How markets plundered Free Software's best stuff and used it to create freedom for companies, not people

Bejamin "Mako" Hill (previously) is a free software developer, activist and academic with a long history of shrewd critical insights into the ways that free software, free culture and the wider world interact with each other.

In his keynote address to the annual Libreplanet conference, Mako traces the history of software freedom and how it changed when it met the forces of relentless commercialization and extraction.

Early free software advocates assumed that working on free software would be centralized and would be a kind of voluntary ideological project that would result in pay-cuts to programmers who wanted to ensure that users of programs got as much freedom as possible, and were willing to sacrifice to achieve this.

But markets discovered free software and turned it into "open source," figuring out how to create developer communities around software ("digital sharecropping") that lowered their costs and increased their quality. Then the companies used patents and DRM and restrictive terms of service to prevent users from having any freedom.

Mako says that this is usually termed "strategic openness," in which companies take a process that would, by default, be closed, and open the parts of it that make strategic sense for the firm. But really, this is "strategic closedness" -- projects that are born open are strategically enclosed by companies to allow them to harvest the bulk of the value created by these once-free systems.

So Android (GNU/Linux) is everywhere and Apple was forced by its users insistence on jailbreaking their Iphones to create the App Store and allow programmers to participate in its ecosystem. But both mobile platforms have figured out how to use strategic closedness to lock up users and developers and capture the value and assert control over the system.

Mako suggests that the time in which free software and open source could be uneasy bedfellows is over. Companies' perfection of digital sharecropping means that when they contribute to "free" projects, all the freedom will go to them, not the public.

This comes at the exact moment when the world is being devoured by software, and when software freedom is, more than ever, ineluctably bound up with human freedom -- in other words, it's a crisis of global and historic proportions.

Mako is calling on people to choose sides: to understand the moral dimension of software freedom, rather than its mere utilitarian benefits, and to commit themselves to human freedom.

(via Four Short Links)