Not Just Software: Free Software and the (Techno) Political Action

Not Just Software: Free Software and the (Techno) Political Action

Blanca Callén (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain), Daniel López (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain), Miquel Doménech (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain) and Francisco Tirado (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain)
Copyright: © 2010 |Pages: 10
DOI: 10.4018/jte.2010040104
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The practice of developing and creating Free Software has been the centre of attention for studies related to economics, knowledge production, laws and the intellectual property framework. However, the practice that constitutes the initiative of Free Software also means a call to rethink current forms of political action and the in-depth meaning of what is understood as “political”. This constitutes the field which has been called techno-activism. Along these lines, the authors propose a particular reading of the political challenge that is Free Software from the standpoint of Hardt and Negri’s (2000) theoretical work. The authors put forward various contributions -regarding the organization, the agents and the form of political action- that they consider to pose a crisis for traditional proposals and urge society to renew its way of relating to information, the raw material upon which the current exercise of government and practices of techno-activist resistance rest.
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“We have to write a new generalised oath to the sciences as a whole, as all wise men have responsibilities of creation. They may swear it or not, it is their free choice. The one that writes it will open a new millennium.” (Michel Serres, 1994)


Introduction: Free Software As A Political Practice

The main transformation caused by the massive implementation of Internet in our day-to-day lives has not been, precisely, in the field of information transfer. We have to look for it, to the contrary, in the field of imaginary (Flichy, 2001). Internet is above all a promise: of freedom and cooperation (Lévy, 1995). And if there is a paradigmatic practice of such a promise, it is the search for and promotion of Free Software. “Free” not because we wish for something for nothing (in relation to a price, a value or a measure), but because we are dealing with a particular concept of freedom in virtual environments. Hence the concept of “Free Software” refers to the irrevocable right to run, copy, distribute, study, modify and improve such software. A right which materializes in four specific practices: a) the freedom to run a program for any conceivable purpose; b) the freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to the needs of any user; c) the freedom to redistribute copies of the program and in this way help others; and d) the freedom to improve the program and put these improvements within reach of all and every community.

If we look back at the decade of the sixties, the moment when the computing phenomenon began, we can see that the concept of “Free Software” did not exist. Simply put: all software was free. Computer programs and their source codes (codes written by programmers and which are essential if we wish to know the internal functioning of the program) circulated freely among Internet users, who at the time were limited to small groups of academics and researchers. Developments were taken advantage of and reused by others, who improved them and, once again made them available to the rest. This way, a specific work became a group benefit and a tacit community of cooperation was set up which permanently generated innovation. The Unix project, the first multi-user and multi-task operating system which was based on respecting open code (source), was the paradigm of this logic.

The appearance of personal computers changed the situation. Private companies appeared which developed software and marketed licences to use it. Concealing the source code meant that other companies or programmers were prevented from knowing how it worked, the participation of users in its innovation and development was eliminated and all other uses other than simply running the program were prohibited. At the same time the user was forced to pay for updates or improvements, an activity which remained firmly in the hands of the company alone. Nowadays, most software that is used and distributed is of this type.

The Free Software movement is a reaction against this situation and vindicates the conditions under which telematics was born. In the extract below from the manifesto which Richard Stallman prepared to publicise his project we can see these pretensions clearly:

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