Free Software’s Radical Past

Something is absurd about the idea that free and open source software (FOSS) is apolitical. How could a movement that changes the way software is produced and alters conventional notions about the rights of users not be political in the broadest sense? Admittedly, though, FOSS in 2019 seems less political than it used to be.

Still, the idea remains widespread. Anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, for example, researched the Debian project, in the past one of the most radical FOSS communities, yet describes FOSS as a whole as “politically agnostic.” Similarly, many programmers would insist that what matters is the technology. Nor is it difficult to find left and right wingers working together in FOSS although not always harmoniously.

The reasons for believing FOSS to be apolitical are not hard to find. For one thing, the foundations that govern many larger projects are often registered charities, and need to be cautious about political involvement so as not to lose their tax-free status. For another, after being condemned by Microsoft as “communism,” few FOSS participants were willing to declare any open political stance. That is especially true in the United States, where, decades after the cold war, coming out as a socialist has only started to become acceptable in the last year or two. Under some circumstances, keeping your head down and coding was only sensible.

Moreover, how political free software appears depends very much on the communities with which you interact. To give an obvious example, The Apache Foundation with its permissive licenses is far less political than the GNU Project, with its advocacy of copyleft licenses and its connection to the Free Software Foundation.

When examined, the idea that FOSS is apolitical is one of those generalizing half-truths — it contains bits of insights, but in the end is incomplete. While never the major focus of free software, political activism remains close to the heart of the movement. Sometimes, this activism is only a generalized and often naive mistrust of corporations and the profit motive, but frequently it has been more influenced by radical thought than most people –even participants — believe.

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