Why the Left Needs Free Software

Recently, I read Freedom Isn't Free, a solid essay on the ideological failures of the open-source movement. In it, Wendy Liu encourages those involved in the open-source movement to move ideologically leftward, towards a more community-oriented (and anti-commodity) incarnation of the Free Software Movement. If you are at all involved in the FOSS movement, I encourage you to give it a read and chew on it for a bit.

This post acts as a sort of mirror for Liu's essay; while she encourages the FOSS movement to move towards the left, I am going to encourage the left to move towards FOSS, and particularly towards the ideals of Free Software. Frankly, I think the two movements need each other if either is to survive, and I view their cooperation as essential for computing during and after the fall of industrial capitalism.

This essay is for all of the lefties out there who use WhatsApp and don't know what a sudo is. I'm not too far removed from that life, and I'm here to tell you why you can, and should, start moving away from proprietary software.

Let's start from square one: what is FOSS?

FOSS stands for Free and Open Source Software. We'll break the term down in reverse:


Software is a set of instructions that tells your computer how to work; every program that a computer runs is software. Programs are usually stored in machine language, a stream of ones and zeroes that the computer's processor can understand. Since it's unspeakably tedious and difficult to write programs in machine language, most programmers these days write in a programming language, which is much more readily understood by human beings. This source code is transformed into machine language by programs such as compilers or interpreters.


In the most literal sense, "open source" denotes that a program has its source code freely available to its users. It is also the name of a movement that grew out of the Free Software movement, stressing the practical and business-friendly aspects of software with available source code. More on this later--for the moment, we're interested in Open Source's more ideological predecessor.


The Free Software movement was kickstarted by Richard Stallman around 1985 because he got cranky with a printer in 1980. Okay, that's not all that happened--in short, Stallman's lab at MIT had moved to proprietary software with closed source code, which prevented the users of the lab from improving programs for everyone's betterment. Previously, the users of the lab had collaborated on writing and improving programs. Stallman found the move to proprietary software a great tragedy, and set out to write an operating system that would be "free"--one that anyone could use, modify, or share. His system, GNU, was patterned after the Unix operating system developed in Bell Labs, hence its name: "GNU's Not Unix". Over time, Stallman developed what he calls the "Four Essential Freedoms" that define Free Software:

Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose.

Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others.

Freedom 3: The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.

The numbers in the above list start with 0 because even programmers like cute in-jokes.

Essentially, Free Software includes programs with freely available source code that permit users to study, modify, run, and distribute it freely. Proprietary software, by contrast, does not allow the users these freedoms, and keeps its workings opaque by denying user access to the source code. Free Software should also not be confused with Freeware or Shareware, which are distribution strategies for (usually) proprietary software.

As you may have guessed, Stallman does not mean "free" as in "free beer", but instead as in "free speech" (the Spanish term "libre" is often used, as it is distinct from "gratis"). Free Software can be sold commercially, so long as it still adequately fulfills the four freedoms outlined above. As we'll see, however, the ideals of Free Software suggest a powerful anti-capital potential--though, as Liu points out, it yet to be fully realized. Regardless, Stallman's ideas blossomed into a robust community of programmers, users, and enthusiasts.

Despite the growing popularity of several GNU programs, a full operating system remained out of reach of the GNU project. The missing piece was the kernel, which is the critical piece of software that controls the interfacing between a computer's hardware and software. The GNU project opted to build a theoretically advanced kernel, Hurd, but development was (and still is!) slow and difficult. In 1991, Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds created the Linux kernel, which could be combined with the tools from the GNU project to make a functional, free operating system. This allowed the ideas of the Free Software movement to propagate wildly. Today GNU/Linux systems are used by millions of people, and host at least 30%(and perhaps as much as 70%!) of the world's websites.

The Open Source Initiative came later (around 1998), and was a mixed blessing. It was formed explicitly to free the movement of the ideologies of Free Software, and to make a pragmatic and business-friendly case for software with open source code. Its founders, especially Eric S. Raymond, carried a right-libertarian ethos into the movement. It succeeded spectacularly: open-source software is now used extensively by corporations, and is often tightly integrated into proprietary corporate software (see: Android). While this gave a signal boost to the broader movement, it did so at the cost of effacing the politically potent ideas of the Free Software movement, which are substantially less digestible to the corporate elite.

Many popular programs you may already use are Free Software--the browser extension uBlock Origin, the media player VLC, and the audio editing program Audacity are all Free Software. This distinction is made with a software license, which governs the legality of various sorts of usage, distribution, and modification. The Free Software Foundation prefers the GNU General Public License (GPL), but other Free Software licenses include the MIT (Expat) License, the Apache License, and the original BSD License. The GPL and other copyleft licenses are of particular interest to us, as we'll see later. A full list of Free Software licenses is available here.

