Mako: ‘Taking a Principled Position on Software Freedom’

Great post today from Benjamin Mako Hill about free software advocacy and principles. It’s not very long so you should just go read the whole thing for yourself, but here are a couple of choice parts:

One reason I tend to stay away from “open source” claims in my own advocacy is that I’m worried by the way that these arguments rely on a set of often dubious empirical claims of superiority. Free software, on the other hand, can be seen as statement of principles. Regardless of whether we say “free software” or “open source,” I’ve found that a focus on principled statements is both more robust against counter-arguments and does a better job of describing the motivations of most contributors.


Humans are driven to imagine worlds that they would want to live in. For a growing group of people, that’s a world where software can be used, shared, and collaborated without restrictions or discrimination. We may think of this in ethical terms, in terms of an attitude toward innovation, or as a set of political or economic positions. But we should realize that these are, ultimately, principled stands.

And if we are taking principled positions, it is in the long-term interests of both our cause and our credibility to frame our arguments and our advocacy in those terms. We can use empirical evidence to help bolster our arguments but we should be careful to not confuse these empirical claims with the principles themselves. They can, and sometimes will, be proven wrong.

By honestly highlighting our principles and not shying away from explicit Utopianism, we can return to questions of efficiency as means toward achieving our principled ends. Approached from this angle, we need not seek to explain why FLOSS is better than proprietary software — which it may or may not be at any given point in time and for any given project — and can instead ask how we can make it better.

Humans are creative, innovative problem solvers. We set goals and devise social structures and technologies to achieve them. The fact that we have created socio-technical means of creating better software through free ways in so many areas is a reflection of this ingenuity applied toward principles at the heart of FLOSS. We would be well served to remember that this is how FLOSS will win, not why.

— Benjamin Mako Hill, “Taking a Principled Position on Software Freedom”

Yes. Let’s not be afraid to be idealistic. I think fear of looking naive often holds me back from voicing or defending free software principles more vigorously. (Another thing holding me back is laziness.) I’ve noticed in free software discussions that some people like to hold up their pragmatism as a virtue and they’ll imply that those making “principled” arguments are just being:

  1. Religious
  2. Political
  3. Ideological
  4. All of the Above

I seldom have the energy to respond to that kind of approach, which is why I appreciate it when people write thoughtful and reasonable posts for me to refer to, like Mako’s, or like this comment from Rufus Polson that I wrote about last year.

Makes me think also of recent discussions about including Mono in GNU/Linux distributions. I’ve long been concerned about this. I just don’t trust Microsoft and I think it’s dangerous to rely on their technology. Thinking about it on principles, even if we could be assured that it was safe to use Mono, why would the Free Software community want to take its lead from Microsoft? We have plenty of other community-driven, free programming languages to choose from. Why put ourselves in a position where we’d perpetually be playing catch-up to a company that is no friend of Free Software?

Related to this is a post by Brad Kuhn from the SFLC, following up on the Richard Stallman post I linked to above. It starts:

In an essay last Friday entitled Why free software shouldn’t depend on Mono or C#, RMS argued a key point that I agree with: the software freedom community should minimize its use of programming language infrastructure that comes primarily from anti-software-freedom companies, notwithstanding FaiF (Free as in Freedom) implementations. I’ve been thinking about an extension of that argument: that language infrastructure created in a community process is likely more resilient against attacks from proprietary software companies.

— Bradley M. Kuhn, “Considerations on Patents that Read on Language Infrastructure”

(Now I’ll try to quell my fear of being associated with such dangerous radicals as Mako, RMS, and those subversives at the SFLC.)