The Limits of Free Software

I wrote this essay back in 2004 as a follow up to another on the connections between Free Software and anarchism. It seemed a logical continuation on the theme. It was originally published in the March 2004 issue of the (seemingly late) online journal Tangentium.

Another one I only got to filing on my site in 2007, changing the datestamp for the purpose of this posting.

by Asa Winstanley


The success of the free software movement is a potential proof of the validity of anarchist arguments in favour of a self-organising society, free of exploitation, coercion and hierarchy. Furthermore, I believe that it demonstrates that complex technological systems are possible when they have no leader, central government or managers [1]. In addition, the movement has created a vast array of useful software tools available at no cost to activists and communities, and has raised public awareness of issues such as openness, freedom of information, public accountability and co-operative creation of tools and standards.

However, in this article I am more interested with areas in which I think the movement is at odds with the political theory and practice of anarchism. The constrictions on the world-view of the free software community are often very real, as we will see in what follows.

Marxists and the left

Although the anti-capitalist movement in general has at least a basic awareness of free software, the more traditional left seems to be largely ignorant of it [2]. There is, however, a small German group called Oekonux who seek to understand the phenomenon using Marxist analysis. They look forward to a “GPL society” and see free software as a “germ” in capitalist society; part of “an objective historical process” that will lead to “the generalisation of the principles of free software to the whole of the productive social progress [sic]”. Thus: true communism via the rules of free software [3].

Although some of this group’s analysis is interesting and makes some valid points, its central thesis of a “GPL society” is essentially vacuous. People who have computers and the internet can share free software precisely because it costs practically nothing to do so. The same can not be said of food, shelter or heating. Even if computers and the internet were anywhere near being equally spread around the world one could still not defy the laws of physics with nothing more than a Marxist historical analysis.

Of course, the left is not a homogeneous mass; some seem to have a more realistic view. For example, in an article from the New Left Review: “[although] the free exchange of software has led some commentators to compare the online gift economy with the ceremony of potlatch, in which people bestow extravagant presents, or even sacrifice goods, to raise their prestige, it fundamentally differs in that the copying and distribution of software is almost cost-free — at least if one excludes the large initial outlay for a computer and networking facilities” [4].

Freedom for who?

Free software is often said to be a great equaliser. Everyone has the same right to use, study and modify it, due to the freely available source code and the legal provisions in free software licenses such as the GNU GPL. This is a fine concept in theory. When we look at the world in a wider context, however, we start to see the same old problems of inequality and domination. Software freedoms are, by definition, restricted to those who have the physical facilities to make use of them: an electricity supply and a computer. Furthermore, an internet connection is required to communicate and to share. Computers are luxuries if seen in a global context.

Looking at global figures of access to basic ICT facilities, the scale of the disparity is surprising. There are several good studies looking at global telecommunication and computer access figures, but I will use the latest UN Human Development Report as my main statistics base (incidentally this report gives some of the more optimistic figures I have seen) [5]. In 2001 there were only 169 telephone mainlines for every 1000 people around the world. This is a rise from 98 lines per 1000 people in 1990. A 1999 investigation by a BBC Online journalist put it this way: “more than 80% of people in the world have never heard a dial tone, let alone sent an email or downloaded information from the… web” [6]. In 1995 South Africa’s President (then Deputy President) Thabo Mbeki said: “The reality is that there are more telephone lines in Manhattan, New York, than in sub-Saharan Africa” [7]. According to Black this was an understatement: “the situation is even worse in Africa [than in Asia]. With 739 million people, there are only 14 million phone lines. That’s fewer than in Manhattan or Tokyo. Eighty percent of those lines are in only six countries” [8].

The share of world population with regular access to the internet stood in 2001 at 8% [9]. Other sources give slightly different figures [10]. Numbers of computers are similarly low at 9% [11]. Not without reason has Noam Chomsky called the internet “an elite operation”, despite all its democratising effects [12]. This assessment, made in 1996, still stands. Even if access to electricity, computers and the internet were in place, there are the more fundamental problems of illiteracy, the Anglo-centric nature of the web and lack of basic computer skills. Black sums it up: “[the internet] may be the wave of the future but age-old problems still apply”. In the report, Black and others looked at case studies such as “Benin… [where] more than 60% of the population is illiterate. The other 40% are similarly out of luck. Four-fifths of websites are in English, a language understood by only one in 10 people on the planet” [13].

