On annoyance and free software

Today I was given a beating on identi.ca about no longer being a supporter of free software.

Well, perhaps not. @fabsh, who I’d have considered a friend, said “Although @sil used to be quite pro-Free Software”, with the obvious implication that today, I am not.

Today, on Twitter, a non-free web service where most of my friends hang out, I mentioned that my dad had been to see the Queen today; I asked for advice on where I should take my daughter on holiday and how I could find a decent website for that; I complained about Doubletwist deciding that it was the most important media player on my Android phone; and I mentioned that my house sale was going ahead. Now, all my twitter messages also appear on identica.

On Twitter, I was offered a number of helpful suggestions about where to find cheap holidays; I was asked why my dad went to see the Queen; the Doubletwist forums people let me know that my annoyance was a bug which was about to be fixed, and I was asked a few questions about Shot of Jaq, a podcast I do with Jono Bacon.

On Identica, I was given a bollocking because I don’t believe in free software.

A long time ago, Larry Wall gave a “State of the Onion” speech. Larry is the guy behind Perl, the programming language, and every year he gave a talk about what he believes Perl is all about and where it’ll be going over the following twelve months. Larry’s not really a programmer; he’s a linguist who does a lot of programming. So his view on what a computer language should be is uniquely interesting, and should be read. Anyway, he spoke of freedom, and characterised the ends of the spectrum on the subject as “Bill” and “Richard”, those two being Bill Gates (at the time head of Microsoft) and Richard Stallman (head of the Free Software Foundation): the idea here was that those two represented the ultimate expressions of their philosophies. Richard Stallman was at the far extreme of belief in free software; Bill Gates was at the other far end, decrying the very concept of freedom. It was a throwaway joke, at the time; a caricature for the purpose of a laugh in a presentation.

Now, free software is a subject close to my heart. I work for Canonical, a company that builds an operating system composed of free software. Within that company, I work on Ubuntu One, a cloud service. We use CouchDB on your computer (free software) which replicates to CouchDB on our servers (free software); Tomboy, the note-taking software, on your computer (free software), which syncs using the Snowy API (an open API definition, defined by the very clever Tomboy team with a few suggestions from us) and saves its data in CouchDB (free software); bookmark syncing from Firefox using an extension named Bindwood (free software) to CouchDB (free software) on your machine; mobile contacts syncing through Funambol (free software) and storing the data in CouchDB (free software); and the Ubuntu One syncdaemon (free software) which syncs your files to our file sync server (closed source).

In the identica thread mentioned above, I’m characterised as someone who helps “Canonical produce proprietary net services”.

A long time ago (longer than the Larry Wall thing, above), there was the “one drop rule” in the United States. It basically classified you as “black” if you had any black ancestry at all. This was a rule back in the days when having “black blood” was somehow a bad thing. Fortunately, these days, it seems that such outdated and racist rules are no longer a part of the American psyche. Unfortunately, the principle seems to have been picked up by a subset of the free software movement: if your software has any part which is not available to the public, the whole suite is tainted. By working on it or with it or around it, you are not a supporter of free software. The smallest part of your software which is not available for scrutiny is enough to tarnish everything else you do, and quite possibly everything else you’ve ever done, as beyond the pale: unacceptable to the audeience, because it’s non-free. The parts that are free, even if they comprise the majority, are unrecognised.

I’m pretty sad about this. I’d consider myself a supporter of free software. I evangelise Ubuntu, my chosen GNU/Linux distribution, to as wide an audience as I can manage; I help to build a software service which is composed of free software except for a couple of parts; I’m half of a podcast which talks about Linux software twice a week. And yet I am vilified for being insufficiently dedicated to freedom.

Jo Shields (@directhex), an immensely talented hacker and someone else I’d consider a friend, who hacks on Banshee and has spent some time educating me about Mono, has been involved in an argument recently on reddit with someone who hates him because he likes Mono. That argument has incuded his opposer declaring that GPL-non-compatible licences cannot be free software. Again, I’m pretty sad about this. The actual definition of freedom seems to have been lost. Instead, a developer has to prove their dedication. That’s not what I got into free software for, and it’s not what I think free software’s about.

Now, OK, maybe that’s the approach that the freedom-loving community think is best; the “one drop rule” applies to free software just as much as it used to apply to black ancestry. Someone who builds a Linux distribution which includes a non-free wireless driver is just as steeped in blood and guilt as someone who ships an operating system which is mostly non-free, or someone who ships an operating system which is entirely non-free. That’s a perfectly legitimate point of view to take. I just don’t agree with it. I don’t want to spend my time finding reasons why people are against me. I don’t want to spend my time dividing everyone into those who are prepared to take a loyalty oath and those who have more important things to do. And when someone asks me why I’m no longer “quite pro-Free Software”, my response is always the same: I’m still just as pro-Free Software. I just don’t want to be associated with the other people who are.