The OSD and user freedom

Some background reading

The relationship between open source and free software is fraught with people arguing about meanings and value. In spite of all the things we’ve built up around open source and free software, they reduce down to both being about software freedom.

Open source is about software freedom. It has been the case since “open source” was created.

In 1986 the Four Freedoms of Free Software (4Fs) were written. In 1998 Netscape set its source code free. Later that year a group of people got together and Christine Peterson suggested that, to avoid ambiguity, there was a “need for a better name” than free software. She suggested open source after open source intelligence. The name stuck and 20 years later we argue about whether software freedom matters to open source, because too many global users of the term have forgotten (or never knew) that some people just wanted another way to say software that ensures the 4Fs.

Once there was a term, the term needed a formal definition: how to we describe what open source is? That’s where the Open Source Definition (OSD) comes in.

The OSD is a set of ten points that describe what an open source license looks like. The OSD came from the Debian Free Software Guidelines. The DFSG themselves were created to “determine if a work is free” and ought to be considered a way of describing the 4Fs.

Back to the present

I believe that the OSD is about user freedom. This is an abstraction from “open source is about free software.” As I eluded to earlier, this is an intuition I have, a thing I believe, and an argument I’m have a very hard time trying to make.

I think of free software as software that exhibits or embodies software freedom — it’s software created using licenses that ensure the things attached to them protect the 4Fs. This is all a tool, a useful tool, for protecting user freedom.

The line that connects the OSD and user freedom is not a short one: the OSD defines open source -> open source is about software freedom -> software freedom is a tool to protect user freedom. I think this is, however, a very valuable reduction we can make. The OSD is another tool in our tool box when we’re trying to protect the freedom of users of computers and computing technology.

Why does this matter (now)?

I would argue that this has always mattered, and we’ve done a bad job of talking about it. I want to talk about this now because its become increasingly clear that people simply never understood (or even heard of) the connection between user freedom and open source.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and I think it’s important context for everything else I say and write about in relation to the philosophy behind free and open source software (FOSS).

FOSS is a tool. It’s not a tool about developmental models or corporate enablement — though some people and projects have benefited from the kinds of development made possible through sharing source code, and some companies have created very financially successful models based on it as well. In both historical and contemporary contexts, software freedom is at the heart of open source. It’s not about corporate benefit, it’s not about money, and it’s not even really about development. Methods of development are tools being used to protect software freedom, which in turn is a tool to protect user freedom. User freedom, and what we get from that, is what’s valuable.

Side note

At some future point, I’ll address why user freedom matters, but in the mean time, here are some talks I gave (with Karen Sandler) on the topic.