Law in the Internet Society

From Reaction To Change

-- By SebastianBresser - 06 April 2018

"For Sabina, living in truth, lying neither to ourselves nor to others, was possible only away from the public: the moment someone keeps an eye on what we do, we involuntarily make allowances for that eye, and nothing we do is truthful. Having a public, keeping a public in mind, means living in lies."

— Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Status Quo

A society that heavily and, more importantly, ever less reversibly relies on software will eventually be shaped and controlled by the developers of that software. Additionally, if those that use a software cannot also control it they subordinate themselves to those who can.

These two succinct conclusions show that the evaluation of any specific proprietary software, functional or useless, beautiful or ugly, good or bad, risks missing the point. It is idle to discuss whether Google, Facebook or other software companies develop good or bad software, in other words are good or bad. If software is proprietary and (non-transparent) it is also, by design and independent of any apparent functionality to the users, an instrument of absolute power for its proprietor. To allow for a free society, even freedom of thought, software needs to be developed by- and alterable for its users.

It seems that but for massive marketing and lobbying efforts of proprietary software companies, their qualitatively inferior and, more importantly, unfree products would not be used. Discouragingly, it seems that the more a proprietary software is made irreplaceable because people are lured in, locked in or even addicted, the smaller the odds of open source software prevailing over proprietary software become. Despite – or perhaps precisely because of – a growing influence of proprietary software in modern society, many seem to have acquired a taste for this incapacitating software and seem to be little aware that a freedom-enabling alternative is still within reach.

The Power of Minorities

Indeed, the prevalence of proprietary software seems insurmountable. The vast majority of people use proprietary software products. Googling has become a word, almost everybody is connected on Facebook, searches jobs on LinkedIn? , shares pictures on Instagram, writes with Word, mails with Gmail and sticks with pre-installed Microsoft Windows, iOS or the Google-developed software suite run on Android. Against this background, it seems that our free society is doomed independent of whether we’re aware or unaware of the problem: some might not only recognize this problem but also react to it, it seems like they won’t bring about substantive change.

Albeit understandable, in my view, this desperation and surrender is the result or underestimating the power of an intransigent minority. The idea that only a majority can drive fundamental change is wrong. It is equally wrong to assume that only resourceful individuals or entities can shift or steer the behavior or choices of a majority. Yet, intuitively, people tend to be overwhelmed in the face of an opposing majority. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who describes the dynamic in his essay “The Most Intolerant Wins: The Dictatorship of the Small Minority”, proposes less flexible and tolerant majorities to counter unwanted social, moral or political values imposed by intransigent minorities. While Taleb’s conclusions are questionable, the idea that minorities can indeed be impactful drivers of change is compelling and the implications for the promotion of open source software are worth exploring.

Ending the Dependency on Proprietary Software

It should be impossible by design to run proprietary software on top of FOSS, any software run on top of copyleft licensed software should be regarded as derivative and therefore be transparent and modifiable by its users and any provider of SaaS? should be obliged to provide enduser APIs to allow for switching from one service to another. An intransigent, even intolerant minority that successfully works towards these goals could be formed if enough people recognized the inherent restrictiveness and danger of proprietary software and actively worked to obstruct its use.

What is more, an engaged minority of developers and alert regulators could neither be lured in nor won back with better or more functional proprietary software. Instead, they would likely dismiss any evaluation of proprietary software as an idle and entirely useless activity. The prevalence of software in society together with a universal striving for freedom could make it relatively easy to accomplish the necessary spatial distribution of those proposing steps to impede the use of proprietary software. Lastly, the fact that most people will likely remain indifferent to the type of software they use if it retains its functionality and, arguably, remains completely or almost free of charge is what brings complete software freedom within reach.

An intransigent, engaged and intolerant minority of FOSS proponents will face a relatively flexible and tolerant majority of proprietary software users. Only a very limited amount of people lamented the demise of proprietary encyclopedias as Wikipedia emerged and grew. Similarly, it is likely that if enough information was accessible only through FOSS few people would fight for proprietary software. If, for example, the intransigent minority of Wikipedia authors (as opposed to Wikipedia readers) made Wikipedia available only to users of open source browsers, enough people would eventually replace proprietary browsers like Safari or Internet Explorer with open source alternatives like Firefox. With some meaningful interventions like these, open source proponents could leverage their influence to create a much more powerful dynamic than one would expect to come from such a small group.

In summary, the likelihood of an intransigent minority successfully promoting FOSS is much higher than broadly assumed. This is particularly true in the case of software firstly, because FOSS is and always will be free and secondly, because FOSS already exceeds and outperforms proprietary software in almost every dimension. To keep up with the astronomical marketing budgets and lobbying efforts of proprietary software companies is not only impossible it could, fortunately, also be unnecessary. In short, as Margaret Mead put it: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”


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r3 - 06 Apr 2018 - 18:25:17 - SebastianBresser
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