Ethical Consumption and Free Software

From LibrePlanet
Jump to: navigation, search

This series of three articles discusses the possibility for the free software movement to follow the path of the ethical consumption movement (obviously without abandoning anything that it is doing now). Written in mid-2008 by Mathieu GP. Also available in the original French.

First article - About involving my grand-mother in the free software movement

At the present, individuals directly involved in some militant activities for the free software movement tend to share a common set of characteristics: they are computer literate, probably work in some sector of the vast, globalized computer industry, and they are more or less politicized. In other words, they are really a minority of all of us, humans, who day to day are increasingly dependent upon computers. The majority of us, humans, have a relationship to computers similar to that which we have with cars: most of us do not have one, and those who do only want to use is to go from point A to point B, not to take it apart and learn how the engine works. Such is the reality of most humans who buy the digital gadgets our industry pours on them by torrents.

Reaching out the consuming masses

Reflecting upon this, I asked myself (at some point while day-dreaming when I was supposed to be working) if there was something that we, the free software movement's main protagonists, could do to better reach out the consuming masses who purchase the digital products and services our industry creates. Is there something to be done so that we, the citizens who once in while get to be consumers, be more directly involved in the battle for software freedoms?

And part of the reason why I was asking myself that question is that I am participating, as are many other people who are politicized, try to be good citizens any way they can, (but unlike me do not necessarily know what the words "compiler", "source code", or "executable" really mean), I am participating, says I, to another great ethical movement, that of fair trade. And my participation in that movement really is dead simple: I play consumer and search for a logo on a box. Anyone can do that. The prerequisites to involvement are really as low as they could ever get.

And, while I was still day dreaming, but not necessarily on the same day (I do that a lot), I wondered if maybe it was not inconceivable that participating to the free software movement should one day become really a simple matter of locking onto the logo of an ethical label in my visual field, logo that would certify that the product I am about to purchase operates using only free software.

Free software already about ethics

Free software itself is defined according to criteria which are essentially ethical. It could easily be argued that developers who choose to distribute their code under a free software license, do something very analogous to what a coffee or sugar producer does when he distributes his production through fair trade networks. There are of course differences, the most visible possibly being that while the final buyer of fairly traded coffee beans expects to pay more, the user of a copy of a free software generally expects to pay absolutely nothing to get it. Consequently, the economic argument which sometimes is disfavorable to fair trade products (in the eye of irresponsible citizens) is not even valid in the case of free software! That is a manifest advantage.

A picture is worth a thousand words

I did not stop at those reflections. I came to the belief, through deeper meditation into the question, that, one way or another, the free software movement was going to need to find the means of better dialoguing with the non-technical masses. While the concepts of "software" itself, its licensing, and what is and is not doable with it, are understood by most techies, all techies put together form in reality but a small subset of all those who purchase digital devices. In my opinion, it is not impossible to get citizens to be generally aware of the importance of software freedoms, but it is not practical to hope that the average Joe will one day start asking questions about the licenses of all software a given device might be using before buying it. Yet, supporting free software and being consequent about it involves paying attention to software licenses. Therefore, I think we would be answering a real need of citizens, non-technical ones especially, if we were to delegate to a non-profit organization the task of certifying, for all our sakes, all the digital devices that as conscious citizens we can safely buy if we care about freedom and wish to put our money where our mouth is. And communicate all this through a simple logo of our creation.

How could we go about making this a reality? To use technical jargon, how could this be "implemented"?

All those who care to know my take on it are invited to read my second article next week.

Second Article - Standards and certification processes

In the first article of this series, I introduced the idea of better involving non-technical people in the free software movement through the means of a certification system designed to help consumers identify products that meet ethical standards based on the already existing free software ethics. In conclusion, I invited my readers to read the upcoming article to learn how I personally think we could combine ethical consumption and free software.

The question I am trying to answer is: Could we not contribute to the emergence of a trade community comparable to that revolving around fairly-traded or organic products but instead for digital devices (and ultimately online services) that would comply to standards derived from the ethics of free software?

How to certify

If we want to certify, we need to establish a standard embodying the requirements for compliance (to the ethics of free software) and certification processes meant to verify and ultimately certify this compliance in real world cases.

We are lucky to already have a standard for what is and what is not a free software in the FSF's clear definition of it. Likewise, we already have a list of software licenses that respect the four fundamental freedoms of computer users. What we need now is a standard for specifying the requirements a digital device must meet to conform to the ethics of free software. Roughly sketched out, this could be any digital device which can be used, in the totality of its advertised functions 1) without requiring non-free software and 2) while enjoying the same after-sale service and the same guarantee of the manufacturer as do the other consumers of the same product.

The same could be accomplished for online services, with the requirements being (in a nutshell) that they must not involve the execution of non-free software to deliver the service to the client. Obviously, this concerns the software residing on the server equipment directly involved in the delivery of the service as much as the software being downloaded on the client computer.

In the case of products, we need to develop cheap and efficient processes to verify that a given digital device indeed respects the new standard we have established. Digital device makers interested in selling on our market to get our money would apply to obtain a certificate for the products they claim can be fully operated using free software only, right out of the box, and with full warranty and after-sale service. Possession of the certificate would permit the displaying of a visual logo consumers would have come to recognize and value.

