The Opinion Slab: Fields Of Endeavor

I am always keen to hear peoples views on various subjects, and something I have been thinking of doing for a while is to just throw out a discussion topic and ask everyone to fill in their thoughts. This could be on a range of subjects, most likely related to free software, free culture, music and politics. Suggestions for slabs should go to [slabs AT jonobacon DOT org](mailto:slabs AT jonobacon DOT org). So lets get on with our first one, this slab inspired by a discussion we had on LUGRadio and another discussion in the bar at the UDS…

Should we in the free software community discriminate against fields of endeavor? That is, should we say “this piece of free software cannot be used for this particular use, be it as extreme as terrorism or as innocent as a particular lifestyle choice? If so, how do we enforce this, and how do we define what are suitable fields that our software can be used in? Even then, is denying use of our software in less-than-savory and/or illegal fields really going to have an impact? Is a Mafia don going to care about a line in a license?

My take: my initial hunch is that we should in no way restrict our software in any field, but there is a theoretical temptation to explore the issue and to see if it is possible to stop our software being used for nefarious means. However, I suspect this is firstly impossible to enforce and secondly, there is no clear distinction about which fields you would want to restrict. Take for example a nationalist political party that enforces the view that only a specific race or nationality could reside in their country – on one hand this is abundant racism, but on the other hand there is an argument that they should have a right to lay out their manifesto and the voting public should be responsible for seeing that they never get into power. So we have a field that can divide opinion, and how would we definitively define where free software fits in? So, in conclusion I think discrimination against fields of endeavor is theoretically tempting to make the world that little bit better, but has too many loose ends and an inability to enforce that makes it nothing but a pipe dream.

So what do you think? Scribe your views in the comments. :)

  • Benjamin Otte

    Sheesh, Jono. Pick a more interesting topic, this one is old and boring. :p

  • Agalavis

    Well, to some point the free software is already being limited by legal boundaries. That is the case of encription (as far as i know). You probably won’t be able to enforce such limit, but it exists. If there are already limits imposed by external forces (a govement), and by ourselves (licences), why wouldn’t we declare our intention of use even further? Regarding who can make such decaration, I believe the developer(s) are the ones who shoud/could do it. Anyway they are already choosing the licence, right? If the restriction is too far away of the comon sence, I guess the proyect will fail, I wouln’t like to be asociated to a racist group for example, and like me, many others would walk away from such thing. To get my feet wet: I do think developers should “declare” their intentions, and that includes the freedom to say I do not want my thing being used for military purpouse (for example). About the enforcement, maybe you can’t avoid your stuff from being used in a “wrong” way, but if you find out that there is one case of missuse at least you can take legal action to stop someting you believe is wrong (what is the GPL if not? not a way to really protect from use, but to be able to “stop” a [miss,ab]use).

  • David Nielsen

    Absolutely not, if we did that it would not longer be Free Software. Discrimination also would not solve the problem, say I disallow South African billionaires the privilege of arming their weapons of mass destruction using my software. Does this solve the problem at it’s root, namely their insane desire for doomsday devices?

    It’s a bit like saying, you can have freedom of speech… provided you only use it to agree with me.. that’s hardly freedom.

    Even at that, if we say collectively that we will not allow the use of our software in the context of terrorism as moral stance. Then who gets to define terrorism, by my standard the British and American governments have sponsored terrorism in the past, should they not have the freedom and security that comes from Free Software? They do sheppard information on their citizens and I bet most of us would like our personal information to be as secure as possible. Also when was the last time a terrorist, who after all already has a low regard of human life, checked a license and observed things like patents.

    The whole cost vs. benefits thing just doesn’t work here for me, we open up a whole heap of legal, moral and ethical problems and literally at zero gain not to mention almost certain direct harm in adoption of Free Software.

  • Félim Whiteley

    I don’t think it’s something that could be done or really should be. Like Dell etc. website asking if the server you are buying is for Weapons of Mass Destruction… if I am going to develop them I am hardly going to tick the box. Likewise anyone who really wants to use say Linux to power a nuclear missile silo is not going to tell anyone. So it just would portray the view your software is restricting which goes against what FOSS is all about. I think it would damage FOSS to be labelled as Free except in “Section a paragraph 21” for example where you list who can and can’t use it.

    Baseball bats are used in sport, they can also beat people, it is up to the individual using it to know what’s right and wrong. Or the police/government to enforce the rules of the nation on the use of any thing be it software or hardware, not the makers of the equipment.

  • Ed Daniel

    Echoing the baseball bat comment the same applies to guns and perhaps even food – i.e. that which has been poisoned.

    Protecting people by controlling tools such as software is ambitious and you’re fighting against human nature – if software is as dangerous as atomic energy then…

    One could perhaps find a better analogy in ‘content’ i.e. people can write great things and ‘awful’ things on many different levels – one makes a choice to avoid that which is ‘awful’ and spam is a good example of software being mis-used for nefarious means.