With that bit of history out of the way, let's get into the meat of why the left needs Free Software. There are several facets of the movement that the left can benefit from: its potential for breaking corporate hegemony, its robust effects on security culture, its democratic and egalitarian ethos, and its status as a microcosm of prefigurative politics.

One of the most attractive attributes of Free Software for the left is that its very existence undermines corporate power. Tech companies, particularly the modern colossi, make their money primarily via proprietary software with opaque source code (and the invasive practices enabled by the same). Free Software holds immense anti-capitalist potential: programs licensed as Free Software can by definition be freely distributed, which flies in the face of the artificial scarcity promoted by tech companies. "Software subscriptions" of the sort promulgated by Adobe are incompatible with free software, as well. A broad awareness and acceptance of Free Software would be a nightmare for the current Big Tech business models, as folks would find that they can get their computing done without continually sending money to Silicon Valley. Free Software puts community before profits, and nowhere is that more clear than in Free Software's embrace of copyleft.

Copyleft refers to any license which permits the free use, modification, and distribution of the work, and which requires derivative works to be licensed similarly. Copyleft as a legal principle was essentially birthed by the GPL, which requires derivative works to be also be licensed under the GPL; as a result, each derivative program must also have its source code available to the users, and not have restrictions on its use, modification, or distribution. Companies cannot prevent the user of a copylefted work from sharing it freely. Since users can compile a copy of a working program from its source code, building commercial software on top of copylefted code is not in the best interests of the bottom line. Corporate-minded programmers have referred to the GPL as the "General Public Virus" because it makes software unsuitable for turning into a proprietary derivative work. By contrast, more permissive Free Software licenses allow corporations to monetarily benefit from the free labor of programmers; such licenses are not ideal anticapitalist tools.

Usage of Free Software cuts into the market share of tech giants, denying them the profits they would make from the use of their proprietary software. Free software is also free of the invasive advertising that fuels so much of Silicon Valley. By using a different web browser, you chip away at Chrome's ad-inundated userbase. By refusing to use Microsoft Office, the money you would spend "renewing your subscription" can go to better causes than feeding the corporate machine. Nearly every software tool imaginable has a viable alternative that is licensed as Free Software, many under copyleft licenses. In many arenas, functionality is just as good, if not better, than proprietary programs. While Free Software used to have a justified reputation as being difficult for beginners, many Linux distributions and their associated programs are now just as friendly to the neophyte as proprietary systems. It may not be "the year of the Linux desktop" yet, but we're at the point where any mook can run a system that is entirely (or almost-entirely) Free Software.

When I see leftists organizing through Facebook or Discord, my face usually looks something like this:

NBA player Nick Young looking very confused and skeptical

While creating a bulletproof digital Security Culture is notoriously difficult, using proprietary platforms gives you all the security of a gazebo. Any platform with a closed source code--Windows 10, Discord, WhatsApp, Twitter, all of it--can (and likely does) harvest your data, and until someone blows a whistle none of us will be the wiser. It's wise to consider every one of your posts, photos, and saucy DMs (yes, even the deleted ones) on these platforms as available to the company, its employees, and to the government. Much has been written on Facebook's construction of personal profiles for targeted, algorithm-driven advertisement. Google notoriously uses user data to enrich its own programs and make titanic profits from its targeted advertising. Windows and MacOS can, via their automatic-by-default system updates, force your computer to install and execute any software that they desire--and not one user will know for sure what that is. Big Tech and the government are willing to work together when it comes to your data, even outside of legally-binding subpoenas. Google was working on a censored search engine for China before the program was publicly outed and later terminated. It isn't difficult to see how a government looking to crack down on left-wing activism could easily obtain data used by these companies to identify activists for suppression. Using Free Software makes it substantially more difficult for corporations and governments to invade your privacy and track your activities. Operating systems like various Linux distributions allow the user to control the data that comes in and out of their systems. Distributed social media systems lack centralized data storage. Most importantly, programs under free software licenses allow the user to inspect the source code. Most Free Software programs have their source code publicly available on the internet. This not only makes it very likely that paranoid nerds will go through the source code to avoid malware, but also allows for rapid identification and remediation of security vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, Free Software systems are still susceptible to the network-snooping tools used by powerful governments (such as PRISM and xKeyscore). I may go more in-depth on this issue in a future essay, but there are a few ways to make your digital communications more difficult to intercept. Tor seems to be the current best answer for secure web browsing, while for direct communication you should use Free Software clients (not web browsers!) for chat protocols which support End to End (E2E) encryption, such as Matrix or Bitmessage. If you are organizing politically, the most secure way to do so digitally is via these sorts of protocols, using a free operating system. Don't forget, too, that a great deal of security can be found in organizing intelligently away from digital spaces.

