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James Thompson
James Thompson

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The Problem with Free & Open Source Software

“Freedom” by Sebastian Fuss — Some Rights Reserved

Back in the early 2000’s I got into a discussion about the relative merits and problems with Free and Open Source software. One of the points of discussion was the first freedom identified by Free Software:

The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose

This same freedom is identified in article five of the Open Source Definition. The point of that discussion was about the moral position of free and open source software as it related to proprietary software. My counterpart proposed that any software that was not free or open source was morally evil, while I defended the rights of creators to determine the bounds of their software’s use. I still stand by my position and will not retread it here. Any software developer has the right to define how and by whom their software can be used. But, I also believe that free and open source software is superior to proprietary software for many reasons and in many circumstances. The most important of those reasons is freedom.

Freedom Is Not Free

Freedom has consequences. Taking action necessitates accepting the consequences of such action. Sometimes those consequences are not to our liking, and still other times we have no control over the consequences. The trouble arises when the consequences become so objectionable that we think the problem is with freedom itself. That’s the trap that is always lurking just beyond our view, tempting us to restrict freedom for the sake of our comfort. But, the truth is that to gain our comfort we have to give up our freedom entirely.

Denying Freedom

Today I ran across this tweet about a project I had never heard about doing something they have every right to do, but about which they were thoroughly ignorant of the full consequences:

Lerna, a popular tool for managing JavaScript projects with multiple packages, has added a clause to its MIT license blocking a variety of companies from using future versions: – what do you think about this well-meaning moral stance?

— JavaScript Daily (@JavaScriptDaily) August 29, 2018

The Lerna project was originally licensed under one of the most permissive open source licenses there is: the MIT license. But, they decided to add an additional clause:

The following license shall not be granted to the following entities or any subsidiary thereof due to their collaboration with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”):

The specific list of companies is immaterial, as are any political opinions concerning US Immigration and Customs Enforcement policies. The consequence of this change was that Lerna has made their project untouchable to the rest of the Free and Open Source software community. By denying the freedom for any person or group to use their project they have made their project incompatible with any project that upholds either the Free Software or the Open Source definitions.

This is not the first time Free or Open Source software has dealt with the moral questions. Back in 2012 it was called out the license used on contained an explicit morality clause. In fact, the ambiguous clause is still included in the license. The Debian project has labelled this license as non-free because it imposes this additional clause.

The Open Source Initiative is clear in their FAQ that restricting a person or group is not permissible when they answer the question “Can I stop “evil people” from using my program?”

No. The Open Source Definition specifies that Open Source licenses may not discriminate against persons or groups. Giving everyone freedom means giving evil people freedom, too.

Unintended Consequences

The reason both the Debian project and the Open Source Initiative are so unequivocal is that such restrictions cannot be reliably bounded. Debian recognized that the additional clause in the JSON license would pollute their project and require all its users to abide by the terms, which is something they could not reliably even enforce. Adopting restrictions on freedom always ripple out and effect others.

Moral and ethical decisions exist within cultural contexts, and that makes them practically impossible to reliably define ahead of time. Since neither the Free Software or Open Source movements were omniscient they erred on the side of freedom. But, the maintainers of the Lerna project, the original JSON implementors, and others will continue to repeat the hubris of thinking they can adequately respond to evil by denying freedom not only to their perceived enemies, but also to everyone else who wants to use or produce Free and Open Source software that preserves freedom.

Freedom is the Problem (and the solution)

At the end of the day freedom is the problem. It has costs, and consequences. But, freedom is worth having, even in the realm of software. Freedom means that with the same tools some would employ for evil we have all the rights to employ those same tools for good. But, we can’t maintain the freedom to do good effectively without risking freedom for others to do evil. That is the risk, but, in this case, I think it is a risk worth taking.

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