Monday, May 7, 2012

Free software; free society

I was lucky enough to catch this interview between RadioNZ's Katherine Ryan and Enrique Penalosa, Colombian politician, and former mayor of Bogota responsible for major changes to the city's transport infrastructure, including a bike paths network and the TranMilenio mass transit system. The thing that struck me most about the interview was how deeply his views on transit issues were grounded in a very clear vision of what democracy is. He says in the interview that transport is as much an issue of democracy as anything: the person riding a $300 bicycle should never feel that they are less important to the city (or the nation) as the person driving the $30,000 car. It's a great point and it got me thinking a lot.

It struck me that there is a lot of crossover between what Penalosa believes and what people like RMS believe when it comes to software: no person should feel less important than another because of the way they use technology. Access to education is seen as a human right in most countries, and I would argue that access to digital tools is equally important, if not essential for democracy to thrive. If the software required to educate, innovate, communicate, empower and transform are solely the preserve of those who can afford them, then I think we have a serious problem ahead of us, and it's a problem that goes well beyond technology. It's a problem, not just of widening gaps between the haves and the have nots, it's a problem that strikes at the democratic belief that all people are equal. The larger the inequality, the larger the underclass (the 'digitally poor'), the less we can say we truly believe in the ideal of equality for all.

On a practical level, there are two sides to the problem of access: hardware and software. It's no good having software if you have no computer to run it on, and vice versa. But if the local public library or a friend with a computer can solve the issue of hardware, that only leaves software. How do we make available to all citizens the tools to create, innovate, investigate, research, convince and communicate? Well, it's difficult with proprietary tools. Let's imagine that you are without a computer, but you want to learn more about a particular topic or (even better) build something that demonstrates your understanding of that topic. If a friend loans you their laptop so you can use the proprietary software installed on it, they have most likely breached their software licence agreement. They've definitely breached it if they want to continue to use software themselves. You and your friend are in a tricky situation: your software licence agreements are standing in the way of your friendship.

There is an alternative of course, and it's one that readers of this blog will be familiar with: free software. Users of free software are never constrained by licence agreements that restrict their ability to share that software, in fact they are empowered by the GPL to share. Free software is one of the great democratising powers in our society: it means that everyone, no matter who they are, where they come from or what their financial means, can participate in our society and contribute in a way that is unique to them. It's something I deeply believe in.

Here's RMS performing the software freedom song. I include it here for no reason other than I love it.

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