Co-operation and free software

The principles behind the Co-operative Party (and indeed the co-operative movement as a whole) – voluntarism, co-operation, mutualism and so on – can also be found in the free/open source software movement.

So it’s not surprising that the Co-operative Party passed a resolution (written by Political Penguin) at last year’s conference in support of open source software, and that their new draft manifesto (PDF) includes a commitment to use open source software more extensively in government IT procurement, and to ensure that open source software is taught in schools (most of which are, sadly, devoted to teaching their students how to use Windows rather than how to use computers).

That said, I’m a little disappointed by the manifesto’s text (which is set out at the end of this post for ease of reference). The focus is on open source as a methodology, rather than software freedom as a principle and as the foundation of a new commons. In addition, where open source is promoted as the “cheaper option”, there is a risk of disillusionment, particularly if users are forced to switch to unfamiliar software without adequate support and training.

So here are a few thoughts on how a broader understanding of software freedom fits well with the principles of the co-operative movement and the Co-operative Party:

  • Free software is about freedom, not cost: as GNU’s Free Software Definition puts it, it is “free as in free speech, not free as in free beer”. Much of the most widely-used free software is licensed under the GNU General Public Licence, a “copyleft” licence that requires those who distribute the software (or works derived from it) to do so under the same licensing terms, thus ensuring that the software remains “in the commons” rather than suffering “enclosure” under proprietary licensing terms. This is an ingenious guarantee of continuing freedom and mutualism.
  • Free software encourages sharing and co-operation. Most major free software products – such as the various versions of Linux – attract around them a diverse community of developers and users, with user forums in which people can find assistance and support as they get used to the software or encounter problems.
  • Free software is good for the Majority World. Proprietary licensing costs mean that people in the Majority World are either excluded from access to IT or are forced to use “pirated” software. Free software provides a means of legal and effective access to a huge range of software. In addition, free software can be translated into local languages or modified to meet local requirements that would not attract the attention of a multinational software corporation.
  • Free software increases people’s computer skills. The multi-skilling which is engendered by using more than one operating system means people become more aware of how their computer works, rather than being dependent simply on “the Windows Way”. This is particularly relevant to the Majority World, but is vital for the development of IT skills in Britain, too.
  • Free software is the “buy local” option. It is not “cost-free”, but the money that is spent is more likely to stay in this country, since it is spent on support, training and other services, rather than going in licence fees to a US corporation. It’s analogous to buying from a local shop rather than Tesco: more money stays in the local economy.
  • Free software is good for the planet: old PCs can often be given a new lease of life by having a version of Linux installed on them, rather than just being dumped once they are no longer able to run more bloated proprietary operating systems.

It would be good to see some more of these perspectives coming to the fore as the Co-operative Party (and the Labour Party, whose record in this area to date has not been great) develop their IT policies in the future.

Further reading

For further reading on software freedom – and the meaning of the term “free software” – see the Philosophy page on the GNU website. GNU is the operating system more commonly referred to by the name of its [usual] kernel, Linux, as explained here.

This post was typed on a computer running Debian GNU/Linux. Debian is a community-developed version of Linux, and is the basis for the more well-known Ubuntu Linux. Debian’s Social Contract strikes me as a great example of co-operative principles re-expressed in the context of software development.

Draft manifesto text on Open Source Software

Open source technology is software development methodology created by a community of people dedicated to working together in a co-operative manner.

The most important difference between software created by open source communities and that sold by vendors is that it is published under licenses that ensure that the source code (the key to understanding the software) is available to everyone with the right skills to inspect, change, download, and explore as they wish.

Some of the best and most relevant programmes have already evolved through these co-operative efforts. These include programs such as Linux, Apache and Mozilla Firefox which have had thousands of contributors.

Looking at cost savings that have been achieved by companies and governments all over the world, it is estimated that the UK Government could reduce its annual IT bill by at least £600m per year by moving to open source. By levelling the playing field and allowing open source to be as competitive as possible we can ensure that taxpayers get maximum value for money from Government IT, something that is more important than ever during the worldwide financial climate. The Government should ensure that, where possible, open source software is used as part of an effec-
tive procurement strategy.

The Government should also empower members of the public to benefit from open source software. All state funded education in information technology, from school age to adult education, should include training in the use of existing desktop open source programs.


2 thoughts on “Co-operation and free software”

  1. Good stuff this, and quite right. The pull of open-source software — especially in the West — has little to do with price and everything to do with freedom, community, education and a strong economy.

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