“The anti-war status quo”

That old Trot, Christopher Hitchens switched allegence to the Right at some point in the last few years. He was one of the most prominent of the “left” advocates of the glorious plans of the American ‘neo-conservatives’ who were so highly regarded in the liberal press a year ago. Now they are left looking rather sheepish and silly. Some have kind-of repented of their evil ways. Hitchens, though still goes to the most bizzare lengths to defend Bush and co. An early example is an article in which he appears to be arguing that, because the war criminal Henry Kissenger was against the invasion of Iraq, he was right to be in favour of it. School playground logic or what. All comment on his article aside, I’m not so sure Kissenger was against the invasion per se [free registration required] – perhaps he thought its planning was not up to scratch.

Comic relief and a common sense view point on all this madness came from Python Terry Jones, whose occasional satirical pieces in the Guardian have been great.

15th February 2003

In the weeks before the the 15th of February, the scale of world opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq started to become clear. Even the majority of the Western ruling elite were against it and proposed alternatives.

In the run up to the London demo, much of the liberal press derided the movement, although there was plenty of sort-of favourable coverage too. It was also predicted around this time, that there would be mass walkouts in workplaces around the country on the the event of war (in the event, if this did happen to any extent, the media made sure it did not spread by simply not reporting it). The government at one stage tried to ban the march to Hyde park, though it ultimately relented to pressure (as if it had much choice anyway). Meanwhile, the US continuted to make up pretty pictures in a vain attempt to convince the UN that it had a good reason to invade.

The final count for the day was up to 30 million around the world, including 2 million in the UK. Notable is the fact that the largest protests were seen in the countries whose governments supported the US most. As Chomsky pointed out, the scale of the anti-war movement was unprecedented. Never before have the populations of the imperialist nations agitated against one of its government’s wars before it even started.

More articles on this: Anti-war protesters rally to cause. ‘I’ve never known anything like it. Everyone’s saying they will march’

Belgium to try Israeli war cimes?

Almost as interesting as the Belgium initiative to introduce laws to prosecute Israeli war cimes is the outraged response that came from the politicians. As I recall, Belgium later dropped, or watered down this decision.

Meanwhile, the nightmare continuted for the Palestinians.

Young British Muslims against the war

Back in February 2003 there was quite a lot of coverage of the anti-war movement in the liberal press. One decent article was about the politicisation of young British Muslims in reaction to the increasingly agressive stance of western governments against Muslim countries since 9/11.

At the same time, there was a huge upsurge throughout the whole of the media in warnings about imminent terrorist attacks supposed to happen any minute now. Hmmm… Nothing to do with keeping us pliant and scaring us into not making a fuss about the war I suppose…

Seize the award

Here’s a reminder of the high level of censorship there was in media during the run up to the start of the occupation of Iraq. Back in February 2003, the pacifist folk band Seize the Day were disqualified from the BBC’s annual world music awards [free registration required] merely because they were first in the running and the BBC were afraid they would use their acceptance speech to promote an anti-war message.

And the ever so impartial BBC couldn’t have that, now, could they?

Commies and pirates

This is the first of my flat file reading list imports. Over the last year and a half, I have been storing the URLs of online articles I’ve read in a text file to keep a record of my reading. Almost everything news oriented I read made its way into the file. Over the next few weeks I will be putting the links into blog entires, so that they become more easily indexed and searchable. After that’s done, online reading I do will be directly recorded here on my blog.

According to Juniper Networks, those who condemned NTL’s decision to cap broadband download at 1GB per month, back in February 2003 are just a bunch of commies. Around about the same time, police in China cracked down on ‘pirates’ who made advance copies of Pokemon Sapphire and Ruby for the GBA.

A new era in web-based Asa life

Well, I’ve finally got WordPress installed, to go along with my brand new URL. The next stage is to figure out CSS and how this WordPress templates system works, so that I can get this site looking any good – it looks like a bit of a mess at the moment. The stage atfer that will be to slowly post all the reading links I’ve been collecting in a text file for over a year. This is the main point of this weblog – to keep track of all the useful/interesting/noteworthy stuff I’ve read online. This is mostly political stuff, along with a little of my own commentary.

I also need a better name for this site – anyone with any idea let me know!

Smear test

Apparently, Saddam Hussein was corrupt and tried to nick money using the UN oil-for-food programme. Who knew? More interesting is this Washington Times op-ed, which is just the height of hypocracy. Even more interesting is how the list of the accused includes anti-sanctions and anti-war activists, with no evidence whatsoever. Hmmm…

Iraqi Opinion and the Western Media

Last one from the archives for now. Did this after getting angry at the nonsense I woke up hearing on BBC Radio 1’s news bulletin back in 2004. Originally posted on Indymedia UK, where you can find some debate about it.

by Asa Winstanley

The national survey of Iraq conducted this February by Oxford Research International hit the news on the 16th of March. The poll of well over 2000 Iraqis was sponsored by the BBC in the UK, ABC in the US, ARD of Germany and the NHK in Japan. A news bulletin on the BBC’s Radio 1 claimed that “most Iraqi’s think their lives are better than before the war a year ago” according to the poll. In the US, the New York Times also covered the story, but gave it less prominence (1). They write that the poll finds “an upbeat sense among most that their lives were better than before the war” although “other questions about the invasion provoked more negative reactions”. The BBC news website headlined with the story (2), musing that the poll will “make good reading for US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair”. This is no doubt true when viewed through the ideological bias of the New York Times and the BBC. A cursory look beyond their ‘liberal objectivity’ at the actual facts of the survey suggests very different conclusions.

