Getting People To Understand The Importance Of Freedom Over Convenience: Why Is It So Hard?

by Kevin Keijzer

I visited something one may call a family reunion today. Even though those who know me are likely aware of the fact that something like that is not really my style. I have nothing against the people personally, so I did my best to be friendly and polite, have some general conversations, and possibly end up getting one or two people interested in leaving the proprietary computing ecosystem and become liberated by GNU/Linux and other free software.

The usual people with whom I have such conversations about the importance of free software, (and more importantly, digital freedom) do not know very much about the subject, but are usually surprisingly willing to listen to what I have to say. Although I've come to believe that the reason for them doing so is more likely due to the fact is that I offer to bring new life to their old computers free of charge, rather than being honestly interested in the potential dangers I try to protect them from. I don't think I'll ever know their true intentions, and I try not to think about it that much; merely to avoid another major disappointment in my life.

Regardless, today I was talking with a relative who does know what he is talking about, and perhaps (or even most likely) knows more about computer-related subjects than I do. But sadly, it did not take very long for me to find out that even though he was well informed about the subject - and wasn't too shy about letting me know about that either - he still reasoned like an average computer user. He told me that he just couldn't care less about how content is presented to him, as long as it "just works". (And we all know that slogan, don't we?)

Even though American corporations like Microsoft and Apple will have full control over everything we do with our (not so very) "personal" computers, and are able to spy on us, steal our personal data, apply censorship to the applications we are allowed to run, add DRM to media content, and lock us into proprietary file formats, it was considered all right by him, as long as working with his computer would take as little effort as possible. So, basically, someone "smarter" than me is still part of the everyday ''OMG this Silverlight movie doesn't work, so GNU/Linux sucks'' crowd. As you can probably imagine, it was one of the most depressing thoughts I had in a long time, finding out that respect for two of the companies in ICT I consider to be the most evil of all time, is even present in this group of users.

Even though he acknowledged some of my very valid reasons to avoid proprietary software like the plague, he still did not consider them to outweigh the convenience of 'not worrying about anything' that proprietary operating systems have to offer. What I would really like to know is why people find convenience and making as little effort as possible so much more important than their own freedom and safety? Why would someone put their privacy and right to control something they own on the line, just so they don't have to think as much? I mean, I would really not feel comfortable running some kind of executable on my machine with root privileges, without having at least have some clue of what it does. Even though I'm not the most talented programmer out there, I can tell whenever something really isn't right. And I trust the social contract that free software has to offer, that other people will warn those who can make a difference, (such as the repository package maintainers), that something in the source code really needs review. Proprietary software offers no such possibility, (other than reverse engineering for years), and is therefore, in my opinion, defective by design, as the Free Software Foundation so accurately describes DRM; one of my other nightmares.

Anyway, back to what I was saying: I find the lack of personal control over pretty much everything we do to be disturbing. I simply do not understand why people don't want to at least try to have as much control as possible over the things they have to deal with in everyday life. I just don't see how someone can be comfortable with CEOs of huge overseas corporations deciding what we may or may not do with our own property. Why would you be fine with the FBI breaking into your house if you copy a DVD that you own for personal use, or install different software on a gaming console that you paid money for? I don't see why anyone in their right mind would agree to an end-user license agreement that explicitly states that even though you went to the store and purchased something, you are still not allowed to do anything the vendor doesn't want you to. Why would you agree that some software vendor is allowed to remove any feature they want to see disappear, even though you may rely on it, and even though you possibly even paid money for it? (Don't make me bring up the PlayStation 3 Other OS function.)

Giving up the ability to control any part of your life, particularly computers and other internet devices, which are an ever-increasing part of everyday life, feels both incredibly stupid and also seriously dangerous to me. A man named George Orwell wrote a book about what could result from that, in case things go really bad. It might be worth a read sometime.

To me, a computer is not just a tool that makes my life easier. It's also a potentially harmful factor for my personal life, my privacy and even my safety, if I don't use it with care. It may take a bit more time to run as much free software as possible, (even though the generally made assumptions are blown completely out of proportion), but it does seem worth the effort if I can prevent all kinds of bad things from happening. Why would I stand back and hope for the best? Why would I just wait until something came to bite me in the neck big time, and not just do something about it? The only reasons that I can think of are that I wouldn't be aware of all the things I just said, or that I wasn't capable of changing them myself. And that's my exact point here: for the guy I'm referring to, neither was the case. He both knew about all of this, and was most likely capable of freeing himself from it, but he still chose not to, because it would take some of his time, his effort, and his ability to view Silverlight movies.

I'm not judging him, I'm not saying he's stupid, and I really think that everyone has every right to do whatever they please. But I do think that it's a shame. I feel like he's letting himself down. I mean, if you really know a lot about a certain subject, and you like doing it, whatever it may be, why wouldn't you try everything you can to help it move forward and keep it safe, clean, and accessible for everyone? Why wouldn't you stand up and join the idealists and make a change, rather than be part of the general population which just does as ordered, and never gets anywhere? Why would you choose your own convenience over doing the right thing, and making the world a better place?

I just honestly believe that the world would be a better place without proprietary software. In my opinion, commercial ownership of non-tangible things has a negative impact on every aspect it touches. It holds back innovation; it threatens fair competition; it drives up the prices; it decreases the development rate, the safety, the flexibility, the efficiency and the overall quality.

I just don't think that viewing things from the commercial side is always the best thing to do. Of course, Microsoft and Apple have become filthy rich by what they've done, but have they done right? Have they created products that have helped humanity move forward? Maybe, but at what cost? How safe are we now compared to 40 years ago? How much control do we have over our lives compared to 40 years ago? Those things have only become much worse, as many things have become completely dependent on computers nowadays. Almost everybody is forced to use Microsoft Windows at work, for instance, no matter how badly they try to avoid it. I have to jump through quite a few hoops in order to stay completely free of Microsoft and Apple products. But, to me that's worth it, because I really believe that doing business with them is very harmful to myself, my family, and the computer technology in general. Any penny given to either one of those companies is one too many.

Then again, I don't think that I should be having to do all this. And if more people would agree with me and act upon it, none of us would. But unless more people stand up for their rights, things will never change. And that's what bothers me the most. What have we become? Why are we all such sheep nowadays? People used to protest against everything; universal suffrage, women’s rights, gay rights, abortion, the Vietnam war, nuclear plants, you name it. But now, on a subject that involves and threatens billions of people, we do nothing. No one seems to care. No one seems to even think about it. No one even takes the time.

Kevin Keijzer is a free software advocate and GNU/Linux user who lives in Ridderkerk, Netherlands. His stated goal is to persuade as many people as possible into ditching their proprietary software, in favor of free and open source software. You can frequently find posts expressing his advocacy on Google