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Introduction to Freedom

If you want to know what freedom is, read on, we will define freedom and explain some of the important issues regarding its preservation in our society, which we believe you should care about. We will also try to shed some light around some of the common misunderstandings regarding these issues.

When we discuss freedom on Libervis.com (as we so often do one way or another) we are usually talking about rights people should always have and be able to exercise in any situation. In basically all cases the freedom comes down to a rather simple and easy to understand principle:

Freedom is the right to do as you wish, so long as it does not harm others' ability to exercise their right to do as they wish. Metaphorically, freedom is whatever floats your boat, if it doesn't sink mine.

This would suggest that there is no such thing as "absolute freedom", that is, the freedom that would allow one to do whatever he wishes no matter if it negatively affects others. If you would give someone an "absolute freedom", you are essentially stripping everyone else of all rights. That wouldn't even deserve to be called freedom. It is akin to dictatorship, absolutism—the rule of one over all others.

Therefore, freedom has to have certain self-preserving restrictions and it comes exactly from that second part of the principle we've mentioned above: "so long as it does not harm others' ability to exercise their rights"—this is essentially the ironic restriction that must be in place for everyone in a society to be equally free.

There are various topics where this principle of freedom is a core issue. We will present those that are most frequently referenced and discussed on this site.

Naming

Before we go into the specifics of these various freedom oriented topics, let's clear up the naming issue in order to avoid confusion.

You've probably heard of things such as "Free Software" and "Free Culture", but you may be wondering what this "Free" actually means? Well it's not the free as in free beer, it's Free as in Freedom, the same principle that we've just described above.

There is a problem with English in that "Free" has more than one meaning, the following being the two main uses of that term:

1. Not imprisoned or enslaved. a free man

This is where the term refers to someone whose ability to lawfully exercise his right to do as he wishes (as long as it is not to the detriment to others' ability to do the same) is not harmed - a free man.

2. Obtainable without payment. All drinks are free

And this is where, obviously, the term refers to something that you don't have to pay anything for.

So as we can see there is more than one meaning for "Free", but when you heard about 'Free (something)' you probably thought "(Something) I can get without exchanging money" (as #2 above).
But this isn't the meaning of the Free we're talking about here, the Free we're talking about is #1 in the above list: That is someone who is not restricted.

You'll sometimes see people say libre referring to definition #1 and gratis for #2, to try to be less ambiguous. But, these words have problems too: not many English-speakers have ever heard of them.

Specific Ideas and Philosophies about Freedom

Since this is on the internet and the objective of this article is to let you - the users of the internet - know and hopefully have a better idea about freedom on the internet, in computers and on media, we would like to explain some of the ideas that have the principle of freedom at its core which are important for these fields.

Freedom with Software

One day, you're over at someone's house and you see them using some neat software. Suppose you were unaware of proprietary software and are just left to your own conclusions. Like any other thing that can be copied, for example a recipe, you'd think a good friend would share with you. "But," your friend tells you, "That would be a violation of this End User License Agreement." Now, while giving a copy to you is physically possible (unless there's DRM, which is another topic), you can't take advantage of this fact. Giving a copy does not deprive you of your own copy, so why shouldn't you be allowed to do it? With free software, your friend can share with you and take advantage of technology. Not only that, but he, you, or anyone else can share and even modify and study that software (if they know how to program, which can be learned like a foreign language).

Also consider a situation at school. The school uses a proprietary office suite. A student starts writing a paper at school, and saves it to a USB drive or other portable storage. What if the student doesn't have the proprietary office suite the school uses? And even further, what if the student doesn't even have the operating system the proprietary office suite needs to run? The student will have to go out and buy these. If the student's family can't afford to buy that, too bad, the student is left in the dust with an incomplete paper to turn in. If the school used free software, they could give the student a copy of all the necessary software, and he/she could use that computer at home.

Having Free Software is also necessary for you to really have control over your own computer as your own property. If someone is able to control what you can or cannot do with the software you run on your computer then your computer isn't really fully under your control, but in big part under the control of the proprietary software vendor. If you downloaded or bought a copy of software it should be yours to do with as you please, make as many more copies as you need (e.g. for other computers you own or to share it with your friends), and you should also be able to modify it (or pay someone else to modify it) to adapt it to your computer or your specific needs.

Furthur reading/listening:
Audio/Video: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/audio/audio.html
Text: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/

Freedom with Digital Formats

This is a big part of Freedom when it comes to computers. Say you download a file, it's a Windows Media Video—what do you do if you don't have Windows Media Player (WMP)? There's no free software you can use to view it (without proprietary codecs[1]). You have to go out and buy WMP, even if you get WMP and open it, how do you know what the file truly is?

Now, go and download an Ogg Theora video file. There is plenty of free software out there you can use to view it. You can even look inside with the right Free tools to make sure you know what's exactly in that file.

But why the difference?

