Science & Tech

The Argument for Free Software

William Hudson ’24


Current events are filled with stories of technological advancement and its benefits for the regular person. People hold computers millions of times more powerful than those used for the first moon landings, groceries can be directly ordered by speaking to a virtual assistant, and the internet is a wonderous and dynamic space. However, these advancements have deep-rooted issues too; phone software is notorious for containing security vulnerabilities, smart-home devices send personal information to massive data centers, and web applications can be painful to use and slow to update. 

Progress is being made on each issue – most importantly, Google and Meta, have antitrust lawsuits being filed against them for their egregious harvesting and use of personal data – but change is slow, and many do not understand these issues. There exists a single solution, taking the problem into one’s own hands. However, with the grip corporations hold on a user’s software choices, such a change is undoubtedly difficult. The adoption of free software is the solution to these issues, as free software is more useful, secure, private, and ethical than non-free software. 

Free software does not indicate the price of software, but rather freedom. Much software is available for free, but not all of it respects the user’s freedoms. For a piece of software to be free, it must uphold all four essential freedoms of free software. The first is the freedom to run the program at one’s discretion for one’s purpose.

This means developers can restrict neither program usage nor runtime; the user is the only authority in this regard. The second freedom permits the studying and modification of the source code. Clearly, the software must be open source for this freedom, and the license must permit any changes.

The third and fourth freedoms both deal with source redistribution, specifically verbatim and modified respectively. Such redistribution allows the community access to the original code and any positive changes others may have made, allowing everyone to benefit from the work of a single person. For software to respect user freedom, it must run at the user’s accord, be able to be studied and changed in any way, and be redistributable both verbatim and modified. 

Using free software, that complies with all the requisite freedoms, has many benefits. It is commonplace for positive and undisruptive changes to be merged into the main source of the software because the second freedom allows modification and the fourth allows the distribution of changes. 

Anyone can contribute to free software, unlike commercial, and this leads to faster development times, better software, and more varied and customized tools. Improvements and modifications to programs are more widespread and frequent when the source code is free.

Free software is more secure and always respects user privacy. Due to the faster development cycle and more eyes on the code, patches to vulnerabilities are more frequent, and more bugs are caught before being exploited. This is counterintuitive because the code is open for attackers to directly read, it appears it would be less secure. However, for every man looking to exploit poorly written code, there are often upwards of twenty looking to fix it.

On the other hand, closed source software relies on security by obscurity which is the hope nobody will attempt to reverse engineer a program or experiment with it due to the difficulty and time investment. This does not work. Free software is also more private than non-free. Developers are unable to place backdoors into the code because it is open source and all users would quickly remove that portion of the code. Furthermore, because it is more secure, users do not need to worry about external threats to their privacy, such as ransomware exploits. 

The main fight against non-free software is one based on ethics. There are multiple differing opinions on if free software is inherently more ethical than non-free. There is a common and popular opinion that non-free software is unethical because it gives the developer unfair control over the user. It is always in a developer’s best interest to take advantage of a user.

 Developing a program that steals information or unfairly uses computing power is simply more profitable than having privacy. Therefore, non-free software cannot be trusted. Because the control of a developer over a user decreases the user’s freedom, the user should use only software they have access to and the ability to change, taking freedom into their own hands. Everyone must realize the power developers have over users and reject it by using ethical, free software. 

Free software is widely used, but not by most individuals. Most servers on Earth run free software, most web browsers are based on the semi-free Chromium, and a few miscellaneous programs on non-free systems like Windows or macOS are free.

However, other than these, most users do not interact much with free software, especially not specialized free software that aides their work. Because personal computing is dominated by semi-free and non-free programs, few have firsthand experience of using free software. 

Everyone can use free software, for that is why it exists. Free software can form basic applications like VLC, Audacity, or BitTorrent or entire operating systems like OpenBSD or GNU/Linux. Therefore, a change to free software can be as simple as desired, switching to a better program is simple and useful. Changing everything at once, as with a change to a new operating system, is more challenging, and requires a large investment of time and a great deal of effort. Free software is only free if a large number of people benefit from it, and many do.

As the change can be simple, all computer users should try to use it. The fight in favour of free software is one for freedom. Everyone who uses a computer makes their own choice and is at liberty to benefit from the libraries of free software. Although not all care for the benefits, from security and privacy to development speed and improvements to ethics, the next generation is being founded today.

It is better than all people understand that the struggle for freedom is one worth making, for does computing not affect all aspects of life? Employment, education, entertainment, and socialization are all controlled by computers, and if the software is controlled by others, users are controlled by others. Should computer users then not try to free themselves? 

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