The Free Software Foundation (FSF), Apple, Activism and DRM. Lessons to be learned?

Let me issue a disclaimer right off. Before I ever typed my first GNU/Linux command in a terminal the Free Software Foundation was fighting the good fight for free software and all the issues surrounding individual freedom and privacy both on and offline. All of us owe it a debt of gratitude for the work is has done and continues to do on behalf of the principles of a free society and free computing. It's commitment to these things is unswerving but one of the down sides of this unremitting focus is the danger of a loss of perspective on certain campaigning issues. This article takes a look back at one in particular. DRM.

Choose the battleground carefully

It would be unfair and an exaggeration to characterize the FSF as a "single issue fanatic" group

It would be unfair and an exaggeration to characterize the FSF as a "single issue fanatic" group. It isn't, but it does needs to be careful that it does not fall prey to the tunnel vision that has led so many others to lose their sense of proportion and lurch into extremes. For the most part it has put it's weight and skills behind campaigns against DRM, the RIAA, patents, proprietary codecs, open source release of Java code, the Linux free BIOS, its compliance lab for licencing queries and trusted computing, and it has got it about right. Sometimes though, its sureness of touch deserts it and in its zeal to protect and promote free software it can be in danger of behaving counter productively.

I am referring to the attack on DRM on the Apple iPhone, part of the FSF's Defective by Design campaign. The FSF suggested that free software supporters should grill the shop staff at the Apple Genius Bar with questions about DRM. Ironically, the iPhone launched on the same day as the GLPv3 (whose DRM provisions left Linus Torvalds so unimpressed, although the GPL debuted six hours before the iPhone. On launch day, in New York and London, activists descended on flagship Apple stores to highlight the nature of DRM. Now, as anyone who has been reading FSM articles in the last six months will know, I dislike DRM and "trusted computing" as much as the next GNU/Linux user. I try not give it house room and the FSF campaign against is fully justified, but tactics are as important as strategy.

I only work here on Saturdays mate, honest

The average Apple store employee, confronted by those tactics would either be unaware of DRM issues or would say "Look, I only work here on Saturdays mate. I'll get the manager". When I ask technical questions in my local Dixons/Currys store here in the UK I am confronted frequently too by blank stares of incomprehension, usually by staff who haven't had their first shave yet. They are salespersons, not "propeller heads".

The sales staff don't make corporate policy. They are trained to sell electronic goods, not to be versed in the evils of proprietary software or hobbled hardware. Haranguing sales staff is to direct justified ire at the wrong target. It is a matter of not only picking the right battle but where and on what terms to fight it too. If I were expressing this in terms of economics I would argue that the issue of DRM should be demand-side driven. In other words, the FSF needs to concentrate more on educating the public. Of course it already does this but we need a lot more of it. If consumers are educated about why DRM is a bad thing for their freedoms and pockets and are given the software tools to make the binary blobs superfluous this may achieve more than flash-mobbing Apple. Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) has, for example, initiated a campaign for the adoption of free software PDF readers and there is of course there is Gnash, the free software alternative to Adobe's proprietary Flash Player. That's good.

It seems that the "I want one of those" syndrome is a near irresistible Siren lure for many people who just have to have the latest cool gadget

Apple's shiny things and Microsoft's FUD would not endure any prolonged consumer boycott. However, it seems that the "I want one of those" syndrome is a near irresistible Siren lure for many people who just have to have the latest cool gadget. The FSF have their work cut out. Getting to the consumer is not always easy and at least "targeting" the vendor gets some publicity and it's hardly an original tactic. Activists on everything from the environment, to drugs and animal right campaigners have engaged in direct action, sometimes illegally, but activism needs to cut its cloth to suit. The arguments to pitch GNU/Linux to the average end user are different to those needed to sell it to businesses where the bottom line is cost and profit. Many free software advocates do this very well

It's an uphill struggle

Much of the best work by the FSF is not high profile in terms of public awareness. It is better known amongst the activist and free software communities and we are glad for it but when it ventures into the non-specialist public arena it is apt to be misunderstood by a public to whom its actions can look like pure political activism. It is impossible to know how effective such campaigns actually are but we do know from other groups that businesses are susceptible to pressure when their policies are unpopular with customers and/or shareholders. However those successes tend to be with high-profile things like the environment which engage public emotions in a way that free software, patents and DRM cannot. They should, but it is an uphill struggle to make them relevant, sexy or cool.

Hardware and software vendors are blessed with the Devil's own luck and the FSF is between a rock and a hard place

Hardware and software vendors are blessed with the Devil's own luck: if it looks good, is reasonably priced and works without requiring a Ph.D. in electronics or software engineering it will be good to go. Tell buyers that it is not truly free or will eventually cost them more further down the road in terms of duplicating costs and inter-operability problems and they will probably still buy it. The picketing of public meetings just baffles them or leaves them indifferent. The FSF is between a rock and a hard place.

Never-the-less, the FSF does important work and the occasional error of judgement should not be held against it. In some ways it is a thankless task. It is liable to get it from both ends of the argument--that it is too geeky or too political. Either way, thank heavens it is there doing what it can to protect digital freedoms so let's cut it some slack and give it a fair wind for future battles which are sure to follow.


Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted worldwide, without royalty, in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.