Group: Freedom Ladder/Understanding nonfree software meeting

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General notes

The current step we have devised are meant to be really gradual. We want to keep it simple but also try to avoid having to explain everything further after reading. It’ll be a fine balance between information overload and confusing people with steps that are too grand for their needs.

Progression I used to perceive was: free apps, GNU/Linux, blocking nonfree JS, 100% free distro, free bios. I wonder if nowadays we need to move the issues of JS and SaaSS ahead, so that users don’t replace local proprietary apps with worse app store ones

We need to make it clear that the end goal is a 100% free OS, but that a free OS with some nonfree components is an acceptable waypoint on your journey – just don’t stop there More freedom every step

Who we’re trying to reach

  • People who aren’t especially technical and who aren’t already in the development community.
  • People who want to increase the amount of freedom in their lives
  • People who are frustrated with nonfree computing aspects

The last thing we want this to be is a traditional “get into GNU/Linux” guide; we never want to give the impression that using nonfree software is a desirable outcome. in the sense that many guides never mention freedom at all, and end with installing Ubuntu. At the same time, though, we need to “help people where they are” and help them take steps toward freedom incrementally. There are some people that will do a gradual change. There are a lot of people that are glad to use some free software apps but never care to learn about the principles.

It seems we need to start by doing some sort of research and learning about users.


Consider switching step 1 and 2. Getting people interested and having them find their own reasons to use free software is probably the incentive for people to learn more about what free software really is.

  • They have to find their own motivation; that’s what’s going to push them through the rest of the steps

Step 1. Understanding nonfree software (should maybe be step 2?)

A question is how soon we want to start introducing people to terminology. “free” is going to be a big one, especially in English. At the same time we don’t want to overwhelm people with a wholly new set of vocabulary.

This step should give people the words and aha moments to the frustrations they have been feeling (likely one of the ones listed in step 2), but at the same time not confuse them.

Two situations:

  • Someone uses free software (say VLC) successfully and later becomes aware of the fact that it is free software, and then what that means. This would be the: “I would prove it works first then discuss the freedom bit” method.
  • Someone learns about free software and will have to take steps towards freeing their system.

Things to consider because every user is different:

  • Every user is different so find out what the user needs their computer for, that then may open an angle for a conversation that makes people interested in the subject.

Concepts the ladder will need to explain:

  • DRM
  • Copyleft
  • Patent
  • GPL
  • GNU Project
  • GNU/Linux

Understanding free software

The step needs to speak to all the arguments that are made in the “find your own reason section.”

  • Control: “I think one way to put it for people who do not know how to program and who do not feel inclined to learning/reading source code is to point them that someone will have that power and that it could be either a monopolist company or a community and that if it is free, the control is always shared and not locked into some entity.”
  • Frustration with other systems: look at it from “the technical side. For instance:”Windows automatically decided to do updates. You have a meeting in 5 minutes and the slides you need are on that computer." Something along these lines.…"

Free programs that are easily adopted

  • LibreOffice
  • Firefox
  • VLC
  • IceCat / Thunderbird
  • F-droid (for mobile)
  • Inkscape
  • Note that not all freeer replacements will be fully free (ie Firefox). We should make sure people are aware of the differences, but still be motivated to make the switch.

Step 2. Finding your own reason to use free software

  • “what freedom means” is kind of different things to different people. it has to do with what each person cares about, wishes to do, etc." - find example RMS article?

Reasons for freedom

The first thing should be make users understand why it’s important to make the switch to free software. This will then trigger them to learn more. Each individual will be motivated by what is important to them. If we can manage to make links with other activists groups this would be really beneficial.

Some reasons that were discussed in the meeting were:

  • Convenience: Sometimes the nonfree counterpart is not convenient (see the VLC case). The choice for free software is not a matter of convenience for the free software movement, but for the general public it can be.
  • Avoiding hardware obsolescence or the environment: If they have an old PC that is really slow running windows for example, see if you can back up their data and install Linux. “making it”cool" for people to use their hardware as long as they possibly can would be a great way to get people to move to free software."
  • Obtaining a fully free system can be technically challenging or costly. You may be asking people to save money on free (as in freedom) software, but then spend money on extra hardware.