The poll question that the media have most focused on is also the most vague one: “compared to a year ago, I mean before the war in spring 2003 [sic], are things overall in your life [better or worse]?”. Although it is true that 35% replied with “somewhat better” to this question, 36% said it was “about the same” or “somewhat worse”. Considering that one of the worst dictators the world has seen in modern times was still ruler of Iraq a year ago, these should be astonishing figures to those (such as the BBC) who expect gratitude from Iraqis. It seems the majority of respondents think the occupation is at best only “somewhat better” or “about the same” as the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Seen in this light the brave face that the liberal media have tried to put on this starts to melt away. A basic examination of the rest of the poll tells us even more about the imperialist ideology of Western media, considering the figures they have chosen not to discuss.

It should tell us something that Iraqi support for a war that has led to the toppling of such a tyrant is extremely shallow. The respondents were split, with 39% saying the invasion in March 2003 was wrong and 49% right. The reasons for this should be seriously considered by anyone in the West who cares about the conduct of their government. The western media often try to imply that Iraqis are somehow naturally inclined towards dictatorship. The BBC Online article continues: “Dan Plesch, a security expert at Birkbeck college in London said that the poll was good news for the leaders of countries who began the invasion a year ago this week. ‘This poll indicates that Iraqis strongly support a unified country with strong leadership’ ” (3) who will run the country with the same discipline as Saddam Hussein that “presentable young man” with an “engaging smile,” who we can “do business” with according to the British Embassy in Baghdad in 1969 (4). The New York Times article takes a similar view: “the largest share of respondents – 47 percent – said what their country needed most in 12 months was a ‘single, strong Iraqi leader’. Twenty-eight percent said an Iraqi democracy was most important, and 10 percent said the priority should be ‘a government made up mainly of religious leaders’ “. This result is for the question “What do you think Iraq needs in 12 months time? Five years time?”. The results of the part of the question that takes a five year perspective are reversed: 42% prioritised democracy, while 36% mentioned a strong leader. Note the selection of facts: the second aspect of the same question is unmentioned by the New York Times. The BBC omits the entire question. This only serves the imperialist ideology that views Iraqis as irresponsible Arabs who need to be led by enlightened Western powers. Unsurprisingly, Iraqis overwhelmingly disagree with this point of view. In fact the support for a broad, indigenous, representative democracy seen in the poll is striking when the actual figures are viewed without the ideologically tinted sunglasses of the Western media. In fact, 72% agreed with the statement that Iraq needed a democracy. Again; out of fourteen options of political configureation, the most popular was a “democracy” run by “democrats” (42%) with “an Islamic state and religious politicians” receiving only 11%.

The BBC too implies that Iraqis actually want to be dominated: “[the US government’s] favoured son Ahmed Chalabi had no support at all, while Saddam Hussein remains one of the six most popular politicians in the country”. True enough in relative terms, though it conveniently omits the simple truth that the respondents had no trust in any politicians: 58% said they trust none in the offered list or gave no answer. Saddam Hussein only scored 3.3% of the trust vote, with former CIA man Ahmed Chalabi accruing a mere 0.2 of a percent worth of trust.

The respondents overwhelming concern for the next 12 months is for security in the country (64%). When presented with a variety of parties from which to choose who should take care of securitry, the vast majority mention an Iraqi government and the people of Iraq, not the occupying powers. Thirty three percent say an Iraqi government while 17% reply “the people” (the two highest figures). Only 8% said the USA should take care of security and only 5% chose the “coalition forces” (even less chose the UN at 1%).

The BBC News Online article tries to present itself as an exploder of received truths claiming that the poll “suggests that the reporting of the daily attacks on the occupying forces in Iraq could be obscuring another picture”, one of Iraqis “adjusting to life with an occupying force” (5). Once again, the facts tell a different story. Most respondents (51%) still oppose the presence of the occupying forces, with 15% saying that they should leave the country immediately and 17% accepting armed attacks on “coalition” troops. Thirty percent even said that the immediate departure of coalition forces would be “very effective” as regards the security of the country, although 35% think that they should stay until an Iraqi government is in place.

Perhaps the most telling poll question answer of all lists several organisations and asks how much confidence respondents had in each. A quick look at the responses will tell you all you need to know about why neither the BBC nor the New York Times mention the question at all. An overwhelming 42% of respondents said they had “no confidence at all” in the US and UK occupying forces, with 24% saying “not very much” and only 25% expressing any sort confidence at all in the occupiers.

Whatever arrangements are made for self determination in Iraq, we should not delude ourselves that the current occupiers are trusted by the population, for reasons which by now should be too obvious to point out. Nor should we delude ourselves that the Western media are anything other than deeply indoctrinated in the service of great power.