    This debate is inter-twined with ‘Identity’.

  • Rob J. Caskey

    Short? No. Do you really want to turn free software and “free culture” (which I doubt really can exist in any meaningful sense, but that’s mainly a philosophical gripe) into free except for x software? Free software unless you are a terrorist. Free software unless you don’t want to pay. Free software unless you want to dissassemble it.

  • MartinG

    And, supposing you did want to to that, what legal framework would you use to enforce it? It sure as hell wouldn’t be a copyright license, since that only covers duplication and distribution, not use. It would have to be a contract such as the legally dubious EULA, which yes, despite its name is a contract. We really don’t want to have people entering into contracts just to use software, do we?

  • Atreju

    Well the question is doubtlessly a difficult one. The thing that always comes to my mind (which might be far fetched) is the physicists who worked on the manhattan project (directly or indirectly). And only after these bombs where detonated above Hiroshima and Nagasaki did they realize, often in horror, what they had done.

    At the same time however nuclear physics can be put to much better use e.g. in energy generation (and I don’t want to start a discussion about whether that is good or not. It’s certainly better than bombs…)

    Now would you, (if you could), restrict your inventions (regarding such bombs) such that they can be used only for non-military purposes?

    And while I agree with David Nielsen above that this will not fight the cause but just the symptoms it might still help.

    Now free software is not nuclear weapons and despite my above statements I would be extremely cautious about any such restrictions but I do think that the matter calls for a little more consideration than most of the above posters seem to have put at least into their (short) answers.

    I do also see the problem that there are clearly no ways of enforcing this, though!

  • Agalavis

    I’m sure that most of the people who develop some GPLd code would agree that in order to protect freedom you have to take away some of it (freedom i mean). This is because we as a race are not advanced enough to be “good to each other” without being forced to. That is the reason we have laws. And that is the reason many of you would not use a BSD license. This is a moral problem that presents under diferent forms prety much everywhere. If you say that no limits to the intended use of sofware should be applied, you are just setting you limit at a different point, but you are still confined. Want to be free? release with no conditions… do you trust people? (i’m guessing you said “not entirely”) then why not try fight against the things you consider to be wrong? As i know that enforcing this things is unpractical and even imposible, i do think that there is nothing wrong in stating what you believe.

  • Matthieu

    While people here will not argue they would not want their free software beeing used to rape child or for the purpose of crimes against the humanity, the problem reside in where to put the boundary. A license is a legal statement. Boundaries needs to be clearly defined, or supposedly.

    Should we consider as free software licenses which prevent its usage to non-arguably immoral activities? Well, first define the rule that discriminate immoral activities to non-immoral activities. And do it well. Then we can discuss wether it is acceptable for free software licenses or not.

    Discussing whether or not putting a limit is acceptable without clearly defining the limit is not unless useless but dangerous. Should we agree on such limit may exist, then a badly written rule may be adopted just “because we agreed we needed one”. A little bit like politician saying “Pass my bill. It is solving a problem that we all agreed we needed to fix.” That doesn’t mean the bill is good…

  • Peter

    Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.

    GPL does not allow to discriminate, as simple as that.

  • Ploum

    Because you have a cultural notion of “good” and “bad” doesn’t imply that other have the same one. IMHO, you cannot impose your culture. Also, it makes your software definitly not free.

  • Robin

    Hi, (we met at LCA2007 btw:)

    Anyway, my answer to your question is ‘no’. There was a case of this a few years back, some bit of software that (my recollection may be wrong, but something like this) said it may be freely used by anyone, except the South African police force. This condition was put in due to apartheid concerns of the time, and questions of discrimination totally outside the field of the software. Now, many years later, that software can’t be used by the SA police due to the license, despite the fact that apartheid is no longer in place.

    My point with this example is to illustrate that situations change in ways that you can’t consider at the time you write the license. Opinions about what is right and wrong change (imagine software from years ago that could be used by all, except gay people or something), and it’s rarely the case that any two peoples ideas line up anyway. So, I think to avoid a slippery slope, the best solution is to avoid the question completely and not restrict it to any fields of endeavour.

  • Robin

    Oh, something I forgot: who’s to say I’m right in my opinions/biases? I’ve made mistakes before. Why should I assume that I’m going to make the right decision this time, and restrict things. Odds are it’ll come back to bite me later.

  • leftcase

    Hi Jono,

    It’s pretty unenforceable. How could you prevent one group of people from using something that’s freely distributed.

    For example, if you check out what technology the BNP website is hosted on, you’ll see that it’s FreeBSD, Apache, PHP.

    They’re using a shared hosting provider however, so at the end of the day, it’s up to the host which OS they use, and not the ‘naughty’ organisation.