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<nettime> Politics in Free Software
Quim Gil on Wed, 10 Sep 2003 17:37:15 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Politics in Free Software


Politics in Free Software

(original version here:
http://newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=03/09/02/1930234&mode=thread&tid=51
)

Saturday September 06, 2003 - [ 08:08 AM GMT ]  
Topic -  Free Software

- by Tom Chance - 
When he added a line crediting the United States Army to four of his
applications, Neil Stevens created a small storm in the KDE community;
politics, people said, was not to interfere with KDE, and his credit was
removed. However, when the KDE Web site took part in the online protest
against software patents in Europe, people said politics was important
to KDE. So what role does politics play in KDE, and in Free Software in
general?



Denying that politics can play any part in Free Software is of course
absurd. Politics is not confined to a few officials in suits, it is part
of the fabric of life. When I consume goods, I tacitly accept that the
companies involved in the production of those goods are acceptable to
me, or rather that their practices are acceptable; when I use Free
Software, I make a political statement about my thoughts on copyright
law, software development methods, and perhaps a little of my ethics.

Moreover, software development is directly and indirectly affected by
political decisions that are external to the development community. If
it were illegal to distribute software with restrictive licences,
proprietary software would not exist; if everybody had to pay royalties
to the holder of the patent for the progress bar, very little software
would use the progress bar. In an extreme example, if my country were
invaded and the occupying power banned me from using Free Software, I
would no longer be able to use KDE.

Free Software communities must therefore take political considerations
seriously, just as they take technical considerations seriously. Some
communities take political matters to heart, and define their community
as much by their politics as by their technical achievements; other
communities, meanwhile, have an unhealthy attitude, burying their heads
in the sand and hoping the wind blows in a friendly way.

When thousands of Web sites took part in the online protest against
software patents in Europe, they proclaimed their opposition to a
political decision that could potentially destroy the Free Software
community; it was a defencive action en masse to support the efforts of
lobbyists and demonstrators in Brussels, and to raise awareness among
Web site visitors. There was a consensus amongst the majority of hackers
that software patents are bad, and Webmasters responded to this
consensus.

In the case of KDE, there was criticism, with many questioning the
effectiveness of the action, and some questioning the motivation. But
certainly a majority of KDE developers and users were in agreement that
software patents were bad for KDE, and so KDE acted.

So what about Neil Stevens? He believes that if it weren't for the US
Army, he wouldn't be able to develop Free Software. His case raises two
questions: is he correct, and regardless, should his credits be allowed?

The statement itself is questionable. If the US were invaded by almost
any other nation in the world, he would still be able to write his
software, since there are no governments that I know of that crack down
on the development of media players and games like Megami. His statement
also implies support for the actions of the US Army, and in particular
its recent actions, and that certainly don't have anything to do with
his ability to write code. However, regardless of whether or not it is
correct, he is free to hold that opinion, and so is free to put the
credit into his software if he wants.

But can his software then be included in KDE? As is apparent from the
discussions amongst KDE developers and users, the majority find his
credit disagreeable, either because they disagree with the statement
itself, or don't think it should be included in a KDE application
because it would imply KDE as a whole agrees with his credit. It is
therefore proper that the credits be removed in KDE.

That KDE's action caused Stevens to remove his applications from KDE is
unfortunate, but both parties are acting within their rights. However
absurd the decision seems, however much you'd rather they didn't act in
the way they did, one cannot say that they cannot act as they have.

This controversy highlights another political consideration often
glossed over in the wider hacker community: internal political and
social relations. Communities must address issues like that of Neil
Stevens's credit and software patents with a consistent ethical
approach, or they will run into trouble and controversy every time
something like these cases comes along. Some organisations, like Debian,
have put a lot of effort into defining exactly how the community handles
political and social relations, so that responsibility and authority is
clearly and justly assigned, and decision-making processes are clearly
and justly defined. Others, like Gentoo and KDE, have few relations
clearly codified, and so whenever important decisions confront the
community, big debates flare up. These debates are no bad thing, so long
as the community doesn't become disenfranchised, and individuals don't
feel hostile towards the community and those in charge. But too often,
it seems, the debates result in a lot of bad feelings and a lot of lost
talent.

It is time that Free Software communities took political and social
considerations more seriously; we simply cannot go on with large numbers
of people believing that politics has no place in Free Software, or that
burying one's head in the sand is a wise way to work. Every community
should, once in a while, step back and question it works; it seems that
many communities are long overdue for this political audit.

---

Tom Chance is a student reading Philosophy and Politics who uses and
develops Free Software. He is involved in several political campaigning
organisations, including the UK Campaign for Digital Rights and the
Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure UK.

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