Bad-mouthing the Free Software Foundation

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 22, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Over the past year or so, I've noticed a disturbing trend. Whenever the Free Software Foundation (FSF) posts anything on any subject, pundits leap to criticize it. The FSF is too negative, people like Brian Proffitt say. It's too ineffectual, people like Joe "Zonker"' Brockmeier say [See Correction in comments]. Just how the FSF might communicate effectively, they don't explain, but I get the strong impression that what these attacks really want is to let everyone know that the FSF is wrong.

Not that the FSF is above criticism. Although I'm probably more supportive of the FSF than either Proffitt or Brockmeier, I've been known to criticize it myself.

Nor can I deny that FSF founder Richard Stallman, for all his accomplishments, can be a problematic representative of the free software cause because of his dogmatic attitude and the the slow development of his thought. At their worst, his essays read like a collection of macros, with the identical content inserted automatically wherever it seems vaguely appropriate.

What disturbs me is not the fact of the criticism, but how it is made. For one thing, it seems unrealistic. It's all very well for Proffitt to say, as he did on Google+, that "I would hope that they would advocate the benefits of free software (of which there are many) without feeling the need to tear down everything else. Again."

But how, in practice, is the FSF supposed to approach subjects like Android in a positive light? While Stallman concedes that "the Android phones of today are considerably less bad than Apple or Windows smartphones," Android obviously isn't free software, although many people I talk to have the vague belief that it is.

Obviously, a debunking is in order, but by definition a debunking is negative. In fact, how is the FSF supposed to discuss the matter at all, especially when any free software alternative to Android is so small and so unknown that any attempt to advocate it would automatically discredit itself?

Publicity on a small budget

Like most non-profits, the FSF scrambles to promote its causes on a very limited budget. Constantly, it spreads itself too thin -- any one of the causes listed on the FSF campaign page would need tens of millions of dollars, let alone all of them together.

With almost no budget, the FSF's best chance to have its causes noticed is to receive free publicity. But the trouble is, talking about the benefits of its causes isn't going to receive the attention of most journalists. Except on rare occasions when a major piece of software like Java announces the release of its code, explanations of why free software is beneficial aren't going to be covered. Free software in the abstract is going to be rejected as a news topic most of the time on the grounds that it isn't newsworthy, especially since many readers remain unaware of it.

However, a statement from any source about a popular piece of technology like Android or the Apples app store just might get picked up, because an attack is always news. And in the case of free software, let's face it: there is always much more to attack than to praise. While free software may have an important niche in computer technology today, it's still only a niche. It's not mainstream.

Under these circumstances, an attack is the FSF's best chance to publicize its beliefs and causes. And if its explanations about free software sound repetitive to those of us within the free and open source software community -- well, we aren't the target audience. The FSF is simply publicizing its causes the best it can given its limited resources.

A double-bind for the audience

Since they work within the computer press, the pundits who complain about the FSF's approach probably have some awareness of the basic facts of getting publicity. So why do they hold the FSF to impossible standards, on the one hand suggesting that the FSF practice advocacy and on the other hand finding only techniques that make for ineffective advocacy acceptable?

As double-bind theory suggests, such impossible demands are not just about the issues being discussed. Rather, they are an attempt at coercion and control -- not of the FSF, of course, but of readers.

Reading Proffitt's discussions of the FSF, I can't help getting the impression that he doesn't like the FSF very much (Note: in literary circles, comments like this are known as understatement). The headline alone, describing Stallman's Android comments as "more partisanship" suggests that, although Proffitt may not be responsible for that.

But he is responsible for starting with the sarcastic comment that, "Richard Stallman took time out of his busy schedule to answer the burning question of whether Android is free software" and for asides like Stallman is "hell-bent on making sure everyone knows right down to their genetic code that Android is not free software." To my ear, this is not the language of anyone who is remotely interested in being fair or helpful.

Judging from his comments, the main contention between Proffitt and the FSF is that he identifies as an open source rather than a free software advocate. Picking up on Stallman's over-simplified attack on open source, Proffitt responds in kind.

He cannot, of course, control what the FSF does. But by framing the FSF and its actions within the structure of a double-bind, he can skew perception of the FSF so that it is discredited in reader's minds no matter what it does. If the FSF continues to look for publicity in the way it has always done, then it is too negative and should be ignored. But if it restricts itself to happy news, then it becomes ineffectual. Either way, the FSF becomes less influential.

Much the same analysis holds true for any of the pundits' attacks on the FSF -- although how aware any of them are of what they are doing is uncertain, and probably varies. But the message I take away from these attacks is not that the FSF can be faulted, but merely that the writers dislike the FSF.

Like any organization -- especially one that has lasted over twenty-five years -- the FSF can always do with some healthy criticism. But I think that we can do better than petty expressions of petulance.


