We live in a historic period characterized as the “information age”. In this phase of capitalist development, we are experiencing a technological revolution whose central element is information and communication technology. The digital revolution or the information society is the result of contradictory stimuli, on one hand promoted by the great interest of international capitalism to make the so-called globalization of the economy feasible and, on the other hand, the creative capacity and libertarian spirit of the hackers. The hackers were the ones who created practically everything that makes the Internet work, for the most part voluntarily. The TCP/IP protocols [1], WWW (World Wide Web) [2], DNS [3], DHCP [4], FTP [5], and e-mail were developed by hackers and made available for free usage by all humanity. The development of the Internet is the greatest example of the innovation capacity of free technologies.
The hackers were also the ones who, in the 80s, began building the “Free Software Movement”.

However, throughout the 90s, large global corporations began to react to the prospect of appropriating and controlling all the developed technology. Heavy investments of the so-called speculative “risk capital” and the weight of these mega-corporations were thrown into this strategy and, contradictorily, they contributed decisively towards the expansion of the World Network and for the consolidation of the digital revolution.

But today the Internet maintains its original character: free, decentralized, multifunctional, and up to now, it cannot be controlled, having been transformed into a “dispute arena”. On one hand, the powerful political, financial, and commercial interests, which plan for its main functions to be surveillance, controlling, announcing, and selling. On the other hand, citizenship and democratic interests that aspire to transform it into an instrument at the service of democracy, sustainable development, innovation, science, culture, education, and health.

One of the key elements in this dispute is control of the language of the 21st century: source code. The monopolist corporations desire “to control” technological innovation by imprisoning these codes, maintaining computer programs as their property, and appropriating intellectual and cultural works (music, films, books). On the other hand, the movement for freedom of knowledge and the Free Software Movement, which are freeing knowledge imprisoned by the true “pirates”, place their stakes on evolution and innovation to socialize the benefits of the digital revolution.

History of Free Software

“Within the concrete sphere of informatics or information science, ever since the 80s, an old phenomenon has been repeated: knowledge, transmitted by means of a written language code, is being zealously retained by elements who use it to maintain a power structure over the centuries. During the 60s and the 70s, informatics development was due in part because technicians shared their knowledge. Computer program codes were shared in such a way that the advances of one individual were used by others to improve that same program. Currently, a large majority of the computer applications that we use have their code hidden; they belong to their proprietors, and that is why we cannot copy them nor share their development. Only they, the proprietors, can modify them and improve them. If that is in their interest, of course.” [6] The high cost of the software used in computers and the blocking of free scientific and technological knowledge imposed by proprietary licenses have made it more difficult and even impeded that several regions of the planet benefit from this revolution in order to provide better quality of life for its inhabitants.

When Richard Stallman [7](RMS) began to work at the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology -, in 1971, he became a part of a community that already shared software and that had been in existence for many years. According to RMS, “the act of sharing software was not limited to this community in particular; it is as old as computers”. At first, this community did not denominate these programs “free software” because, according to RMS, this term did not exist.

The free software concept arose during the 70s in the United States, more specifically at the laboratories of MIT [8]. Richard Stallman does not recall exactly when this term began to be adopted, but “this term was already common at MIT” when the GNU Manifest [9] was released in 1984, giving origin to the Free Software Movement. The author(s) of the term is (are) also unknown, but it gained great significance and notoriety through Richard Stallman, who utilized the term from the start with the launching of the Free Software Movement.

Several reasons for using Free Software
Macroeconomic Issue

Brazil, for example, transfers abroad more than one billion dollars annually for payment of software licenses, in a domestic market that circulates three billion dollars yearly. This means that one-third of the investments in the software industry in Brazil are transferred in the form of royalties payments to the foreign software monopolist mega-companies.

This reality, in addition to meaning an increase in the deficit on the international service balance, makes the development of computer companies in Brazil infeasible.

In Brazil, for example, only 8.6% of the population is connected to the Internet in their homes, and according to official data, more than 53% of these users utilize illegal software - without authorization from the owners. Therefore, they are considered criminals by intellectual proprietary laws.

In order to maintain the current “legal software market”, which reaches only 4% of the Brazilian population, we have to transfer abroad more than double the annual budget for the “Fome Zero” (Zero Hunger) program [10] in a country where 22 million people go hungry and 44 million - 1/3 of the population - live below the poverty level. It is unjustifiable for the developing countries to adopt the proprietary software model in Information Society programs.

Information Security and Privacy

Security and privacy issues are also important factors for the selection of free software. A technological platform should guarantee the security of information systems and the privacy of user data. In order for this to occur, access to program source code is imperative. Without the source code, it is impossible to audit the programs to see if they only do what the manufacturer claims they do, if there is not a “back door” breaking information privacy. In addition to this, without the source code, it is impossible to correct faults in the program without resorting to the proprietary manufacturer.

