Op/ed about Free Software in Danish newspaper Information

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Wed Aug 31 14:32:51 UTC 2022

On Wednesday, 31 August 2022 10:39:39 CEST Carsten Agger wrote:
> Øjvind from our Danish FSFE team had a feature/opinion piece in the
> Danish newspaper Information the other day, print edition and online:
> https://www.information.dk/debat/2022/08/baeredygtige-it-fremtid-benytte-fri
> -software-microsoft-google-apple
> Its headline is: "Our sustainable IT future must use Free Software, not
> Microsoft, Google and Apple".
> If you don't read Danish you could use a translation service to read the
> actual article.

I can read Danish, but it just takes a bit longer for the words to sink in 
that it would if it were Norwegian. (Bokmål, that is: I also experience a 
performance penalty with Nynorsk!)

Having rushed through the article somewhat, I think it is pretty well argued, 
touching on the freedom aspects of Free Software, and I think that the 
transparency of Free Software is definitely a selling point in this age of 
surveillance. However, there were a couple of things that weren't quite 
accurate or that risk being inaccurate.

Firstly, there was a remark about needing to use the Zoom application when one 
could use Jitsi Meet in the browser. While I don't feel like defending Zoom, 
having been obliged to use it for remote work, I did only ever use it via my 
browser. Initially, it only worked with Chromium, but later on also seemed to 
work with Firefox.

More significantly, there was a remark about using Linux on older computers. 
However, the ability to run Linux distributions on older hardware is 
imperilled by developer attitudes. With the likes of Fedora starting to 
require a Web browser just to run the installer [1], and with general system 
requirements gradually being elevated and demanding more memory than can 
conveniently be managed on 32-bit systems, a lot of old or lightweight 
hardware is being rendered obsolete unnecessarily. Admittedly, the escalation 
in system requirements is also due to "Web culture" where the browser has 
finally become the environment for running programs that Netscape wanted to 
deliver in the late 1990s.

Even distributions like Debian are seeing a certain amount of pressure on the 
32-bit platforms with regard to how packages can be built and how these 
platforms can remain supported, and this in turn puts pressure on minority 
architectures that then risk being demoted to lower levels of support. 
Although many people would argue that 64-bit machines have been mainstream for 
many years, and that 64-bit ARM systems have become more widely available, we 
now risk a lot of 32-bit systems being needlessly thrown away. Then again, 
many of the same people might remark that many of those systems (Raspberry 
Pis, for instance) were "cheap" and therefore not worth saving.

So, to summarise the above, I think that some of the traditional arguments 
made for Free Software (transparency, control) work very well in the modern 
era where surveillance is a concern for many people. However, other arguments 
do not stand up particularly well any more. Interestingly, it is the 
"pragmatic" arguments that are falling down - you can re-use old computers, 
for example - but they were often the weaker arguments, anyway.

I think that Free Software advocacy can be a struggle purely due to the 
economic forces at work. Delivering Free Software environments that are 
resistant to consumerist trends in institutions (where people want the 
satisfaction of a shopping excursion) requires a strategy and a level of 
investment that many players in our political systems are reluctant to pursue. 
Governments, their institutions, and supporters of certain parties seem to 
regard investment in software infrastructure as "reinventing the wheel" and 
that such things can be bought "off the shelf" for far less.

At the same time in many countries, central government tends to have a habit 
of defunding local government and then blaming it for the poor state of public 
services. When schools are told that there is no money for anything, it 
becomes tempting for them to acquire the cheapest solutions, and if there 
happens to be free-of-charge services to use, these will quickly become 
adopted regardless of whether they should be or not. Considerations of privacy 
and control are then portrayed as unaffordable luxuries. This phenomenon is 
happening at absolutely every level of childcare and education.

It is hugely concerning that current economic conditions will only drive these 
trends further and more strongly. For a decade or more in countries like the 
UK where "austerity" has been official economic policy, many people will have 
been told that there is "not enough money" and to "make do". Even in wealthier 
countries like Norway who could afford to invest in public infrastructure, the 
tendency to emulate the idiocy of larger countries means that even modest 
efforts to promote Free Software were eliminated as soon as the former, right-
wing, government got into power, because business and "the market" supposedly 
solve all problems.

But even if we take a step back and look at how "information technology" is 
used in education, instead of focusing on our own specific interests with Free 
Software, it is enlightening to see how people regard the widespread use of 
tablets and other such devices in the classroom from a very early age. 
Educators, parents and child development professionals may be concerned about 
such proliferation of technology and whether it is harmful, but in response 
you can see some familiar tendencies on display: new toys have become 
available, are "convenient", and "the kids like them". Also, cheap technology 
is cheaper than paying wages for more teachers, assistants, and so on.

Perhaps the one area where Free Software might make progress is in being able 
to offer a genuinely better experience. But again, without investment, this 
will be difficult to achieve, and it also doesn't help that many of the people 
designing user interfaces these days seem to be obsessed with copying the 
arbitrarily confected and increasingly absurd elements of established 
corporate products. Such tendencies have arguably stalled the progress of 
Linux on the desktop for over a decade, but that is another story.


[1] https://lwn.net/Articles/880973/

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