on the Dark Ages of Free Software: a “Free Service Definition”?

Stefano Zacchiroli opened DebConf’14 with an insightful talk titled Debian in the Dark Ages of Free Software (slides available, video available soon).

He makes the point (quoting slide 16) that the Free Software community is winning a war that is becoming increasingly pointless: yes, users have 100% Free Software thin client at their fingertips [or are really a few steps from there]. But all their relevant computations happen elsewhere, on remote systems they do not control, in the Cloud.

That give-up on control of computing is a huge and important problem, and probably the largest challenge for everybody caring about freedom, free speech, or privacy today. Stefano rightfully points out that we must do something about it. The big question is: how can we, as a community, address it?

Towards a Free Service Definition?

I believe that we all feel a bit lost with this issue because we are trying to attack it with our current tools & weapons. However, they are largely irrelevant here: the Free Software Definition is about software, and software is even to be understood strictly in it, as software programs. Applying it to services, or to computing in general, doesn’t lead anywhere. In order to increase the general awareness about this issue, we should define more precisely what levels of control can be provided, to understand what services are not providing to users, and to make an informed decision about waiving a particular level of control when choosing to use a particular service.

Benjamin Mako Hill pointed out yesterday during the post-talk chat that services are not black or white: there aren’t impure and pure services. Instead, there’s a graduation of possible levels of control for the computing we do. The Free Software Definition lists four freedoms — how many freedoms, or types of control, should there be in a Free Service Definition, or a Controlled-Computing Definition? Again, this is not only about software: the platform on which a particular piece of software is executed has a huge impact on the available level of control: running your own instance of WordPress, or using an instance on wordpress.com, provides very different control (even if as Asheesh Laroia pointed out yesterday, WordPress does a pretty good job at providing export and import features to limit data lock-in).

The creation of such a definition is an iterative process. I actually just realized today that (according to Wikipedia) the very first occurrence of an attempt at a Free Software Definition was published in 1986 (GNU’s bulletin Vol 1 No.1, page 8) — I thought it happened a couple of years earlier. Are there existing attempts at defining such freedoms or levels of controls, and at benchmarking such criteria against existing services? Such criteria would not only include control over software modifications and (re)distribution, but also likely include mentions of interoperability and open standards, both to enable the user to move to a compatible service, and to avoid forcing the user to use a particular implementation of a service. A better understanding of network effects is also needed: how much and what type of service lock-in is acceptable on social networks in exchange of functionality?

I think that we should inspire from what was achieved during the last 30 years on Free Software. The tools that were produced are probably irrelevant to address this issue, but there’s a lot to learn from the way they were designed. I really look forward to the day when we will have:

  • a Free Software Definition equivalent for services
  • Debian Free Software Guidelines-like tests/checklist to evaluate services
  • an equivalent of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, explaining how one can build successful business models on top of open services

Exciting times!

5 thoughts on “on the Dark Ages of Free Software: a “Free Service Definition”?

  1. I think that Debian developers should pick up the glove and turn Debian into a universal operating system — an OS that also provide services. Those services must be based on free software, but there is no reason, not to charge users money to cover the cost of supplying these services.

    An example is WebRTC. There is such a Debian service for Debian developers:
    https://rtc.debian.org/
    It would be nice if Debian users could also use this service for a small charge.

  2. I totally agree with Udi.
    let debian not only provide the OS but also services. debian has a very high level of trust and I would be very glad to pay e.g. €100/year for debian hosted services such as WebRTC, calendring server, some data storage…
    let’s hope there are enough dd’s and dc’s that want to make this happen.

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