Information inequalities

There is a standard phrase used to refer to these inequalities – the digital divide. Like much of our everyday language, this is a propaganda term. It gives the picture of a world of ‘two halves’ – those with computers and the internet, and those who do not have them yet. The global reality seen is of course very different. The ‘haves’ actually form a global elite, while the ‘have-nots’ constitute the vast majority of the world. There is no compelling reason to believe that greater technological innovation alone will substantially reverse this trend. While freely available and modifiable software tools are a great help to activists and community computer projects here and in the global south, they can only work within the restraints of massive social inequalities. The laudable principles of the Free Software Foundation are irrelevant to Indian villagers who have no access to electric power or computers. Software cannot be used where there are no computers, and free software distribution or co-operative development is severely limited amongst the 90% of people who have no internet access.

The technological privileges of class and race in the west

In our more privileged part of the world the hierarchies of knowledge come into play more, but the older economic disparities still take hold. According to the government’s own figures, less than half of British adults have access to the internet at home, as of June 2003. If those who have regular access via internet cafes, libraries and so on are factored in the figure rises, but only to 56%, with 61% having ever used it. These figures are a definite improvement from 2000; household access is up from only 33%. Clearly, we too have a ‘digital divide’ broadly along class lines. A study along race lines would probably reveal further inequalities. There are other factors for the deficit, such as the fact it is a relatively new technology that many are not yet comfortable with. Indeed, major growth over time has occurred – only 9% of households had net access in 1998. However, the general trend in the figures suggests that we are now reaching a plateau, and that this divide in the nation will be broadly sustained as long as more general class, race and educational divisions remain [14].

A look at a 1999 US government study reveals very similar findings [15]. Black, Hispanic, Native American and rurally based Americans are much less likely to have access to computers, especially those in lower income ranges. In fact, although access has improved for the most disadvantaged sectors since 1994, inequality actually widened. For example, the gap in computer access between white and Hispanic households between 1994 and 1998. The report even found that black people had less internet access anywhere than white people had at home. For black people too the overall situation has improved since the internet took off in 1994, although the gap between them and the white population also increased significantly. However, in black households making over $75,000 the gap, though still present, narrowed between 1997 and 1998. Class trumps race in this respect. At the absolute bottom of the pile, though, are Native Americans. Access to computers in 1999 for rurally based Native Americans was far below the national average of 42% at 27%, and internet access was at a mere 19% at a time when the national average was at 26%.

Retreat from reality

While this cursory review of the statistics reveals a striking divide in the west, it is obviously nothing compared to more pressing global inequalities. Those of us with internet access are the more privileged half of the western world, but we are part of an even smaller global elite. When we next hear grand rhetoric about the “global community” of internet and free software users, let us remember how narrow this community really is, even within our own countries.

Many in the free software movement are blind to the reality of this situation. Responsible for this attitude, in no small part, are grand illusions about the ‘free market’. Presupposed by its proponents is equal opportunity for all, equal access to resources and information, and so on. Trickle-down economics. The reality, of course, is far different. This comes as no surprise to anyone concerned with genuine egalitarian development and a humanitarian vision of globalisation – and least of all to anarchists. Unfortunately, there is a small but significant current in the free software and open source movements that are extreme supporters of the ‘free market’ – those who usurp the honourable term ‘libertarian’. Worse still, some of them happen to regard themselves as the movement’s ‘leaders’. This leads to several problems, not the least of which are self imposed blindness to inequality, subsuvervience to corporate interests and the growth of technocratic elitism.

Free market assumptions

Eric S. Raymond is one such figure. The term “Open Source” was coined and is promoted by him amongst others. In 1998 they founded the Open Source Initiative. Although he has made no significant free software contributions, Raymond explicitly presents himself to the wider world as a leader of the ‘open source’ movement, especially to business leaders who he focuses on in his campaign for corporate adoption of the GNU/Linux operating system. This is a step beyond the respect (albeit sometimes bordering on an unhealthy cult of personality) for figures who are admired because of their their software (e.g. Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds) or for establishing projects and legal mechanisms to protect and promote free software. Raymond describes his role as “public advocate for the hacker tribe, speaker-to-journalists, evangelist/interface to the corporate world” [16]. He is part of the strange American anomaly that calls itself “free market libertarianism” or “anarcho-capitalism”. Around the rest of the world, ‘libertarian’ is just a more friendly name for an anarchist – someone against both private wealth and state power. In the US in recent years the word has been adopted by radical ‘free market’ advocates. They tend to presuppose. a world in which everyone has the same access to computers and more or less the same access to the internet. Failures of access to technology are down to the individual, not the provider and certainly not the government. This form of what could be termed ‘radical corporatocracy’ suggests that government is not needed because private corporate interests and the ‘free market’ should control everything (except for a some form of minimal government for things like national defense). Services that were normally public (libraries, for instance) Formerly public services would be only be available to those with the money to pay for them. A more appropriate title for such a political philosophy is “free market fundamentalism”. [Editors’ note: see this month’s supplementary essay.]

