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Ryan Cartwright [opinions]

Advocating free software in the real world [advocacy] [licences] [pragmatism] [practicality]

Recently, in this column, I spoke about how we can lose our free software choices if we don't use them. Sticking with that choice is not always easy so how do we get others to make it, particularly in a world where the choice is often made for them. How can we advocate free software in a world where others don't seem to care?

Stick or Fold? What to do when choice is removed

I am writing this on a train travelling north through England from London to Newcastle. I arrived at the station with enough time to grab a newspaper and a coffee for the journey. Unfortunately none of the station booths supplied Fairtrade coffee and I have long since chosen to only buy Fairtrade coffee. The train operator also does not supply Fairtrade so I was faced with compromising on my ideals or a four hour train journey with--gasp--no coffee. I survived (just) but seeing many of my fellow passengers with their coffee made me wonder why they had bought un-fairly traded coffee. Did they not know all the facts? Perhaps they knew them but oppose Fairtrade? Do they not care strongly either way? Maybe they just chose convenience over principle?

You'll see where I am going with this: the same questions can--and are--asked about users of non-free software. I suspect, in both cases, an awful lot of people straddle the last two groups. Personally, I'd rather see people buying only fairly traded goods and using only free software and I want to help them change.

Regular readers may be a little puzzled to find me advocating a purist approach

Hang on--did you just say..?

Regular readers of this column may be a little puzzled to find me advocating a purist approach to using free software--considering how I had used this argument as an example of free software FUD. Just to clarify, I personally use free software wherever and whenever possible. Sometimes that is just not possible and so I compromise--although often with some kind of vocal protest. I believe advocacy to individuals has a higher chance of success if built on existing relationships, so I'm unlikely to be speaking to my fellow travellers about this. I'd like them to change their ways though and--as I suspect many probably don't care either way--I'll complain to the train company and the station outlet chains. I've done this before with hotels, caf├ęs and supermarkets and where I don't succeed--and there is a choice--I take my business elsewhere.

Advocacy on a personal level

With the train company I have little option, direct trains to Newcastle are realistically provided by a single company so I can only keep nagging. This reminds me of a home-user buying a computer. There appears to be a choice of two operating systems and one of those has a proven monopoly. Asking either Apple or Microsoft to switch to free software may well be fruitless but what about asking the retailer? Does it matter if they fob you off? I think not. If we don't ask, they will say there's no demand just as the train company and supermarkets do. So lets create that demand.

We need to let retailers know that their customers want them to offer a free software option

I'm not suggesting a co-ordinated mass e-mail campaign--just in case HM Government is reading. I'm saying we need to let them know that their existing and potential customers want them to offer a free software option. Some music retailers offer download stations: where you can download music and burn it to a CD or an iPod, why can computer stores not offer a something like a freedom toaster with a charge for media and "handling"?

Keep on going

Something else we can learn from the Fairtrade movement is to not give up. If the train operator writes me one of those "we value your views but we're going to ignore them" replies, I shall wait until my next journey and--if nothing has changed--complain again. The Fairtrade movement, here in the UK at least, spent many years struggling to get people to recognise the importance of its message. In recent years it has seen significant fruit from its labours.

We can tell people how free software enables users in poorer nations to partake in this brave new world

Granted their message has a greater initial impact: we can hardly produce images of poor programmers who can't afford to send their kids to school, but we can:

  • tell people how free software enables users in poorer nations to partake in this brave new world we're building;
  • explain how our grandchildren will be able to play multimedia we create--if we use free software and open formats to create them;
  • explain how free software extends the usable life of a computer, meaning fewer need end up in landfills.

We can also demonstrate how--contrary to what some say--using free software does not have to mean losing out. The man next to me is running Windows XP, I'm running Debian: we're both using the free wireless internet connection available on the train and neither of us did much more than enable our wireless ports. Actually I'm probably a little more secure because I got to see the wireless services available and choose which one to connect to. His laptop just connected to the first available one it found--wonderful if you are a man-in-the-middle. I can also personally close every port on my laptop and know it is closed, if I want to.

Advocating in the real world

As said we live in a world where most people--probably--don't care about the licence for software they use. We live in a world where businesses will always care about the bottom line before our principles. We live in a world where people buy whatever coffee is available without much thought of the people who grew the beans. But it's a world world where people like us can influence change in a lot of ways. It's a world where it is possible--however unlikely it appears--that one day people will "get it", after all: we got it. We just need to tell them. Tell people one at a time, tell companies every time, understanding their position, their opinion but demanding the same in reverse. Don't leave it to others who are more experienced--they don't have your experience, they don't have the ear of your friends in the same way you do.


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