The thing is nobody is required to rush to get their computer or components replaced. but nearly every computer breaks down eventually. being aware and planning the next step, and looking forward to it, even if it’s in a distant future, is part of the path

  • Privacy: The problem is the famous line “If you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear”. Privacy is a common worry among all groups of people, not matter how technologically apt they are. We need to make sure that people understand that without free software there will be no privacy. Some people see “privacy” as “secrecy”
  • It is important to always note that free software does not guarantee privacy, however, free software is a prerequisite for privacy.
  • Frustration with other systems: people often get frustrated with forced updates (that take forever, or popup during important presentations), or with upgrading the OS to a newer version in which they lose more freedoms. That is a good time to make them aware of the possibilities of free software. “I have lost count how many times i have seen people doing a presentation with Windows and have their laptop try and reboot due to updates”
  • Gratis: Free software is often gratis, and that motivates people. It is important to recognize the reality of this, but we also have to emphasize it is the freedom that matters.

note > watch out for the frequent association of gratis with low quality, and the idea that people are learning now that if they’re not paying for something, they’re the product

  • Control: “people would probably dislike the notion of having someone else control a part of their body, and they pretty much perceive their pocket/purse computers as extensions to their body. Conveying the notion that they should aim for having control of that as much as of any other part of their bodies may be useful.” Speak to the feeling you’re entitled to control your own computing. This argument got a lot of resonance.

note > Many people are not aware that control is actually an option. This speaks to the food argument (understanding a meal is made up of ingredients that you can decide), but people think you can only get the full meal. Or like ordering a finished painting, not the paint if that makes sense. It took me a while to understand you can do the actual painting.

  • JavaScript: Avoid the JavaScript trap
  • Seeing tech companies get too much power: “Google Play and especially the Apple App Store are monopolies.”
  • DRM
  • Vendor lock-in
  • Security: “If you allow inauditable software to run on it, you’re exposing yourself to many security threats.”
  • Freedom. “I know I have not to worry about license expiration or things like those. And if I want to change something or to study something… I can simply open the source code.” – free software, free society argument

Examples of frustrations

  • Sketchup, a “free” (i.e. gratis) app now replaced with their saas web browser app
  • The backdoor for adobe disabling flash player.
  • Apple store removing Element (Matrix client) too a few months ago? (app store apple) – might not be the best example?


  • How to reach people that are not familiar with free software: “I think mailing list is the only thing accessible to non technical users, but then you need a list in a language that users are confident enough with, most people I talk to would not read a list in English”
  • “It’s not a show stopper, but this addiction to doing Google Docs, Zoom meetings and using all sorts of web apps is something that has a higher resistance by some users I’ve successfully migrated to GNU.”
  • There’s also a huge amount of peer pressure to use some SaaSS
  • The no-money in it argument scares people away from software “these people don’t get paid”

Things to watch out for:

  • To have people encounter programs that are difficult to adapt to in these first steps, we do not want to develop the idea that free software doesn’t work
  • People often present partial steps as a solution, instead of as steps in the right direction, and then users get very frustrated when they find out the “solution” doesn’t really get them what they wish, and suspicious of other “solutions” presented to them.
  • We need clear progression rather than going off on a bunch of tangents. later steps can have “further reading” type components, but the principal thing is giving people an awareness of free software, getting them to replace a few nonfree programs they use, and get using GNU/Linux

Future steps

Getting people to swap one nonfree program with a free program, even if that’s on a nonfree operating system. (e.g. Word -> LibreOffice; Windows Media Player -> VLC; or what have you) – we will likely have to link step 1 to step 3

Idea: Build a list of free programs that works great and then propose a table of “equivalence”. (There is no pros/cons), watch out for the argument “if they are the same software, why should I bother learning to use another one since I’m already comfortable with the (nonfree) software I run?”

Ideas for resources (needs community help)

  • A list of programs (directory?) with comparisons with nonfree programs – somehow direct this to the Free Software Directory so people can find more. (we do not want to create new resources when we can use existing ones)
  • Stickers:
    • list the 4 freedoms.
    • represent the steps in the ladder as a talking point.
    • “Take the first step”
  • How-to guides or videos (preferred) we can direct to in the ladder steps
  • And I would cite some stories about some users that got damaged by running nonfree software (leaving the privacy aspect aside for a moment, so it’s better if the stories do not cite this – one problem at a time
  • Make a sort of “timetable”, for instance adopting one free replacement every X weeks.

Links mentioned in the meeting