Criteria for Software Freedom

Posted: 2016-03-15. Modified: 2016-03-15. Tags: Opinion, philosophy, programming.

“Free software” means software that respects users' freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price

Free Software Foundation

1 Introduction

The FSF's definition of free software, written above, is a useful broad principle which relates to how much control a human user has over a given computer program. In this article, I discuss some specific criteria which we can use to assess "Software Freedom".

I think the typical definition which people think of when they think "free software" is simply whether the software is open-source, or perhaps even if the software costs nothing to use. However, while these users are correct for some definition of "free software", I, like the FSF, think it can be useful to load the term "Free Software" with more implications in order to better capture the nature of the relationship of a human user to a piece of software. What is important is not really what the legal status of a piece of code is, but rather the practical level of control which a user has over that code. In this era of ever-increasing computer technology, I think it becomes more and more important that humans can control the computations which they use, and not the other way around.

I propose three criteria which I think are especially relevant today in our age of cloud services and increasingly complex software. My goal is to assess the level of control of the human user over a piece of software which she uses. The first criterion is simply the basic definition of open-source, the second criterion is mostly implied by Stallman's definition of "Free Software", and the second definition is not so directly implied. My criteria are:

  1. Availability of source-code.
  2. Control over deployment
  3. Accessibility to understanding.

2 Availability of source-code

This criterion is probably what most people when they think of "free software" or "open-source software". Whether a piece of software is run remotely or locally, having access to the source-code can provide a user great insight into what a piece of software is actually doing. Availability of source-code often corresponds to the user having greater "control over deployment". This criterion is the one which is addressed by the various open-source software licenses.

3 Control over Deployment

Control over deployment is a basic precondition to control over computation. If the computer user cannot control when an application starts, stops, and is modified, then the user cannot say that he controls the computation which is being done. Many of today's cloud web-apps run afoul of this criterion – not only are most of them closed-source and closed-data, but they can and will be discontinued when the provider decides without recourse for the user. Cloud services are discontinued all the time – see this page or this page for some examples.

I define three levels of "control over deployment":

  1. The user does not run the software, and does not have access to enough information about the infrastructure, source, and data of the project to "fork" the deployment of the software to run it herself.
  2. The user does not actually run the software on her computer, but if the service is ever discontinued or negatively modified the user has enough information to "fork" the deployment of the software and run it herself.
  3. The user controls execution of the software herself.

Level 0 is the default level of control over most web-apps. Google Translate is an example of a service I classify at this level. If Translate is ever discontinued, I have no ability to bring it back. I do not have access to the source code for google translate, and cannot know much about the infrastructure or methodology used to run it. Google Translate is a useful service, but it would be so much more useful to me, a hacker, if I could spin up my own version of "Translate" with my own changes.

Level 1 is the level of control afforded by most hosted open-source software installations. Sage Cloud is an example of a service in this category. While Sage Cloud is an online service for which I do not directly control deployment, Sage itself is open-source software, and I can easily spin up my own "Sage" server with most features intact. Level 1 has many benefits over Level 0 for interested computer-users, not least among them that the user can study the implementation of the service to potentially improve it and change it to match his own purposes.

Level 2 is the strongest level of control over computation. In Level 2, the user controls the computer on which the software runs, and can choose how it is used and when it is upgraded. Level 2 is the level corresponding to traditional desktop software. Even closed-source software provides a fair amount of control to users when it is run locally – the user has a perpetual ability to run the software, and the service cannot be removed without recourse. Additionally, the user can potentially reverse engineer and/or add extensions to even closed-source software as long as he has access to the binary.

Level 2 is obviously stronger than Level 1, but I think the Level 1 is still an important step over the default zero control level of typical cloud services.

4 Accessibility to Understanding

Accessibility to understanding is another criterion which has important implications for the practical level of control of humans over their computers.

Consider a large piece of computer software whose source is distributed in machine code, without comments, under the GPL. Technically, it is open source. If you run a disassembler on it you can get assembly code, and change it to your liking. While the software may be open-source, it will likely take you a very long time to figure out how the software works and modify it to mach your own goals. Therefore, your practical level of control over the software is much smaller than it could be if you had access to the source code in a high-level language. Here we see that it is not merely the legal status of the source of a piece of software which determines your control over it, but also the technical status of that source.

One side-effect of the "Accessibility to Understanding" principle is that it sometimes indicates that, indeed, "worse" can be "better" for humans. If you are confronted with a 1-million line program which has marginally better performance at some problem than a 1000 line program, if you are like me you will probably opt to use and hack on the 1000 line program.

5 Conclusion

In this article, I discussed three criteria which I think are useful for assessing how much control a user has over a piece of software. The first condition is plainly evident to most people, but I think the other two criteria are less talked about and used.