Unionize Free Software. Found Software Guilds

There has been some very active discussion about this post on the Fediverse in response to my toot requesting feedback.

I want to summarize the arguments that were raised in response to this post and respond to them.

Free Software shouldn’t be developed to be exploitable by the big tech capitalists.

@alcinnz@floss.social made this argument, that they advised against making free software that suits the big tech capitalists.

Examples for this kind of software might be:

  • Deep Learning Libraries, that can only be operated on super computers and cloud services - which profit big tech capitalists, who own these services.
  • JavaScript Frameworks. These most benefit the websites with the most complex and advanced browser logic. And these are mostly profiting the big tech capitalists. While most websites only need a CMS or static website generator with a little bit of styling.

While these discussions are legitimate and should be had, this is a discussion on creating sustainable free software. And we shouldn’t make make more assumptions about free software than are part of the definition of free software.

In my post I took the four freedoms of the GNU Project for this definition, but I’m not limiting this post to only the GNU Project Software or their licenses. Since they are not the only licenses that uphold all or some of these freedoms.

I believe these kinds of arguments should be had, but not to develop a system for sustaining free software - because that’d then only apply to parts of the free software movement.

Creating an organization for free software centralizes free software.

This was a concern raised by several people, @TMakarios@theres.life and @thatguyoverthere@charlestown.social among them.

The arguments against decentralization brought forward are:

  • Centralization is prone to corruption and overreach. The term corruption is not used, but the term used - mistake - is not very specific and most mistakes can be averted in a centralized organization.
  • Gate Keepers. What if the union creates a Gate Keeper for free software - excluding some and creating some hypothetical bureaucratic burden on others.

I find all of these arguments odd, mostly because I have not provided details on a structure. The only place that I could conceive of as a cause for such concerns are these two points:

But I actually wrote these two points because I don’t want to create a centralized, bureaucratic structure that limits who can and cannot develop free software.

So, let me provide some elaborations on these points.
Firstly, membership in a group should not be a prerequisite to contribute to free software. Membership should probably not even be public.

Secondly, the reason for this division into an incorporated organization (a non-profit foundation) and an unincorporated, global, online organized group is to isolate bureaucracy and centralization and put them on the fringes of these unions. Only when a Union has to take legal action in a jurisdiction, i.e. the EU or USA, do they rely on an incorporated entity. All other actions can be taken without bureaucracy and in a form determined by the group members themselves. I would advocate for an online forum where new members are accepted by a simple vote and all decisions can be made by a simple online referendum. In such a system appointed leaders, delegates and the like are to a large part unnecessary. Why should a parliament of delegates make a decision if all members of the group can make the decisions just a quickly and through the same process? And those appointees that are still necessary are more accountable because they can at any time be replaced by quick online referendum.
Digital civil organization is very much possible.

I understand and agree criticism that this could lead to a hierarchical or centralized authority, but I the remedy for centralized authority cannot be individualism - because individualism benefits the status quo, which is exploitation of the individual software developer, who cannot defend this because they alone stand against companies and governments that make profits each year that are enough to live hundreds of lives every minute and are located on the other side of the globe.

We need to organize at the risk of becoming more synchronized in order to gain equality, recognition and the support we need to sustain the current model of free software development. One that is open to all - even those who only have minor or even no technical knowledge - but one that anyone who wants can also make a living independently from the far more exclusive gate keepers of big technology capitalists.

Because the truth is, if you do not just want to contribute to free software but also want to sustain yourself from this or even get fair payment for your labor the gate keepers are far more restrictive than any such union would be. Currently the only ways to sustain yourself through free software development are:

  1. Being hired by a tech company that wants you to work on free software. Here the company and company priorities are gate keepers.
  2. Providing a software so useful that people will donate to you. The chance of this being enough to sustain yourself on are about equal to sustaining yourself as any kind public figure, because that is what you inevitably become. A person perpetually engaged in self-promotion in order to gain donations.
  3. Hiring a lawyer to investigate license violations and offer open core or dual licensing. You are essentially founding a business on free software - with all the gate keepers that that entails, including access to capital, to a stable government and bureaucracy and international labor markets - because you cannot do this on your own, unless you want to do significantly more than actually developing software, such as accounting and advertising.

None of these options are without gate keeps and all but the second one involve a centralized bureaucracy. So, trying to create an alternative that is accessible regardless of where you live and regardless of the wealth and social status you have, is a legitimate third way in my opinion.

As long as they don’t break with the license requirements they can do whatever they want

The above is a quote from @thatguyovertheer@charlestown.social and exemplifies what I think an old mindset that originates in the struggle for free software and open source software to be successful but that really does not apply today anymore.

Sure, the license does not preclude a company from doing whatever they want with the free software they are provided with, but don’t they have a moral obligation to the people who’s work they are using to great profit? Shouldn’t they at least talk to them and consider their needs instead of ignoring them and exploiting the existence of free software almost as an infinite resource. Assuming, falsely, that it’ll always exist and that any bugs and problems will be solved on their own. Is see a pronounced parallel here to the fossil fuel industry and their exploitation of the environment, just that the fossil fuel industry only indirectly exploits the lives and quality of life of people while Big Tech exploits human beings directly by using their software and seeing themselves under no obligation to return anything to these human beings.

Changing this attitude requires collective action - as has been proven by the long history of labor and union organizing around the world.

See: socialcoding