Open Source Doesn’t Mean Much Software Is Better Software


A generation earlier, Microsoft founder Bill Gates offered his own theory of how to make good, useful software, writing a painful letter to the “hobbyists” who share his company’s BASIC software: “Who can afford to do professional work for free? What hobbyist could put in three years of programming, finding all the bugs, documenting his product, and distributing it for free? The truth is, no one but us has invested a lot of money in entertainment software. ”

Today there is a kind of hybrid system, where tech giants like Google, Facebook, and others are heavily contributing to the free Linux software project, which is still important to their businesses. In fact, 75 percent of Linux contributions come from programmers working in companies. The system makes these companies very wealthy, and their position even more dominant. They’re not afraid of a small startup removing them using Linux — the way they once removed Microsoft from the throne. Even Microsoft is changing the way it looks. Company president Brad Smith said last year that “Microsoft was on the wrong side of history when open source exploded at the turn of the century, and I can say that about me personally. The good news is that, if life is long, you learn … that you need to change. ”

This form of success, however, brings with it a fundamental change: A project that was once intended to help small players now supports the largest of them. This is a change of identity that has not yet been fully conceived in the community. This is because when it comes to the software itself, everything is humming fine. But beyond the coding stuff, free software does nothing. On important questions like how to make social networks safer for women or minorities or better at productive debate or more likely to spread accurate information, free software has never improved things- instead, it has become an enabler, like Mastodon for Social Truth.

In that sense, free software involves a litany of “free” things — including markets and speech — that are intended to solve problems by opening flood gates. With enough eyes all the bugs are shallow, thinking persists, while the response to bad language is more language, and a society that prioritizes freedom over equality can get a high level of both. In fact, these free values ​​are well done in their own terms, that is, creating a lot of wealth or language or software.

When Rochko first discovered that Gab was using Mastodon in 2019, it led to a lot of soul searching. He did everything to isolate Gab from other networks operating the software. A user of mastodon.social, the social network run by the Mastodon project, forced for more, saying, “It’s amazing how you can have a LICENSE that explicitly prohibits it from being used for hate.” Rochko replied lacking. He said that on a practical level, he failed to get agreements from 600 contributors at the time, so he needed each individual’s permission to change licensing, but he also wanted to protect the free software system. – “if someone violates AGPLv3, there are many established institutions willing to defend it, where a customary license does not benefit. ”

What’s really the point of enforcing a license if it doesn’t achieve what you want — which is to stop Donald Trump from using it to incite hatred and opposition to democracy? We never had the luxury of treating software as a kind of academic exercise, taken from real-life consequences. Code in one corner, hate in the other. If the past few years have taught us anything, these two cannot be separated.

That earlier question, prompted by Gab’s use of Mastodon, is reconsidered: Why not a license banning hate? Or someone who insists that software should not be used for malicious purposes, such as making money from hate? In conversations with free software promoters, I suggested a license limited to non-commercial use. That provision could solve the Truth Social problem all of a sudden. And for the free software community, this will represent an important step in figuring out how to present its code to the world.



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