Well Windows Media Video is a proprietary format which is closed to the world, you have no idea of how it's encoded or decoded because its specification is kept secret. On the other hand Ogg Theora is a free format, which is nice and open to the world, the specifications are freely available to read and use; this is the reason you can get free programs that run the format.

^[1]Codecs are bits of code wich allow you to play audio and video formats.

Freedom with Hardware

A user has just bought a new video card, and it's a beast, so big and powerful it requires its own cooling system just to run. This user uses a not-so-popular platform, for example, the Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD). The company that makes these super video cards refuses to release documentation for them, and decides that they don't feel like supporting some not-so-popular platform. Now this poor user just wasted all that money on something he/she can't even use. There is reverse-engineering, but the maker of this video card has a patent on it, making reverse-engineering illegal. Suppose the video card isn't patented, it still takes a genius with a lot of patience and time to get a working reverse-engineered driver. If this user is to use the new video card he/she rightfully bought, he/she will have to switch operating systems, perhaps to an operating system that's proprietary (see free software above).

But this isn't the only issue with hardware. Sometimes the hardware makers intentionally make it so you can't use certain software. An example would be a network router where the software which runs it is freely available. You want a new feature so you edit the program which is on the router. But when you try and run your modified program it will not run. This is because the company which made the router have made the hardware check the software installed on the router. If it isn't a version with a secret 'signature' (which is only known to the manufacturer) in it the hardware will refuse to run the software. You are now forced to go and buy a new router with the feature, or if the feature you want isn't available, do without the feature.

If you bought the hardware you should have the freedom to do with it as you wish, rather than being dependent on the hardware vendor.

Freedom with Art

You can even have freedom with art. You've seen some picture on the Internet, you want to put a copy of it on your website with a couple of changes, but after contacting the author for permission for this they say you can't change it at all. What if you just wanted to make the picture suit your needs, with a couple of colour changes? You'll have to go through the whole process of drawing the original picture yourself, and using the colours you wanted - but this can leave you open to copyright violations. But if the art you wish to use is Free, because it's licensed under Creative Commons (without the No Derivative Works and Noncommercial clauses) or a similar license you can edit it as you wish. Usually such licenses require you to state where the original idea came from and to share your work under the same term - as some Free Software licenses require.

The Freedom of documentation is also very important. Say you find a tutorial online, or in a book, and used it but wanted to add a paragraph to explain something further, or to update some information, you'd have to ask the copyright owner for permission to change and publish the revised documentation. As with the image example above, if they refuse you'll have to rewrite the whole tutorial, but again you may fall foul of copyright laws. If the documentation is published under a Free license you can edit and publish these texts freely for the benefit of society.

Freedom with the Internet (Net Neutrality)

Your freedom can even be affected by the Internet. To quote Tim Berners-Lee (the creator of the Word Wide Web): "If I pay to connect to the net with a given quality of service, and you pay to connect to the net with the same or higher quality of service, then you and I can communicate across the net, with that quality of service." This means that if you and your neighbour have the same standard of net package you should be able to connect to all websites equally, without any websites or services given preference to.

In a world where the net isn't neutral you might be blocked from visiting websites of Internet Service Provider's (ISP) other than the one you use. Or you may only be given slow access to sites which haven't paid your ISP a fee to give faster access to the website. In these situations you are not free to use the Internet as you wish, only to use it as ISPs and telecommunication companies wish. Thus a Free Internet leaves you in control of how you use it.

Some further information on Network Neutrality on Wikipedia.

This article was written cooperativly by users of the Libervis Network.

Comments

Great introduction, although

 

Great introduction, although it feels a bit ... arrogant? ... not sure what word to call it. But it is the first explanation I would dare to let someone uneducated in computers read.

Where's the explanation of DRM? Did I miss it?

Hmm, maybe you mean

Hmm, maybe you mean "patronizing"? It's hard to make a "beginner-friendly" introduction without sounding at least slightly patronizing though. Eye I hope it shouldn't be a problem.

And the DRM was pretty much explained with that router example.

That's the word I was

 

That's the word I was looking for: patronizing.

Hmm, it may be patronizing,

Hmm, it may be patronizing, I'm not sure. In finishing off the article I tried to keep away from aiming at the lowest common denominator, but you're welcome to improve the wiki version for a future update.

dylunio

Wow. I like it!

 

I really like this. It's right on target. And it caught my eye not from a computer frame of mind, but a general political frame of mind. I think it is a great intro to freedom for these "geeky" tech issues!

It started to confuse me a bit in the Freedom With The Internet section, but on a re-read I got it.. Maybe change the last sentence in the first paragraph from "That is if you .." to "This means that if you .." or something like that?

I really, really like it! Being a newb to the web "free" movement, I didn't find it patronizing or otherwise objectionable at all.

I am very glad to hear that,

I am very glad to hear that, and I am sure dylunio and others too. Smiling

I suggest we make that little modification too?

Thanks

I'm glad someone has found

I'm glad someone has found it useful Smiling

Yes the suggested change sounds better, I've merged the changes into the wiki version and will edit the above shortly.

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