Six years ago, in the fall of 2008, Alon and I started TurnKey GNU/Linux inspired by a belief in the democratizing power of free software (free as in speech, not beer), like science, to promote the progress of a free & humane society.
Last year's "summer of Snowden" got me thinking about what sort of role free software software (and by modest extension TurnKey) should play in taking back the Internet from those who would turn it from a tool of freedom into a weapon.
I realized many of us in the free software community had been lulled to sleep due to the tremendous success that free software has had in the past two decades. We won didn't we? After all the Internet, together with the free software that powers it, is one of the greatest victories for human freedom in history. Great! So nothing to see here, move along...
Except we only won a few battles. We didn't win the war. Our hard earned freedoms are now more than ever under intense attack. Powerful forces are continually plotting new ways of luring us into closed, centralized systems under their arbitrary control, tempting us (to paraphrase Benjamin Franklin) to give up essential liberty in order to purchase a little temporary convenience and safety.
This makes free software and the values it embodies more important now than ever lest the very technologies we developed with the dream of creating a better, more open, humane and egalitarian society be turned against us. We the people, need to take a stand.
With that in mind we recently began referring to TurnKey Linux as TurnKey GNU/Linux - to symbolically show TurnKey's solidarity with the core ideals spearheaded by the Free Software Foundation, founded by Richard Stallman.
Many have criticized Stallman for being too extreme and polarizing. For not bending his values to conform with reality. For being a hopeless idealist. In 1998, several such pragmatists founded the Open Source Initiative in order to rebrand "free software" as "open source software" with the idea:
To dump the moralizing and confrontational attitude that had been associated with 'free software' in the past and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic, business-case grounds that had motivated Netscape.
To be honest, for many years I viewed this as a non-issue. A pointless semantic storm in a teacup. I considered "open source" and "free software" interchangeable and usually just defaulted to speaking of "open source software" with people who I believed might get confused by the "free" part.
No no, free software is free as in free speech, not free beer. It's about freedom, not price!
Using the term "open source software" sidelined the issue neatly.
Except it didn't. Open source was all about utility, a means to an ends. Logos - as the greek philosophers would say. What end was being pursued didn't matter.
The mind is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.
Free software on the other hand was all about values. Ethos - ethics, character. If you begin from the end, values are what you start out with. Then you set goals. After that you know where you want to go and you need to figure out the best way to get there - that's utility. Values are the roots, utility the leaves.
Richard Stallman does a good job of explaining the difference in his essay "Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software".
Values, above mere utility are at the heart of any worthwhile mission. It explains why we care about free software, our vision for the future, and why we're only just getting started:
Quoting from http://www.turnkeylinux.org/help/dev:
We want to work and play in a free Internet, under our terms, our rights and liberties intact. They want us depending on a nebulous "cloud" forever beyond our control, under their thumb, playing by their rules, trapped in a virtual panopticon that allows shadowy government agencies to spy and archive our digital thoughts in mass warrantless surveillance programs, turning the Internet from a tool of freedom into a weapon.
As renowned security expert Bruce Schneier puts it: "We need to take back the internet, and by we, I mean the engineering community."
A rare minority of would-be heros have the right combination of skills, means and motivation to fight back. Imagine if we could bottle up their IT superpowers and mass produce it into secure, convenient solutions mere mortals could use. Even experts would benefit. Discovering, configuring and testing combinations of free software components can be notoriously challenging, time consuming and inefficient, especially if everyone keeps reinventing the wheel by rolling their own solutions.
Update 2014/08/02: I expanded on the subject in a later somewhat controversial blog post that calls Ubuntu to take a more inspiring, values oriented approach to free software.