User freedom (n.)

I talk a lot about user freedom, but have never explained what that actually means. The more I think about user freedom as a term, the less certain I am about what it is. This makes it hard to define. My thoughts on user freedom are the synthesis of about ten years, first thinking about the Good behind developmental models enabled by open source through to today, where I think about the philosophical implications of traffic lights.

I think I picked up the term from Christopher Lemmer Webber and it’s become integral to how I think and talk about free software and it’s value to society.

User freedom is based in the idea that we have fundamental rights (I’ll use the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights as my metric*) and that these extend to the digital spaces we inhabit. In order to protect these in a world ruled by software, in order to see them in practice, we need the opportunity (and freedom) to use, examine, modify, and share this software. Software freedom is what happens when our software affords us these freedoms. Free and open source software is the software embodying the spirit of software freedom.

Software freedom is also necessary to ensure our rights in the physical world. Let’s take Article 10 as an example.

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

There is so much thoroughly opaque proprietary software in and around legal matters. This includes software people are choosing to use, like Case Management Software; software is used to gather and manage data and evidence being used against someone and sometimes this evidence isn’t even accessible to those being charged unless they pay licensing and access fees; breathalyzers are little more than small computers that have been subject to tampering since 1988; in Patent 10049419 “Motorola patents a robocop autonomous car that breathalyzes, mirandizes you, calls your lawyer and collects your bail”; and facial recognition technology is available and being used and tested by governments.

The right to a fair and public hearing also extends to digital spaces, your actions there, and your digital life. Your digital activities are monitored, cataloged, and treated with equal judgment as those in physical spaces.

User freedom is important to different people for different reasons. For me, the most important reason ties into the freedom to study software. I think user consent — consent to interacting with technology. Unless software is free, unless we can study it, we cannot understand it, and when we cannot understand something we don’t fully have the autonomy to consent.**

I said a lot of words, but failed to provide a concise definition to user freedom largely because I lack a concise definition. User freedom is the freedom we need to protect, for which we use software freedom and free software, though it extends far beyond those two critical components. User freedom is itself a tool used to uphold and defend human rights when applied to computing technologies. User freedom creates the possibility for knowledge, which gives us autonomy and consent.

* This idea is shared with Chris Webber.
** I’d like to attribute my ideas around autonomy and consent to Dr. Holly Andersen.