The Philosophy and Politics of F/OSS (Free and Open Source Software)

Code is Speech – Gabriella Coleman

In an effort to examine the ways in which Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) developers are reconfiguring what source code and speech mean ethically, legally and culturally, Gabriella Coleman subsequently divulges that the broader political consequences of these redefinitions on for understanding the connections between code and speech.

At the beginning of her essay, Coleman utilizes a long haiku written by software developed Seth Schoen to begin to outline her arguments abut freedom of speech in the software developing world.  The source code is a transcoded bit of Free Software called DeCSS that “could be used to decrypt access controls on DVDs in violation of current copyright laws” (pg. 421).  By utilizing this example of Schoen, Coleman is attempting to highlight how such developments that challenge the meanings of both freedom and speech concurrently tinker with technology and the law using skills that transform and consolidate ethical precepts among developers” (pg. 449).  The legal action surrounding Schoen’s haiku of protest that source code is speech sets up Coleman to better explain the legal pedology and the subsequent battles over intellectual property, speech and software and in particular, the arrests of two programmers (Jon Johansen and Dmitry Sklyarov) and the manner in which their actions both provoked protest, questioned the value of source code and speech and how they made social processes a publicized, media frenzied event.

Coleman examines how developers “refashion liberal precepts in two distinct cultural locations, the F/OSS project and broader legal battles, resulting in what legal theorist Robert Cover calls “jurisgenesis”: the collective construction of new legal meanings and artifacts that diverge from statist or dominant interpretations of the law” (421).  Coleman uses the concept of “jurisgenesis” to stand as the framework for her essay, which she claims does three vital tings:

First: Coleman “demonstrates how F/OSS developers explore, contest ad specify the meaning of liberal freedom—especially free speech—via the development of new legal tools and discourses within the context of the F/OSS project” (pg. 422).

The basic history of free software & the birth of the legal hacker: technologists work on a number of projects within programs such as web browsers (like Firefox) and make active contributions to what Raymond calls a virtual “bazaar. Such Free Software and the byproducts of it have stemmed from the brainchild of MIT hacker Richard Stallman.  A hacker is a “computer aficionado driven by an inquisitive passion for tinkering and committed to an ethical version of information freedom” (pg. 423).  While Stallman’s (and many other hackers) main goal was “not to tinker with the law, but to write a suite of Free Software applications to replace proprietary software” (pg. 423) which would then circumvent the problem of the law.  Thus, Stallman invented the General Public License (GPL), commonly referred to as the copyleft, “uses copyright law, a Constitutional mandate, to undermine the logic of copyright law” (pg. 424) however, it allows for hackers to have a bit of wiggle room and provided certain liberal freedoms that included specific languages of free speech in the software world.

Second: Coleman “examines how developers marshal and bolster legal expertise during broader legal battles to engage in “contentious politics” (Tilly and Tarrow 2006) (pg. 422).

Debian is a Free Software project Coleman utilizes to show how volunteer participation in a particular operation system can “accommodate to growth, provide significant changes in policy, procedures and structure” and develop its own set of operational tiers; a developer Internet relay chat (IRC) channel, a formalized membership entry procedure called New Maintainer (NM); and a set of charters that includes a constitution, a social contract, and the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) (pg 427). These operational applications are the perfunctory pillars of philosophical and legal distinctions in the world of Free Software and have opened new doors for the way in which programmers, hackers and users alike can understand the liberal meanings of “free speech” and what the core meanings of free – within the realms of expression, learning and modification.  Coleman goes on to explain how developers make policies that are part of the social landscape of most Free Software projects (pg 430).

The emergence of contentious politics is associated with the “free speech idioms formed as a response to the excessive copyrighting and patenting of computer software” and because of the number of both state and corporate interventions, the legal repercussions raised the stakes and “gave morality a new public face.” This concept brings into mind the Shirky (Stay at Home Moms) key points regarding the success/failure of systems or projects like Debian because of the open source system. People (not just hackers) can contribute and/or participate as much as they want to… even if it’s just one thing. The subsequent the lowered cost allows more exploration—therefore people can try riskier ventures. Although such a project endures failure, it automatically finds something that succeeds. In essence, there is no need to control the system because the users basically do it alone. Dated or “lame” things die out while popular things grow bigger.

Third: Coleman helps us understand “why, and especially when F/OSS, a technology based movement, emerged in such politicized ways and historicize what Kelty (2008) calls a recursive public—a public constituted by participants who defend the right to make and alter technology through argument and by tinkering with the technologies (notably the Internet) through which they collectively associate” (pg. 422).

Coleman’s idea of the recursive pubic calls into my mind Dana Boyd’s concept the latest generation of mediated publics, or places where people can gather publicly through mediated technology. (Please refer to the post from last week…  Public spaces allow people to make sense of the social norms that regulate society, let people express themselves and learn from the reactions of others, and let people make certain expressions real by witnessing them (pg. 2). In “Code is Speech,” it is the hackers who organize these publics through their “forceful arguments that computer code is expressive speech” (pg 437).  This also bring into mind Fogg’s ideas of MIP (Mass Interpersonal Persuasion) because although the hackers are not explicitly telling the users what laws to contest or politics to debate, they do in a sense act as the gatekeepers to Free Open Software realms.

There is a great importance for individuals to have legal expertise that far surpasses the knowledge of the hackers. Activists participating in global politics must be able to fully articulate the historical moment when F/OSS’s particular public stance for free speech was rearticulated anew for wider public consumption and utilize that information to the best of their abilities.

4 responses to “The Philosophy and Politics of F/OSS (Free and Open Source Software)

  1. I find it interesting how the hackers came together as a group to protest the arrest of the people especially after the reading the chapters in “Here Comes Everybody” that talk about groups. Another thing that’s interesting to me is how the government was going after the maker of DeCSS when he wasn’t selling it. You’d think selling something that can bypass the verification of a DVD would be worse. The DeCSS program seems similar to a program I know called AnyDVD that lets you bypass security on the DVD to make copies of it. However I don’t think AnyDVD is open source.

  2. Thanks for that write up: could not have said it better myself.

    Just a quick clarification: the recursive public is very much Chris Kelty’s idea that I draw heavily on (second to last paragraph implies otherwise).

    Here is the book where Kelty elaborates on this theory.

  3. wrong link, here is the right one

  4. These two readings regarding open source software immediately made me think of the success of Firefox. Coleman only briefly mentions it but I think it is worth further discussing when exploring this subject. Recently Firefox has become so popular that is has shown Internet Explorer some increasing and forceful competition.
    I believe the success of Firefox comes from the ability to add-on different features such as color themes, music players, news tool bars, download managers, etc; it’s open source aspect is what makes it so appealing. The ability to customize both the browser and the web experience seems to be very important to users. The way its developers gain ideas from the people who actually use the program and not just the people making it is very important. It seems the most successful websites are those who listen to its users and cater to them; after all if they are not happy they will stop visiting the site and turn somewhere else. The Internet has always been about freedom and access. Open source gives users the ability to become a legal hacker (as Coleman calls it) and really get involved with the creative power of a large community.
    If you wish Firefox had a certain feature, it is inspiration for you to create it yourself. As Shirky discusses when talking about Linux, in the beginning people were interested in creating a new operating system but did not want to be the ones to start the work. Instead of everyone creating different flawed pieces of software coming together and collaborating really will eventually give the best result over time.

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