(1) New York Times, 16 March 2004, “Ambivalence From Iraqis in Poll on War”,
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/16/international/middleeast/16SURV.html (accessed 16/3/2004)

(2) BBC News Online, 16 March 2004, “Survey finds hope in occupied Iraq”,
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3514504.stm (accessed 16/3/2004, 01:17 GMT version)

(3) Ibid.

(4) Biographic sketch of Saddam Hussein by British Embassy Baghdad, November 15, 1969. Telegram from British Embassy Baghdad to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Saddam Hussein,” December 20, 1969. Public Record Office, London, FCO 17/871. Available online from the National Security Archive, George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB107/index.htm

(5) BBC, “Survey finds hope in occupied Iraq”, Op. cit.

Copyleft article. You are free to made verbatim copies.

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

Introduction

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.”

Solutions

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 (http://www.blagblagblag.org) (who maintain an activist-focused GNU/Linux distribution called BLAG) and those involved in the organisation of the Lancaster AktiviX events (http://seedsforchange.org.uk/aktivix/) 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”.

Hacklabs

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 (http://www.hacklabs.org) 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 (http://www.hacklab.org.uk). 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.

Footnotes


1. See Asa Winstanley, “The Free Software Movement: Anarchism in Action”, December 2003. http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2003/12/283113.html


2. John Levin, “Re: Stalls at Marxism 2003”, message to the FSF Europe, UK email list, 17 May 2003. http://mail.gnu.org/archive/html/fsfe-uk/2003-05/msg00060.html


3. Raoul Victor, “Free Software and Market Relations”, http://www.oekonux.org/texts/marketrelations.html


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


5. United Nations Development Project (UNDP), Human Development Report 2003. http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2003/index.html


6. Jane Black, “Information rich, Information Poor: Losing ground bit by bit”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/special_report/1999/10/99/information_rich_info rmation_poor/472621.stm.


7. Reuters, “Third World Wonders About Information Highway”, 28 February 1995. http://www.di.unito.it/mail_archive/G7/0015.html


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 http://www.mssrf.org/informationvillage/ifla.html. 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 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3303717.stm. (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 http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/wsis.html.)).


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


12. Andrew Marr interviews Noam Chomsky for BBC Radio, “The Big Idea”, February 1996. Transcript online: http://www.zmag.org/chomsky/interviews/9602-big-idea.html


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


14. Office of the e-Envoy, “UK Online Annual Report”, 15 December 2003 http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/MediaCentre/NewOnSiteArticle/fs/en?CONTENT_ID=40 06060&chk=rIWVHj


15. National Telecommunications and Information Administration, “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide”, November 1999 http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide/.


16. Eric S. Raymond, “Take My Job, Please!”, 29 March 1999 http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/take-my-job-please.html. For material critical of Raymond see the relevant Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_S._Raymond


17. MJ Ray, “Re: Stalls at Marxism 2003”, message to the FSF Europe, UK email list, 19 May 2003. http://mail.gnu.org/archive/html/fsfe-uk/2003-05/msg00084.html


18. Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software, chapter 5 http://www.oreilly.com/openbook/freedom/.


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 http://technology.newsforge.com/technology/04/04/20/2229245.shtml.


22. Nick Hill, “re: Should we use Linux at all?”, 23 April 2004 (A) http://springnight.burngreave.net/pipermail/aktivix/2004-April/000227.html


23. Open Source Initiative, “The Open Source Definition. http://www.opensource.org/docs/definition.php


24. Free Software Foundation, “The Free Software Definition”. http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html


25. Nick Hill, “re: Should we use Linux at all?”, 23 April 2004 (B) http://springnight.burngreave.net/pipermail/aktivix/2004-April/000223.html.


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


27. For more on software censorship of the internet see http://www.peacefire.org.


28. Stallabrass, “Digital Commons”.

The Free Software Movement – Anarchism in Action

I wrote this essay back in 2003 and it was originally published on Indymedia UK back in December 2003 (see that link for some discussion of the piece). It was also published in Freedom newspaper sometime in 2004.

For some reason, I did not get around to posting here on my site till April 6, 2007. I edited it’s time stamp so it appears on my site in correct chronological order.

I wrote a follow a second article that is the logical sequel called, “The Limits of Free Software.”

by Asa Winstanley

What are the implications of the free software (called ‘open source’ by business leaders) movement for anarchists and activists in general? Could things be learned from it? Just how anarchist is GNU/Linux and other such projects? Little analysis or debate has been had on this. My article intends to stir some.

Introduction

The free software movement has been around in at least since 1984, but there is little awareness or debate about it in anarchist or general activist circles, beyond a vague awareness of “Linux”. A theoretical anarchist analysis of the movement and the lessons we can learn from it seems to be conspicuous only by its absence. Yet this is a movement which is currently affecting a revolution in the way individuals, groups and companies use and create computer systems. I intend this piece to stimulate further debate, as there is currently little. Also, I am no expert in anarchist history or theory, so would be happy to receive criticism of the inevitable shortcomings in my comparisons.

Continue reading “The Free Software Movement – Anarchism in Action”