One possible way to achieve this would be to require the applicant 1) to provide access to the source code repository or repositories of the software needed to operate their device and 2) to send a copy of the said device to the certification office (by mail, at their own expense). After checking the licenses of the source code files*, the office would build the software from source and try to use the device in all the functions it is supposed to be capable of according to the maker's promises. Obviously, if the device required any non-free software to run, it would become apparent at that step. In my opinion, a final verification concerning the warranty and after-sale service should be done before granting the certificate. This is so as to ensure that consumers who have opted for free software are not treated as second-class consumers and consequently come to regret their higher virtues.

In the case of online services, it is difficult to imagine that a serious verification could be done without sending someone to inspect the server room and check what software is truly being run on all the computer equipment involved in the delivery of the service. Consequently, certification in this field might turn out to be both lengthy and expensive, not to mention short-lived since server rooms tend to be expended and upgraded. What can we do about this? For the moment, I have no good answer to that question, but maybe my readers will think of ways we might overcome the difficulties of certifying online services. Since making the certification of digital devices a success will be a challenge all by itself, maybe it is for the best that we should focus most of our efforts on achieving it before we undertake any other type of certification.

A certified certification agency

When the volume of applications to the certification program justifies it, we should aim to have the verification done by an autonomous certification agency, whose neutrality, independence, and transparency we could all trust after it has obtained an ISO 65 (EN 45011) accreditation. Yes, that means there actually is a standard to certify that a certification agency is ethical and efficient and not bogus.

In the next article, I answer some of the "arguments" or rather excuses that some are likely to come up with in reaction to the set of ideas I am advancing in this series.


* To a certain extent, this can already be done remotely using ohloh's source license detection feature. The ability to do a file-by-file verification of the software licences, over the network, would provide us with the clear advantage of being able to do a solid pre-validation of an applicant's requests, even before we authorize the sending of a device to our office in order to perform the more time-consuming steps of the certification process.

Third Article - Yeah, but it won't work because...

It will not work because we are not numerous enough to care about freedom. It will not work because the industry will not follow. It will not work because ethical consumption does not work. I forecast these are going to be the most common objections raised in reaction to the ideas I moved forward in the preceding articles.

Of course, it is certain that there will be challenges if we are to set up an organization whose mission would be to deliver a certificate to an applicant when it will have been verified that the digital device it makes is out of the box operable using only free software. So that he who buys that device, be it a laptop, a "smart" phone, a printer, any computer part, or anything of the sort, is guaranteed by a neutral third party that his action directly encourages the development of an alternative to software that deprives us all of our liberties.

We will not be numerous enough

It is certain that it will be marginal at first. There will be few certified devices. Those devices will be little known to the general public in most countries. But marginal on a global scale can soon mean hundreds of thousands of people and progressively millions. But more important than that, the consumers who buy these products will know what free software is about: the label we will create will carry the meaning that the labels/trade marks/slogans we are currently familiar with never will.

One advantage we will have over other ethical consumption initiatives is that we will not be requiring verifications at all steps in the chain. We need a one-time verification of the licenses on the source code files. Once we have that, we need only to confirm that if we do build the software from that source code we end up with a fully operational device, one that the manufacturer intends to support without any disadvantage to its freedom loving clients.

The industry will not follow

The computer industry would not follow if we said that the devices should be shipped with free software only in the box. But that is not what we are saying. (Although that should be encouraged too of course.) What we ask is a free software option. The desktop, laptop and netbook builders already offer Windows 7, or Vista or XP (or even Ubuntu) as an option. As for the makers of components, they already develop software drivers for various target platforms, typically Windows and Mac OS X. Everything is already in place to permit alternatives. Our task will be to make the industry see its interest in offering the certified free-software alternative.

No industry in the world is more used to standards and specifications than the computer industry. It is hard to imagine that there could be much protest against introducing a new one. Will the industry pay attention to it though? This is mostly a matter of making our market attractive to sellers. Can we be perceived by them as a bunch who are as stubbornly attached to their freedoms as some other folks are attached to Apple products? Are we ready to be zealous about where we spend our money and who we give it to?

One argument we can use to convince the industry that it is in their best interest to pay attention to us is by reminding them that we are no ordinary buyers. A computer techie is no ordinary buyer. As private individuals, family and friends come to us for advice regarding the purchase of technological products. Some of us even provide this kind of advice as a matter of profession. Consequently, we are worth more than our numbers suggest.

While it might be argued that those who will choose to only buy products certified as operable using free software alone, will be choosing marginality, it may likewise be argued that pursuing this path might be one of the best ways to take the free software community completely out of marginality in the long run. There is no independence without financial independence. Volunteers who write free software to replace ever reappearing proprietary software cannot be a long-term economic alternative.

Ethical certification might just be the way to make it both popular and economically viable to buy digital devices that respect the freedoms of those who will be using them.

Ethical consumption does not work

As with all argumentation, the one I have been advancing in this series relies on premises that may not be universally accepted as being true. One of my premises is that ethical consumption "works", that it helps us to buy as conscientious citizens rather than as mere consumers unconditionally looking for the best deal in town. This "ethical consumption works" premise is itself only meaningful when one accepts as true the premise that not only does it work, but is also a desirable method of walking towards a freer and more just society. As for the desirability of walking towards a freer and more just society, well, discussing this makes us enter deep into the realm of values, moral and political philosophy, and speculation about the future where logically sound arguments are certainly still useful but clearly insufficient.

Therefore, if discussion on any and all these premises interest some of my readers, they are more than welcomed to contact me. :-)