Free Software in the Social Era
After arriving at work this morning, I came across Bradley Kuhn's 'No, You Won't See Me on Facebook, Google Plus nor Skype' post, thought it was excellent and wanted to share it.
I share many of Kuhn's concerns about social networks and other proprietary network services. For starters, I believe that there are substantial problems with private, propreitary companies becoming the de facto standard for identity on the web: there's all kinds of tracking they can do, that they do, which users don't know about.
I also worry that as a service becomes more central to the way we use the web, it becomes harder and harder for those of us with concerns about these services to avoid them, the peer pressure that Kuhn talks about. This is a minor inconvenience in many countries around the world, but in some it actually puts lives at risk.
Before reading this post, however, I hadn't noticed the trend of free software taking advantage of these services for hosting development discussions, and this is worrying. As Kuhn says:
'When I point out that I use only Free Software, some respond that Skype, Facebook, and Google Plus are convenient and do things that can't be done easily with Free Software currently. I don't argue that point. It's easy to resist Microsoft Windows, or Internet Explorer, or any other proprietary software that is substandard and works poorly. But proprietary software developers aren't necessarily stupid, nor untalented. In fact, proprietary software developers are highly paid to write easy-to-use, beautiful and enticing software (cross-reference Apple, BTW). The challenge the software freedom community faces is not merely to provide alternatives to the worst proprietary software, but to also replace the most enticing proprietary software available. Yet, if FaiF Software developers settle into being users of that enticing proprietary software, the key inspiration for development disappears.'
I think this is an excellent point. It's also one that Richard Stallman has been making for years: if we don't tell people about the freedom part of free software, if they just use it because we tell them it's better than the proprietary alternatives, as soon as something that's more convenient, easier to use or more beautiful comes along, they'll stop using free software.
Note that I don't necessarily agree with Kuhn or Stallman that free software is a necessary condition for securing trust in digital technology. It's certainly important in many cases, but I also think that, if the free software alternative is just plain bad, it's no good for non-technical users who are going to end up loosing data or unable to get their work done. In these situations, legal protections, data portability and standards support are also useful means to establish and strengthen trust.
Oh, and I'm also aware of the fact that this post is being shared to Facebook, and that I have Twitter and GMail accounts...