The two sides of freedom

Today, I am launching my new blog.
In this first post, I will discuss the concept of freedom.
I start with general thoughts, and then I apply them to Free Software licenses and especially the Free Software umbrella KDE.

Throughout history, the word “freedom” has been used to mean many different things. It has been the central word for revolutions, for declarations of independence, for human rights movements, for philosophers, for theologians, for the Free Software movement. It is used in marketing slogans for phone companies, for KDE, for both cigarettes and non-smoking initiatives. The word has also been used to justify military occupations, torture and mass surveillance.

In many cases, “more freedom” for one side of a conflict means “less freedom” for the other side. But if you consider the debates around freedom for a while, then you can see a deeper pattern within the concept of freedom itself:

How do you protect freedom without destroying it?

You can spot this basic question in many debates. I will give two general examples and two more specific examples from the world of software.

  • Democracy can only function if the voters do not need to fear harassment for their political decisions, if sufficient privacy is safeguarded. And democracy can only function properly where there are free media, where transparency is safeguarded. But how exactly should we draw the line between transparency on the one hand and the right to privacy on the other hand? And should the state protect the privacy of citizens – by reducing the freedom of companies to earn money with personal data?
    My observation is that many politicians only see the crime potential of internet while forgetting the other important aspects.
  • Criminal activity (such as organised crime or terrorism) can severely endanger and destroy the freedom of the victims to live in peace and in freedom from oppression and violence. If a state aims to prevent all criminal or terrorist behaviour, then this is only possible with extreme surveillance of the population. But extreme surveillance also harms freedom. Citizens need the freedom to critically assess government actions. They need to have the option of discussing with other people – without fearing that their conversation will be recorded and stored in a government database forever. How do we reach the right balance?
    I consider this topic to be extremely important, especially since the surveillance itself is already preventing many journalists from reporting on the problem.
  • People with disabilities are only free to use the computer programmes of their choice if these programmes are sufficiently accessible. But forcing all developers to take accessibility perfectly into account would limit the freedom of the developers – and lead to fewer applications overall. Should Free Software communities (such as KDE) put a higher emphasis on accessibility standards?
    Probably – but this is very difficult to achieve without alienating crucial contributors. It is also necessary to find a good balance between reliable accessibility standards on the one hand and the danger of stifling innovation – even in the field of accessibility itself – on the other hand.
  • There are two types of Free Software licenses: Share-Alike or Copyleft licenses allow developers to use the code in their own software – as long as this dependent software is also made available under the free license. Permissive licences do not contain this restriction and allow the developers to license the derived software under “unfree”, “all rights reserved” terms. One approach protects the freedom of the code. The other offers more freedom of choice for developers using the code. Which is better?
    I personally like the legal set-up of the Qt framework (which is not really applicable for other Free Software cases). The library is licensed under a (weak) copyleft license: LGPL. At the same time, companies that do not wish to accept the terms of this license can also buy a proprietary license from Digia, thereby funding the development of Qt. Of course this is only possible because all contributors to Qt grant Digia the necessary rights. They can do this without fearing that Digia might suddenly close down the Free Software version – because KDE has a very good contract that safeguards the Free Software terms (KDE Free Qt Foundation). I will post more details on this topic soon.

2 Comments

  • dhardy says:

    I would argue that privacy is both insufficient and non-essential to democracies (consider on the one hand rigged voting, and on the other violent revolutions), though it may well sometimes be useful.

    If you want another view on freedom, I can definitely recommend David Graeber’s recent book: Debt. As you say, one man’s liberty is another man’s restriction.

  • Simon says:

    This post made me thing of a book by (forgive any mis-spellings, I couldn’t find my copy) Rousas John Rushdoony called Law and Liberty. A very insightful book.

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