DEBATE: The 4 Freedoms and OSD are outdated and no longer relevant in 2020 [FOSDEM 2020]


Panel: Neil McGovern, Andrew Katz, Matt Jarvis, Luis Villa, Frank Karlitschek; introduction by Amanda Brock

Note: the speakers don’t necessarily hold the views they were defending.

The documents describing the open source definition and the 4 freedoms are already 20 years old, so if they are still 100% “correct” then they were extremely well-written. One thing that is missing is communities. They are only about technical things, about copyright law. Also it is missing anything about data. And more accutely, they don’t talk about services, software running on a server.

A bit more controversial are the ethics. The four freedoms are rooted in ethics, but the text doesn’t reflect anything about ethics. The FSF for instance finds accessibility and inclusion essential, but the four freedoms don’t talk about it. Who controls software and who can use it has a tremendous impact on society and justice. Access and modification are not enough.

In the 90s, the world was different. Smartphones were not a thing, cloud was not a thing, etc. The control of software has become exponantially more important than it was then. FLOSS has enabled all of these things. Without it, there would be no Google or Amazon. Without the Open Source Definition, our world would probably look very different. There were times in the 90’s that FLOSS could easily have lost. The power of communities proves to be the best way to develop quality software.

Source code access is not necessarily the most important aspect. What goes along with it is what allows us to create this world-changing software: communities. For example, in the 90’s Microsoft gave (some) users access to source code, but that didn’t result in the same forceful development.

If the OSD and the 4 freedoms are indeed outdated, why have they been used recently as the basis for new initiatives like the open hardware foundation. It is because those principles still hold and still work. Referencing back to those documents proved very powerful to draft those new licenses. There was a lot of input in the direction of putting “don’t use for evil” in the license. They had to be rejected, however, because it makes the license impractical and a lot less useful. Yes, it is important to advocate for those things, but surely that should be separate from the license itself. Similarly, those principles don’t belong with the 4 freedoms but are a separate set of principles. Don’t try to conflate them.

A recent study indicates that over 95% of the software that is running now is open source. However, it doesn’t feel like that. In the end, do we really care about free software? Really what matters is user freedom. The chance of someone to modify their software or to find someone who can do it for them is vanishingly small. Does it matter if the underlying code is GPL if the data is sent off to someone else for processing?

You could say that the four freedoms are not sufficient. But surely, they are still relevant. They are a precondition of the world we rely on right now. We still need them to provide us with free software. On top of that, we can think about how to introduce ethics into how that software is used.