Autonomy and Technological Independence

The main capital in the digital revolution and the Information Society is precisely digital knowledge. This means that the digitally excluded are those who do not have access to digital knowledge. How can one think about inclusion of any country in the knowledge society, without the universities, schools, companies, research centers, governments, and society having full knowledge of the technology that is being disseminated? Therefore, any digital inclusion or insertion program in the Information Society is only consistent if performed with free software. Digital inclusion programs performed with secret or proprietary software are actually digital knowledge “exclusion” programs.

We do not want to be just consumers of proprietary products and technologies. The countries and their inhabitants have the right to be active “customers” in the Information Society.

Independence of Suppliers

We have the right to know what we are using or buying. Technological dependences caused by proprietary platforms inhibit competition, make it impossible to become familiar with the content of the acquired product, and create a market reserve for the company that sold to the consumer.

Free software offers greater independence with regard to the solution supplier. The individual who utilizes a free software solution has access to the source code and to the four basic freedoms of free software. He or she is therefore not bound to whoever developed the original solution because he has the source code.

The utilization of proprietary software is the same, for example, as utilizing a medication without having the right to know the chemical formula. Or even, if we were to buy industrialized food without having the right to know what it is made of.

Knowledge sharing

In order for the less developed countries or developing countries to have any chance of transcending a historical phase of dependence and subordination in the world scenario, current international laws and treaties on patents, copyrights, and trademarks protected by the ideology of intellectual propriety need to be altered and made more flexible. Historically, the intellectual propriety ideology discourse was set up to favor the freedom to create, stimulate inventors, and promote benefits for society. Today it has been transformed into a market reserve for the central countries and their monopolies. Alternatives such as the “copyleft” license [11], GPL - General Public License [12], and Creative Commons [13] license work within the perspective of freedom and knowledge sharing, offering a positive and current meaning, tuned in with the new possibilities created by the digital revolution.

Challenges and perspectives of Free Software

Free software, even though created and inspired by the libertarian concepts of hackers, is above all, a technology. As a technology, free software is not leftist or incompatible with capitalism. According to Manuel Castells [14], “...free software is incompatible with monopolist corporations such as Microsoft. It is also incompatible with repressive governments that want to control freedom, whether they are leftist or rightist. But it is not incompatible with IBM, which is not a worldwide ¬revolutionary organ. Nor is it incompatible with democratic governments that want to develop the creativity of their young people.
But I would not equal free software to the left. It is something much more ample. Its values are values of social transformation and I believe much closer to anarchism. I believe that the ideas behind free software are anti-authoritarian and tied to freedom. To me, these ideas are revolutionary. But a differentiation should be made from leftist organized political expression. The free software movement is broader than the anti-capitalist movement and can find allies in capitalism. What it has in common are ideas of freedom and they are disposed to accept it. This is very revolutionary, since at heart, the great world powers are not disposed to accept freedom.
” [15]

It is important to highlight that not all the millions of hackers developing software do so for the sake of ideology or as a conscious libertarian action. The majority of these hackers are also not social activists; they are “benevolent technicians” who respect the principles of licenses and knowledge sharing, and who may be either at the service of large global corporations or “alter-global” social organizations that desire to build “another possible world”, inspired by the World Social Forum movement [16].

It is also true that the large majority of social organizations and the near-totality of leftist parties have still not incorporated the challenges of the “Information Age” in their party programs and day-to-day practices. According to Brazilian Culture Minister and musician Gilberto Gil [17], when speaking about his experience at the 5th World Social Forum, “one of these paradoxes is the day-to-day relationship between the most archaic political discourse, the most bizarre form, and the most bizarre content, the oldest and most surpassed agenda, the oldest and most surpassed attitude, and contemporary forms, content, agendas, and attitudes most tuned in to our times. The relationship between analog and digital, between the hammer and the scythe, and virtual flows.

There is space and probably meaning in all this, perhaps because the basic impulse of change, of transformation, and of progress is, or has been, one day, in the genesis of all movements that contest the order and the ¬movements that build new orders. The fundamental impulse of conquest, adventure, pilgrimage that was present and continues present in each step before humanity.

The individuals and organizations that constitute the World Social Forum have, however, a common base, even if their discourse, visions, methods, and practices are different. This is what explains the pacific and stimulating relationship between agendas so dissimilar, for example, such as the agenda of this encounter, on the digital revolution and the new networks, and the agendas of the traditional Marxist parties.” [18]

For us, who desire and fight to build a new Information Society that is more just and shows more solidarity, the main challenge is for us to extrapolate the universe of this debate much beyond the select sphere of the “information society people” and sensitize the social organizations that fight for structural changes on the planet to update their discourse, practices, and political programs, incorporating the themes of the digital revolution with the appropriate priority for the 21st century.

In case we do not succeed in performing this task, the achievements and the free software movement will be incorporated by globalized capitalism and the transforming practices of this movement will slowly disappear. A “New Information Society is Possible”, but this is not guaranteed as the single course in history. It will depend on the result of the diverse disputes yet to come and, therefore, on our capacity to amplify these theses and libertarian practices of free software together with the global society.


