help being sobered by another glaring fact:

The TPE-N150USB (to give the adapter its model number) is only the second piece of hardware to be certified in the program. The first is the LulzBot AO-101 3-D printer, which is still very much a niche product.
Why, I immediately wonder, isn't the list longer?

A habit or a goal?
There are, of course, many answers. To start with, the Respects Your Freedom program is only six months old. Its main publicity has been the establishment of the program and logo.

Just as importantly, this is only one program among many that the FSF tries to run with a staff of fourteen and assorted volunteers. Proper certification takes time, and even if hardware manufacturers were deluging the FSF with requests for certification, and the FSF had a dedicated email address for leads from users, the list of certified hardware could hardly be expected to be very long after half a year. So the shortness of the list is nobody's fault.
But two? I'm afraid that suggests to me that the program is little known and even less regarded. Here we are, twenty-eight years after the founding of the FSF, and developing a completely free system is apparently not a priority even for many involved with free and open source software (FOSS).

In fact, whenever the suggestion of that goal is brought up on mailing lists and social meetups, people demur. FOSS doesn't have a goal, one prominent developer told me recently. Others insist that FOSS is just an approach to development, or a way of life, or an attitude.
Any association of people will find its own reasons for perpetuating itself. I'm well aware of that. But if the goal of FOSS is not to make a completely free computer system available, then what is the point? Proprietary solutions may often be lower quality, but from their popularity, they are apparently good enough for most people.

But, more to the point, if FOSS is just a philosophy or a habit, that means that people will settle for something far less than a free system. Users will download Adobe Acrobat and Flash in the name of convenience. The makers of distributions will include proprietary firmware blobs and drivers for the same reason. People will forget that such things should be no more than temporary expediences if they are used at all.

They may be running a system that is more than 90% free, but they won't care about finishing that last 10%. Many will not even be aware of the need to complete that last 10%, because the systems they have are technically good enough. That such hybrid systems may also be lacking in a moral or political sense will hardly ever be mentioned.
Under such circumstances, I can't help feeling ambiguous about lists. On the one hand, they can be useful to those of us who want to run as free a system as possible. But, on the other hand, the lists also make me angry, because they show how much FOSS as a whole has lost direction and motivation, and the difficulty of finishing that last 10% of the necessary effort.

Living by the lists
The Respects Your Freedom list is too short to be useful now. But I am willing to publicize it because it could grow into a list that could help me build my next workstation or choose a laptop or tablet.

Yet at the same time, the news of ThinkPenguin's wireless adapter makes me realize how long I have been relying on such lists of hardware, first as an OS/2 user looking for an Anything But Microsoft alternative, and for the last fourteen years as a free software advocate and user.

Much has improved in the last decade, but, even today, I am likely to turn to a database like The Linux Foundation's OpenPrinting before I purchase.

Such consultations are not that different from being a responsible consumer of any products. But there is one important difference: not consulting such a list can mean can mean I end up with what OpenPrinting describes as a "paperweight" rather than a functional piece of hardware. At the very least, buying a paperweight means wasting time looking for a workaround or a refund, or else considering if I should compromise and use proprietary drivers.

I long ago became used to taking such extra efforts, because the results are important to me. But part of me also rages that I shouldn't need such efforts at all.

I can celebrate that the original announcement is, as Waid says, "one step closer" to the goal of a free system, even if it's a small one. But even when I use a page like that provided by Respects Your Freedom, I can't help anticipating the time when we no longer need such lists, and wondering if it will ever come.

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