Such disturbing politics could simply be ignored, were it not for the limitations of vision it imposes on sectors of the free software movement. It makes for an extremely blinkered view of the world – presupposing that if we can only make enough free software then we have “the possibility for a fairer free market that stands a chance of achieving the requirements of comparable goods” [17]. Oddly enough, this almost mirrors the “GPL society” ideas of Oekonux – emancipation through information. In the real world, however, such advances can only come through much larger changes in wider social conditions. Free software can certainly play a part in widening consciousness and making people think that “there is another way”, but it is limited in what it can achieve.

Richard Stallman for one seems to have a more considered and realistic outlook on the place of software freedom [18]:

“I hesitate to exaggerate the importance of this little puddle of freedom, because the more well-known and conventional areas of working for freedom and a better society are tremendously important. I wouldn’t say that free software is as important as they are. It’s the responsibility I undertook, because it dropped in my lap and I saw a way I could do something about it. But, for example, to end police brutality, to end the war on drugs, to end the kinds of racism we still have… these are tremendously important issues, far more important than what I do. I just wish I knew how to do something about them.”


This essay has been mainly about identifying problems. I would like to tenuously suggest the beginnings of some possible solutions, or at least a few possible directions for future debate. I avoid discussion of what to do in the short term in the global south, as they often have more pressing needs, such as running water [19]. There is no reason that information development could not progress in the global south as long as priorities and local needs are paramount [20].

Awareness raising within LUGs

LUGs are Linux User Groups. They organise activities such as “install-fests” where anyone can bring their computer along and have GNU/Linux installed. They also engage in regular “meets” and hold discussions on the latest happenings in the free software world. One possible strategy would be to work within these groups to raise awareness of wider social and political issues, to try and point out the links between technology and liberation or oppression. One example of the latter is the use by the US military of GNU/Linux systems. The president of a LUG in Los Angles recently gave up his post, citing this concern as his main reason [21]. It is not, therefore, a question of “politicising” these groups, rather it is a question of whether or not they will maintain their often questionable politics.

Groups such as the Brixton Linux Action Group ( (who maintain an activist-focused GNU/Linux distribution called BLAG) and those involved in the organisation of the Lancaster AktiviX events ( are a welcome development in this regard. Nick Hill on the AktiviX mailing list, recently made the point that most LUG’s abdication of concern over social and political issues is attributable to both the intolerance for open debate within many LUGs, and their attitude towards “the otherness of ‘Linux’ and ‘open source’ [which] does not carry with it a strong political dimension” because they shy away from the essentially political nature of the GPL and free software in favour of short term gains [22].

Alternative ‘social contract’ licenses?

Free software can be used by anyone for anything. There are no free software licenses that prevent, even in theory, people or groups who work against a good society – even those who actively work against free software. The Open Source Definition even has a “no discrimination against fields of endeavour” clause, stating as examples that restricting “the program from being used in a business, or from being used for genetic research” would stop a license from being considered ‘open source’ [23]. The Free Software Foundation is similarly permissive, saying that free software requires that there is “freedom for any kind of person or organization to use it… for any kind of overall job” [24]. Within the free software community, there are basically two schools of thought on this issue. The first: free software is like free speech and you should not deny it to even your worst enemies, including fascist groups and the US Military (the latter make extensive use of GNU/Linux and other free software, and even release some of their own software under the GPL). The second school of thought is that such ‘social contract’ provisions would be unenforceable. One such ‘debate’ was recently held on the comments page of the Newsforge story about the LA LUG president who resigned (he was roundly condemned). A smaller version of the debate was held recently on the ActiviX mailing list recently in which Nick Hill made the interesting point that [25]:

“It would be better if… military budgets were much smaller and the money put directly to good use, but this requires political effort. Aiming to stop the military from using open software technologies is certainly the wrong way to counter colonialism. Everyone can freely benefit from improvements to the system made as a result of military dollars spent on Linux system development”.


