GNU/Linux: Source Code and Human Rights

By using Free and Open Source software, you are supporting one of the few initiatives that give developing nations and the poor any hope of participating as equals in the modern world.
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James Maguire, Datamation's managing editor, claims he has no interest in software whose source code is available for editing. "I'm not a software engineer," he says. "If I can't grab it off the shelf, I can't use it."

He's half-joking, of course. But he echoes the opinion of many people outside the free and open source software (FOSS) community about what its efforts are about. Ask average computer users what FOSS is about, and, if they've even heard of it, they'll probably say something about the source code being publicly available.

The problem is that the community has done a deplorable job of explaining itself to outsiders. Focused on the immediate concerns of developers, the Open Source Definition lists only one right out of ten (to redistribute the software) that might be of interest to average computer users. The more concise Free Software Definition includes two out four points for the average user (the rights to redistribute and to run the program for any purpose). But, in practice, those who use it tend to be focused on the rights given to developers like themselves.

Nor is the matter clarified by the popular use of the term "open source" for the entire movement, since the term refers directly to the source code. (Admittedly, "free software" is equally misleading in its own way, since most outsiders think the term synonymous with "freeware," but that's another issue).

The problem with explaining FOSS in terms of source code is that, unless you're a developer, source code is only the means to an end. As Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, pointed out to me a couple of years ago, promoting FOSS in terms of source code is like promoting recycling in terms of the technical details of recycling, such as the temperature at which certain plastics melt or the chemical processes that occur in an operating smelter -- basically, most people don't care.

Instead of talking technicalities, environmentalists talk about what recycling can do for you and your community. In other words, they refer simultaneously to self-interest and ethics.

If FOSS is ever going to gain a strong foothold outside its own community, its advocates need to adopt a similar approach. Outside of their own circles, they need to stop talking about being able to change the source code, which will only produce stony-faced indifference in the average listener. Instead, FOSS supporters need to talk about the advantages that access to the source code brings to the average user: The consumer rights and the extension of free speech that accessible source helps to promote.

The potential right of modification

Even if you have no ability to modify the code yourself (and I speak as one who can barely cobble together a "Hello, world" script with help), the right is still potentially useful. After all, you may not immediately need the right to freedom of expression, either, but the right's existence still protects you and prevents problems if certain situations arise.

In the case of FOSS, accessible source code means that, even if you can't do more than shrug at it, others can act on your behalf. When the members of FOSS projects fix a bug or enhance a feature, they are acting as representatives of all users. And, in fact, many are more or less aware of this role; I've seen project members book off work to fix a major security problem because they take their responsibilities to users so seriously. Compare such turnaround time to the weeks that elapse before many proprietary software sellers even acknowledge a problem, and the advantage of accessible source code to the average user becomes immediately obvious.

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Tags: open source, developer, security, consumer, recycling

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