Definitions of Free Software and Open Source

The origin of the term Free Software comes from the English language and since in this language free means freedom (freed) and also means free of charge, many interpretation errors in terms of its true meaning accompany its history.
The term free software, when applied correctly, refers to “free” of freedom and has nothing to do with price or gratuity. Free software can be distributed free, but it can also be paid. There is no contradiction between free software and commercial software. The contradiction is between free software and proprietary software [19], which are opposite concepts.

Free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation [20], should necessarily contain the four fundamental freedoms:
“Free Software” is a question of freedom and not price. In order to understand the concept, you should think of “freedom of expression” and not “free beer”.
“Free software” refers to users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, modify, and improve the software. More precisely it refers to the four freedoms for software users:
The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom no. 0).
The freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs (freedom no. 1). Access to the source code is a prerequisite for this freedom.
The freedom to redistribute copies so that you con help your neighbor (freedom no. 2).
The freedom to perfect the program and release the improvements so that the entire community benefits (freedom no. 3). Access to the source code is a prerequisite for this freedom.
A program is free software when the users have all these freedoms. Therefore, anyone, anywhere, should be free to redistribute copies, whether that be with or without modifications, whether that be free or collecting a distribution fee. To be free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission.
You should also have the freedom to make modifications and use them privately in your work or leisure, without even mentioning that they exist. If you publish the modifications, you should not be obliged to advise anyone in particular or in any special way.
The freedom to utilize a program means freedom for any type of physical or juristic person to use the software in any type of computational system, for any type of work or activity, without being necessary to communicate to the developer or to any other entity in particular.
The freedom to redistribute copies should include binary or executable forms of the program, as well as the source code, both for the original versions and the modified ones. It is OK if it is not possible to produce a binary or executable form (since some programming languages do not support this resource), but the freedom to redistribute these forms should be conceded in the event a method to create them is developed.
In order for the freedom to make modifications and to publish improved versions to have some meaning, one should have access to the program source code. Therefore, access to the source code is a necessary condition for free software.
” [21]

On the other hand, the term Open Source was described for the first time in June 1997 by Bruce Perens [22], in a document for the Debian developers conference [23] that year. At that time, Perens removed the original references from the documents to create the “Open Source Definition” [24]. Later, in 1998, several members of the free software community launched the “Open Source Initiative”(OSI) [25].

Currently, the leadership of the free software movement and the open source movement represent separate movements that are differentiated in their philosophy and politics. Even if they describe the same category of computer programs, they present them differently. One of the arguments used by OSI leaders is that the term “open source” eliminates the confusion of “free” as “free of charge”. This initiative strives to be more attractive for the market executives and for the large commercial computer program companies. They center their arguments on technological issues, product quality, and the possibilities of the economy generated by free software, ignoring the principles of freedom and ethics built from the start of the free software community. This movement expresses itself with more importance in the United States and has little expression elsewhere in the world. In languages other than English, the term “open source” is much less ample and its meaning and comprehension are more difficult outside the technical community as compared to the term “free software”.

Related Concepts

The term free software is often confused or mentioned with other software categories.
For the purpose of clarification, it will be necessary to describe these other categories and their similarities and differences as compared to free software.[26]
Public Domain - Public domain software is not protected by copyright. Anyone can make a modified version or a non-free copy (proprietary), based on the original program. Free software is not conceptually public domain software.
Semi-free Software - Semi-free software is not a totally free program. It comes with permission for individuals to use, copy, distribute, and modify (including the distribution of modified versions), but only for noncommercial purposes.
Proprietary Software - Proprietary software is software that is not free or semi-free. Its use, redistribution, or modification is prohibited or requires that you request permission. It can also be restricted in such a way that you cannot actually do so freely.

Freeware Software - The term freeware’ does not have a clear and accepted definition. It is very often used for packages that permit redistribution but not modification (and its source code is not available). These programs are not free software.
Shareware Software - Shareware is software that comes with permission to redistribute copies, but after a specified time period, in order to continue to use a copy, one should pay for the license. Shareware is not free software or even semi-free software, since for the majority the source code is not available and it does not come with permission to make copies for new installations without payment of the license fee.

Commercial Software - Commercial software is software developed by a company that aims to obtain profit through the use of the software. “Commercial” and “proprietary” are not the same thing. Most of the commercial software is proprietary, but there is ¬commercial free software and proprietary noncommercial software.
Free and Open Source Software (FOSS and FLOSS) - Definition frequently and recently used in Europe. It aims to include and mix the concepts from the free software movement and the open source movement without entering into the issue of the existing political and philosophical differences.

1 May 2006

couverture du livre enjeux de mots This text is an extract from the book Word Matters: multicultural perspectives on information societies. This book, which has been coordinated by Alain Ambrosi, Valérie Peugeot and Daniel Pimienta was released on November 5, 2005 by C & F Éditions.

The text is under the Creative Commons licence, by, non commercial.

Knowledge should be shared in free access... But authors and editors need an economy to keep on creating and working. If you can afford it, please buy the book on line (39 €)