Although the political awakening of LUGs is slowly starting to happen with awareness raised over issues such as the SCO attacks and the software patents issue, it is unclear how far this can go as “LUG structures may not be conducive to good political debate” [26]. One possible approach to this problem would be to explicitly challenge formal or informal hierarchies and ideological narrowness within LUGs, pressing for wider social and political debate and action relating to free software.

A possibly more productive approach would be to take part in the much wider Hacklab movement ( that is taking off around Europe. I’m currently involved in one such project in the east end of London, the Freedom Press Media Hacklab ( Explicitly political spaces for activists, free software enthusiasts and the wider community, Hacklabs are an exciting development. Starting our own Hacklabs in poorer communities would benefit the anarchist movement immensely, grounding us in real communities. Also it could provide the wider public with more ideologically open internet access, not subject to the (intensely political) censorship of filtering software that is often imposed in public libraries and schools [27]. We don’t have to travel to the global south to start filling the gap. We have our own 50% of information have-nots. Like setting up social centres, starting Hacklabs are a definite challenge that can often meet significant opposition (especially in occupied spaces), as well as internal organisational and directional challenges.

The free software movement, and the vast array of tools it has produced are welcome developments. It may yet lead to a wider political awakening within technocratic elite sectors. But free software, the GPL, or indeed the entire concept of copyleft are not panaceas. The “little puddle” may be able to connect to a wider “ocean” [28] but the task remains for anarchists and others to make this ocean into a reality.


1. See Asa Winstanley, “The Free Software Movement: Anarchism in Action”, December 2003.

2. John Levin, “Re: Stalls at Marxism 2003”, message to the FSF Europe, UK email list, 17 May 2003.

3. Raoul Victor, “Free Software and Market Relations”,

4. Julian Stallabrass, “Digital Commons”, New Left Review 15, May-June 2002.

5. United Nations Development Project (UNDP), Human Development Report 2003.

6. Jane Black, “Information rich, Information Poor: Losing ground bit by bit”, rmation_poor/472621.stm.

7. Reuters, “Third World Wonders About Information Highway”, 28 February 1995.

8. Black, “Losing ground bit by bit”.

9. UNDP, Human Development Report 2003, p277 for this and previous figures. The figure given is 79.6 “internet users” per 1000 people globally. It is unclear whether “internet users” refers to those who use it regularly or those who have ever used it. For the purpose of this essay I will be more optimistic and assume the former.

10. See, for example, Subbiah Arunachalam, “Reaching the unreached: How can we use ICTs to empower the rural poor?”, 24 August 2002 He puts the figure for those who have benefited from the “fourth information revolution” at 5% globally. Larry Irving, former US assistant secretary of commerce (in Black, “Losing ground bit by bit”) put the figure at 2% in 1999. On the other hand, some are more optimistic, if only in vague terms. For example, the ITU (the UN group behind the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)) recently argued that gaps in available data suggest that the situation may not be as bleak as usually presented (see BBC News Online, “Digital divide figures ‘flawed'”, 10 December, 2003 (Note also that Richard Stallman heavily criticised the WSIS for its suppression of dissent, calling it “more of a trade show and conference than a real summit meeting” (see: Stallman, “World Summit on the Information Society”, undated

11. UNDP, “Human Development Report 2003”, p236.

12. Andrew Marr interviews Noam Chomsky for BBC Radio, “The Big Idea”, February 1996. Transcript online:

13. Black, “Losing ground bit by bit”.

14. Office of the e-Envoy, “UK Online Annual Report”, 15 December 2003 06060&chk=rIWVHj

15. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide”, November 1999

16. Eric S. Raymond, “Take My Job, Please!”, 29 March 1999 For material critical of Raymond see the relevant Wikipedia article at

17. MJ Ray, “Re: Stalls at Marxism 2003”, message to the FSF Europe, UK email list, 19 May 2003.

18. Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software, chapter 5

19. Around 58% of urban households in Africa have no access to running water. See UNDP, “Human Development Report 2003”, p104.

20. For an example of such a project see Arunachalam, “Reaching the unreached: How can we use ICTs to empower the rural poor?”.

21. Newsforge, “Los Angeles LUG [president] resigns over military Linux use”, 21 April 2004

22. Nick Hill, “re: Should we use Linux at all?”, 23 April 2004 (A)

23. Open Source Initiative, “The Open Source Definition.

24. Free Software Foundation, “The Free Software Definition”.

25. Nick Hill, “re: Should we use Linux at all?”, 23 April 2004 (B)

26. Hill, “re: Should we use Linux at all?” (A).

27. For more on software censorship of the internet see

28. Stallabrass, “Digital Commons”.

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