The Diligent Circle

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Anyone who has had any significant exposure to the libre software community or open source community has undoubtedly heard of the FSF, and most of us have also heard of its founder, Richard Stallman. Even if you are unaware of their involvement in the development of modern libre operating systems we all use, the GNU General Public License has been and remains one of the most popular libre licenses to date.

Most discussion pertaining to the FSF tends to focus on the principles and opinions of the organization. This article, on the other hand, will discuss the actions of the Foundation and whether or not they are beneficial to the causes it supports.

The story of the FSF begins in 1983, when Richard Stallman started development on the GNU operating system. This system was meant to be a complete Unix-compatible libre operating system, and when the FSF was founded in 1984, moving the development of GNU forward was its primary contribution. Much of the software written as part of the GNU operating system was highly successful in its own right, such as GNU Emacs and GCC, and we continue to use a lot of this software to this day. As such, this work is legendary, and Stallman tells this story often. It is clear that he prides himself and the organization he founded for this achievement.

But in the 1990s, something happened, and that something was Linux. In 1991, Linus Torvalds announced on Usenet that he was developing "a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like gnu)". The operating system he was talking about, which he then called "Freax" and later renamed to "Linux", was intended to be a small MINIX clone for his own personal use. That operating system, and the kernel for it that he developed, blew up, and it began to use substantial portions of the GNU project to form a complete operating system.

This is similar to the story that Stallman has told ad nauseam for years now, except that he, as well as the FSF, insist that the system is "basically GNU, but also contains Linux", and that therefore its name should "give [GNU] equal mention" by calling the system "GNU/Linux". I'm not going to go into the specifics or argue one way or the other; instead, the question I want to ask is, does this actually matter for the libre software movement?

The FSF insists that, yes, it does matter. They contend that because people don't realize that the FSF had a major hand in the development of Linux thanks to the GNU Project, they don't take the FSF as seriously as they would otherwise. Essentially, the implication is that because the FSF is not recognized for what it did in the 1980s which, yes, was very important and even admirable, that effort was worthless. But this is simply a misguided way of thinking. What matters the most, when it comes to an effort to further a cause such as the libre software movement, is not whether or not it makes the one who made the effort popular, but whether or not it furthers said cause. In other words, regardless of whether the FSF is recognized for the achievement or not, the work it did on the GNU operating system, while never completed, has had the effect of enabling millions of users around the world to run libre operating systems. It was a good, worthwhile deed, and it's way past time for all of us, including the FSF, to move on from the question of who deserves the most recognition for it.

So let's move on from that and stop discussing the past. What matters is what the FSF is doing now, and it's not looking good. In hindsight, the GNU/Linux naming controversy set the precedent for a trend that continues to this day: less doing, more saying. Just look at the FSF's campaigns: a page showing what Linux distros to use, a page showing what hardware to purchase, a website complaining about DRM, a website telling you to use ODF, a page telling you what licenses to use, a page telling you what language to use... see a pattern here? Yes, almost all of the FSF's efforts today amount to nothing more than telling people what they should or shouldn't do, or otherwise expressing the organization's political opinions. In other words, the FSF is no longer operating as an organization that helps to advance the cause of libre software; instead it acts as a mere think tank for the politics of the libre software movement, and not even a very good one. Anyone can write an article saying that X needs to be done. But it takes resources to actually do X, and that is where an organization like the FSF should be stepping in; they have the resources, and they have demonstrated a capability to do things with those resources in the past, but now they just don't do it anymore.

But it's worse. Not only does the FSF not do anything other than talk, much of that talk serves to further a culture of exclusion. Take the "Free GNU/Linux Distributions" page, for example. This page lists distros that fulfill the FSF's "Free Software Distribution Guidelines" (GNU FSDG), which essentially state that to be listed, a distro has to exclude any proprietary software, plus any software that might lead users to install proprietary software. This is really absurd if you think about it, since the simple inclusion of a Web browser is likely to lead to proprietary software, but regardless, these criteria are used to exclude distros that fail to exclude software sufficiently to the FSF's liking. In fact, most FSF-endorsed distros aren't even original distros; most, like Trisquel, simply take a bigger distro, like Ubuntu, and strip away software so that the distro can meet the FSF's guidelines. It's a subtractive effort for short-term purity, rather than an additive effort for long-term expansion of liberty. In other words, these distros are doing absolutely nothing to actually further the cause of the libre software movement, and yet these are the distros the FSF chooses to endorse.

It's not as if there aren't real issues to solve. Just look at all the proprietary protocols that have proliferated: Skype, LINE, WhatsApp, Discord, etc. LINE is one I personally struggle with; it's been gaining traction over email in Japan and China for years now, and I simply can't use it because it requires a cell phone number approved by the app, which I don't have. Stallman would answer that you should refuse to use the program and communicate some other way, but when someone only communicates with a proprietary protocol, all this is going to do is isolate you from them. Let's be real here: if your very good friend talks to you through XMPP because you won't use Skype, they're doing it begrudgingly and only for your sake, which puts a strain on your friendship and does nothing to get them to use Skype any less. Eventually, you will be cut off because your good friend can't deal with the hassle anymore, and the end result is what we have today: an isolated echochamber of people who can't communicate with the outside world very well, if at all.

If we want to solve problems like these, more often than not we're going to need technical solutions. Take JMP, for instance. JMP is a service that allows you to get a phone number that you can use through XMPP. Thanks to this, it is possible to communicate with cell phone users through texting, without yourself having to have one. It's a bridge allowing you to be liberated, but not isolated. I would argue that this service is more beneficial to the movement than all the FSF's activism against cell phones combined. And it's not alone; there's also Invidious, which allows you to watch YouTube videos without YouTube's JavaScript and other nonsense. And then you have projects like Fedora, which may have been one of the greatest boons to the libre software movement in history, all the while being shunned by the FSF for including proprietary firmware in its kernel. Projects such as these are invaluable to the movement, and the FSF should have been helping work on projects like these years ago.

But apparently, they are too tied up in what terms you should use and whether or not some Linux distro or hardware is 100% perfect by their standards. It is clear to me that the FSF has outlived its usefulness, and as such, I will no longer be donating or contributing to this failed, stubborn organization. After all, you know what they say: actions speak louder than words.