Three meanings of “free”: after “free beer” and “free speech”, “free the Internet”

I have come across free software advocates who want to expand the range of their social causes and get involved in reforming society itself.

I hope they are already aware of at least three meanings of “free”. This is a friendly reminder if they’re not. Free software advocates are generally familiar with the first two: “free” as in “free beer”, and “free” as in “free speech”. Enough has been said about these two meanings.

There’s a third meaning, and a free software activist who wants to become a social activist should be aware of this one: “free” as in “free all political prisoners”.

In contrast to “free speech”, the third meaning also highlights the current lack of freedom and asserts that this situation must be corrected immediately. The third meaning is fraught with connotations of action and activism. When social activists use the word “free”, it is probably the third meaning they have in mind, with possibly the second meaning. “Free speech” is a somewhat general and almost a motherhood statement. “Free all political prisoners” carries a certain urgency. It is, for instance, pointless to demand “free Mandela” today. He has been out of prison for years. This meaning of “free” suggests a time frame, a demand with a deadline. (By the way, I was a political prisoner in the 1970s.)

A second reminder to free software advocates. Do not presume that once all software is “free”, your work is done. Some free software are more free than others. The BSD license is more free than the GPL. A number of free software licenses, and Creative Commons likewise, rely on the existing copyright system for enforcement. This means that many free software (and Creative Commons) advocates become defenders of copyrights. Once you become a copyright defender, you gain some friends (like the software, music, video, book and publishing industries) and lose other friends (like many social activists, though by no means all). Please think carefully through the implications of copyrights. Check, for instance, the Copyright Dossier by the CopySouth Research Group (CSRG).

A third and final reminder. Most free software advocates are Internet and information and communications technology missionaries. They love the technology and want everyone to embrace it. Please be aware, however, that the Internet today carries some very deeply-embedded biases (ideologies, if you will), which force themselves on all users. And some of these biases are in conflict with fundamental principles strongly held by many social activists. Though I know of more, I will cite only three: the bias for English, the bias for automation, and the bias for globalization. The first two are quite obvious (and will also be subjects for future posts).

The third may need a bit more explanation.

The Internet forces local players to subsidize global players, a bias that is deeply embedded in the technology. This subsidy comes from the simple fact that files sent to a “neighbor” (another user on the same ISP, i.e., local) are charged the same rate as files sent to distant users (say, subscribers on ISPs on the other side of the globe). This is precisely the “advantage” of the Internet, its selling point: the abolition of distance. Everything has become “local”. Yet, local file transfers use very few network resources, while international file transfers use quite a lot — several routers, perhaps undersea cables connecting continents, plus more routers near the destination. In short, local files are charged higher per network resource, compared to global files. The local subsidizes the global — a subsidy for globalization. This is a fundamental injustice — institutionalized theft, even — that lies at the heart of the Internet. Many of the so-called “advantages” and “benefits” of the medium are based on this built-in double-standard.

There is another way by which the Internet forces the poorer local users to subsidize the richer global users. This comes from the growth pattern of the Internet infrastructure of hosts and communication lines.

The Internet grows from the center to the periphery. But very often, the costs of the new communication links, the ports, the leased lines, and all the associated hardware and software infrastructure, are fully paid for by the periphery, in addition to the various one-time and monthly fees charged by the center. Yet, while the periphery requesting the connection shoulders its full cost, both sides benefit from the connection, the center possibly getting even more benefits because it has more users. In short, there is again a hidden subsidy for the center by the periphery. This occurred when the Philippines made its first Internet connection to the U.S. in 1994. It also occurred with other Philippine cities made their Internet connection to Manila. And again, when various towns connected to these cities. And this lopsided charging scheme continues today.

These bizarre subsidies for the rich by the poor will presumably be in place for all time, unless the free software movement and other social movements work successfully to “free the Internet” from these gross injustices.

This is what the third meaning of “free” is all about.

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