Tag Archives: user freedom

Autonomy

I’ve been stuck on the question: Why is autonomy an ethical imperative? or, worded another way Why does autonomy matter? I think if we’re going to argue that free software matters (or if I am anyway), there needs to be a point where we have to be able to answer why autonomy matters.

I’ve been thinking about this in the framing of technology and consent since the summer of 2018, when Karen Sandler and I spoke at HOPE and DebConf 18 on user and software freedom. Sitting with Karen before HOPE, I had a bit of a crisis of faith and lost track of why software freedom matters after I moved to the point that consent is necessary to our continued autonomy. But why does autonomy matter?

Autonomy matters because autonomy matters. It is the postulate on which not only have I built my arguments, but my entire world view. It is an idea that is instilled in us very deeply that all arguments about what should be a legal right are framed. We have the idea of autonomy so fundamental as part of our society, that we have been trained to have negative, sometimes physical, reactions to the loss of autonomy. Pro-choice and anti-choice arguments both boil down to the question of respecting autonomy — but whose autonomy?  Arguments against euthanasia come down to autonomy — questions of whether someone really have the agency to decide to die versus concerns about autonomy being ignored and death being forced on a person. Even climate change is a question of autonomy — how can we be autonomous if we can’t even be?

Person autonomy means we can consent, user freedom is a tool for consent, software freedom is a tool for user freedom, free software is a tool for software freedom. We can also think about this in reverse:

Free software is the reality of software freedom. Software freedom protects user freedom. User freedom enables consent. Consent is necessary to autonomy. Autonomy is essential. Autonomy is essential because autonomy is essential. And that’s enough.

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.