Richard Stallman led the way for decades with his twin calls for
“information freedom” and the “right to share.” And for decades the
campaign was seen as idiosyncratic and marginal. Only during the past five
years–with the triumph of open source, the passage and abuse of the
DMCA, and the popularity of peer-to-peer–have large numbers of people
seen the link between information and the right to lead modern lives
in the way we like.
And still it seems quixotic to call for free software in government
and other public fora. The movement remains on the fringe.
Perceptions and mores can change fast, though. This occurred to me as
I researched the gay marriage issue, which was not spawned in
Massachusetts but received its biggest boost to date here, with a
Supreme Judicial Court ruling on November 18 and a circus-like legislative
session in mid-February where defenders of gay rights amazingly beat
back a hastily organized reaction. The sudden notoriety of this issue
in an election year can distract us from the realization that this is
history in the making.
Like the free software movement, the movement for gay marriage started
literally on the fringes of the country. Hawaii and Vermont? Perfectly
nice places, but who would expect the rest of America to follow their
lead? (Or the Netherlands, which already bore the shame of sane
policies toward marijuana use.) Now that the gay marriage genie is
out of the bottle, and spreading to San Francisco and other cities,
putting it back will be more of a task than taking a morning-after
To advance civil rights, the Supreme Judicial Court created the odd
doctrine that the right of gays and lesbians to marry had always been
in the Massachusetts Constitution. By their legal arguments, had two
women walked into Boston City Hall in 1780 and demanded a marriage
certificate, the black-suited inheritors of Cotton Mather’s and
Jonathan Edwards’s traditions would have been obliged to dip their
quill pens in ink forthwith.
But this is not a case of “activist judges,” as claimed by George
W. Bush (the most shameless manipulator of politics on the judicial
bench) but of a shift in public awareness that is tangible and
real. As a speaker pointed out at a forum on marriage I attended this
week, historians in a couple decades will judge our approach to gay
marriage the way we judge the black civil rights movement. The speaker
told us to ask our state legislators, “Would you like to come off as
Strom Thurmond or as Bobby Kennedy?” In the wake of the Massachusetts
court ruling, millions of gays and lesbians and their supporters are
suddenly asking, “Why not?”
So what does all this have to say about government and public uses of
software? The status quo here–that the vast majority of people cannot
see the source code of the software they use every day–is an
incomparably recent and superficial tradition, compared to that of
heterosexual-only marriage. As Bill Joy likes to point out, early
programmers came from an academic tradition and published their code
as a matter of course, just like other research results.
In a country obsessed with proprietary ownership of information
(witness the recent re-introduction of a bill protecting databases, an
issue I treated at length in another
it’s natural to encounter a visceral resistance to free software, just
as there’s a visceral resistance among the public to applying the
concept “marriage” to gay relationships that are pretty much
mainstream. But in both cases, the trend is inevitable and public
opinion is likely to shift quickly.
Companies certainly have a right to keep source code secret (and let
us not forget that copyright is the legal and traditional basis of all
free software licenses, including the GPL). But the powerful arguments
for introducing free software into government institutions, where
feasible, are growing louder and louder.
We argue about costs and security and support, but what about rights?
If free software in public agencies was redefined as a right, the
debate would change radically–and it soon might.
The biggest no-brainer argument for free software comes in the area of
voting machines. The myriad requirements for traceability and
anonymity probably makes it impossible ever to have secure,
software-only voting machines. But whatever equipment we have should
be open to a full software accounting. Otherwise, elections would be
just as crooked as if poll monitors were excluded from vote-counting.
In other areas of government, too, the realization is spreading that
open is better. Munich and Extremadura , along with a few other
localities and agencies, are leading the way. All we need is a raft of
stories about how somebody spent $500 and fixed a bug that was holding
up public services, or how easy it was to switch support contracts.
Then the inkling of the early free software proponents will turn into
a rushing tide. Arguments against software freedom in systems the
public depends on will be thrust aside. Government services and open
source software will become almost synonymous.
When is it useful to talk of rights?