As a small bonus, most (though not all!) personal computer malware targets Windows systems, so there is a small additional layer of security in that regard when using a free operating system.

If you need to be convinced any more that the bosses of the big tech companies are soulless scum that don't deserve your support, I've listed a small handful of their more egregious behaviors in an Appendix. Their past actions and massive potential for future harm more than outweigh any convenience from using their services in my book.

Enough of the doom and gloom for now--let's talk about some of the positive aspects of the Free Software movement which the left can stand to embrace and learn from. The biggest is that the Four Essential Freedoms promote a spirit of sharing and community. This is made manifest in the common modern practice of Free Software programmers posting their source code publicly. In many cases, anyone can look at a program's source code and submit their proposed patches and changes to the project's maintainer. If the maintainer is unreceptive, the user is free to copy the code, apply their own changes, and publish the new program themselves (a practice known as "forking"). This culture has allowed the Free Software movement to create a staggering array of creative programs; the freedom of information allows anyone with the skills to improve existing programs or create new ones from older models. This has also allowed for the development of scenes--groups of developers and users focusing on distinct ideas and their implementations. While they are often bemoaned for getting in the way of the creation of a monolithic market-competitor, different software scenes allow the user to tailor their experience to their preferences. Fans of accessible GUI applications may find their place in the GNOME scene, while adherents of software minimalism might jive more with the suckless crowd. Free Software facilitates the existence of a wide array of communities, built around collaboration and sharing.

The broader movement's predilection for open information has also made a great deal of educational materials freely available; it has never been easier to get smarter about computing. We as leftists could stand to do so: computers are omnipresent tools in our lives, and the only way to control our tools is to understand them. Greater computing knowledge will let us choose the correct software for the correct job. We can learn to make our own tools when suitable ones do not exist--or when those that do have their usage constrained by company policies and closed source code. Through Free Software, we can build digital worlds beyond the long reach of corporate capitalism.

Free Software can also help connect users and communities with fewer resources to the outside world. Proprietary operating systems cease supporting older hardware as a matter of course, but Free Software often runs splendidly even on older machines. This author runs a fairly full-featured Debian GNU/Linux install on a tower from 2006!

These ideas mirror some the principles of what I see as a healthy left: an inclusive and egalitarian attitude, diverse scenes which share common principles, a respect for individual freedom, and widespread availability of information. Adopting Free Software instead of proprietary software will bring the left more in line with these ideals. Tangentially, I'd encourage lefties out there to get on board with the Free Culture movement more generally--though that may be a discussion for another time.

Free Software is also a vital (if not fully realized) example of a prefigurative politics: the movement has built a dual power in software alongside the proprietary tech giants. The movement started out small, largely unpopular, and confined to a group of enthusiasts. It has grown since its inception into functional near-parity with its more powerful and better-funded adversary. Critically for a left-adjacent movement, it coalesced around a set of ideas rather than a figurehead--while Stallman, Torvalds, and others have their contributions rightly respected, they are hardly figureheads in the sense of a Gates or a Jobs. Like any good institution of dual power, it will survive the inevitable collapse of capital while its rivals will not. If we are to use computers during and after the demise of modern industrial capitalism, they ought to be outfitted with Free Software. We should seek to emulate its success when building dual power institutions of our own, and outfitting said institutions with Free Software will eliminate a link of dependency on corporations.

The Free Software movement represents an opportunity for the left. It gives us not only a suite of functional alternatives to proprietary software, but through copyleft provides a potent tool to undercut profits and move away from outmoded ideas of "intellectual property". Through Free Software, we can keep our data out of centralized storehouses and open the door to powerful anti-surveillance tools. The movement serves as a model institution of dual power, and a tool to facilitate the building of other prefigurative movements. While the movement to dismantle companies via trust-busting is of paramount importance, adopting Free Software lets us pivot away from the services of industrial capitalism as individuals and as a culture.

Further reading:

GNU Project philosphy

Free Software Foundation

Appendix: more reasons why big tech sucks

Now, if you feel pretty on-board with these ideas, you are likely wondering where to start as a n00b. First, a couple basic guidelines:

Some concrete steps I suggest taking:

Again, there's no need to do all this at once. I'd encourage you to pick a few of these things and give them a try. There is a lot we can do to free our data and restore our privacy. Each little bit helps erode the power of the techno-industrial oligarchy we live under, and helps ready the world for a time without corporate computing.

~slothbear, 09/17/2020

many thanks to mml, lm, and rd for providing feedback on early drafts of this essay.
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