Open Source and Ethics?

Richard Stallman, to contrast the term “free software” with “open source”, notes in a recent letter to the MIT Technology Review that:

“Open Source Software refers to a completely different idea, which does not aim for freedom or social solidarity but merely wants to make software more powerful and reliable. Those practical goals are useful, but we must not subordinate ethical issues to engineering.”

I’ve been following a number of threads on similar topics over at the libertarian Technology Liberation Front and I’m struggling with this idea that free software (or other constraining factors on our use of computers) is the encapsulation of an important ethical issue.

As a natural born gear head who was always frustrated when Detroit’s engineers dictated how my car would function and what I could do to change it, I’m sympathetic with the fundamental desire “to own what I own” at the base of the argument. However, I just can’t help but see the kinds of freedoms at stake here as more of a market issue than an ethical “freedom” issue. How can the freedom to do something that has only existed for half a century deserve the same kind of moral / ethical foundation as the freedoms enshrined in the bill of rights for example?

For fifty or more years the Bell system owned the telephones in our houses and controlled or owned every piece of equipment attached to their network. Irritating? Yes. Bad for innovation? Yes. Bad for competition and consumer choice? Yes. Ethically or morally wrong? I just can’t make that leap; maybe it is a matter of degree and it falls below the moral threshold on my continuum of ethical concerns. In fact, you may even argue that without that model in that timeframe the infrastructure build-out that brought so much public good would have never happened in the first place.

With that as my mindset I simply can’t get myself worked up into a lather over the idea that I don’t have complete control over the code running on a machine that I own (I’m drawing the analogy here to not being able to control the phone company gear in my home). Do I desire that kind of control? Yes. Do I think that open and/or free software has many advantages over proprietary? Yes. However, I just don’t see this as an ethical / moral issue. I might change my mind if I keep thinking more about it; but I’m not there right now.

Back to that continuum idea, in some ways I guess I think that in a world full of Darfur’s, Iraq’s, Iran’s, and etc.; peak oil concerns; global climate change and associated micro climate changes; 50 years of dumped plastic beginning to enter our food chain; and etc. the “right” to change a line of code in my personal computer seems like a bit of a shoulder shrug. This isn’t moral relativism (before you yell at me); I just don’t see it as qualifying as a moral issue at all.

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