  • FSF is faulty in more ways than one

    Many people, including myself, question the FSF's integrity and with good reason:

    The FSF promotes "free as in free to modify.. not free as in price" when in fact the opposite is true.
    The FSF demands free as in price and not free as in choice. No one is free to do what they want with the FSF's codebase. A codebase incidently that the FSF appropriated the copyrights of from others while stripping those others of any right at all to their own work under the guide of "easing rights management".

    The FSF says it promotes users freedoms yet users are not free to do what they want with the sottware
    the FSF provides. In fact, like "free as in choice but not price", the opposite is true.

    The FSF says doing what you want with another's property is a "right". Again, as most sound minded people know, the opposite is true. Not only does one usually respect the wishes of others concerning their own property there are laws as well as universal truths and 'Teachings' concerning so doing (which I, contrary to the FSF, look and would suggest people look to abide in).

    The FSF maintains that their software is in fact free as in price since users "don't pay for it". Again the opposite is true. Users do pay for it in some way shape or form. Who pays how and how much to who, exactly, is the question.

    The FSF, faulty in more ways than one.

  • better be small but honest

    One of the reasons the fsf, though with limiuted budget, is popular is that it's a "purist" free software foundation, if you were to support software like android, you would need a much bigger budget to get known, because you would not have the support of free software "purists", as you're not sponsoring real free software.

    this said, I think "getting the user towards a freer system step by step" because the free stuff is not available, like this article suggests, is a BAD idea. Even if you get more audience you're advocating something else, NOT free software, you are very likely to be promoting a soon-to-be monopolist even worse than the current propertary software companies, in practice your work maybe more effective but it's useless, if not harmful. I do my job, I installed ubuntu (ok it's not debian or such but it IS free) on my windows/apple addict friend's computer (removing windows, obviously blunk and I'm happy with that, I wouldn't feel as satisfied if I had converted all windows computer into android, cause android is a "suspicious entity" to say the least.

    Honestly I feel bad when I see fsf corporate patronage thing, they raise funds like that but at a heavy moral price, but still the FOSS stuff is a good cause, and in any case there's the big warrancy that if their project isn't free enough one can always take it as it was and start a new one (provided there are no good forks already). if you ask me, to get the logo on the fsf "friends" page trademarks sould be really clean/handed or pay millions not tens of thausands of dollars... but in any case I did not do as big a job as fsf so I won't complain about the method blunk

    Now getting more specific, I dislike the fsf being on good terms with google, I see google as one of the greatest threats to internet democracy ever, just think about it, 90% of the info on the net gets its visibility primarily from google, google puts ads and promotes what it wants (just think of chrome's rising, it was much faster than firefoxs' although firefox's only real competitor was the never-working internet explorer, while there's no big difference between chrome and firefox, besides, chrome os is one step beyond "the big brother is watching you" it's more like "google is thinking in your stead". that's why I am so in favor of seeks ( which seems to be the only will-be real alternative to big'n bad search engines like google.
  • Hurd

    If FSF cared about effective use of a limited budget, they would have stopped GNU/Hurd years ago. But GNU/Hurd demonstrates quite clearly that FSF is a sock puppet of RMS with his personal hang-ups, budget be damned. He cannot forgive Linux for succes. He cannot forgive Linux for not being GNU/Linux.
  • NFR: Licensing

    Techies are very opinionated and really irritating people to deal with. This is bound to happen, what techies don't like is ambiguity and non-functional requirements (NFRs). NFRs include licensing, this is why you often hear discussions about technical methods to subvert licenses (FYI take it to a judge and see what he says, the law is not as executable as you'd hope). The point is that once you have the code the license can be an impediment that isn't functional in scope.

    So in summary:
    * Techies are opinionated and this will never change
    * Non-functional requirements are touchy feely and are often at odds with technical issues
    * Licensing is a non-functional requirement


    On reconsideration, Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier's article is not comparable to the one I mention by Brian Proffitt. It was also written almost two years ago, while I start by talkling about articles written in the last year.

    No references in the rest of the entry to articles criticizing the FSF should be taken as applying to Brockmeier's.
  • thanks Bruce

    I see this too, with RMS in particular singled out for ridicule and personal attacks. I admire Stallman. He is consistent and thoughtful, and it seems people forget how often he has been right. His mission has always been to further user freedom and rights-- what's not to like about that? He is right about Android, just like he was right about Tivoization, DRM and the loss of our rights with music, movies, books, and other creative media, software as a service as a GPL dodge, privacy issues, corporate control, and on and on. The statement that makes me saddest, that we hear all the time, is "people just want stuff that works and they don't care about all this freedom and privacy stuff." That is so not true. A lot of people care about those things, and it's silly to use that as a criticism of Stallman and the FSF.

    Yes RMS has his flaws, and he's not always right. Whaddaya know, that's true of everyone.
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