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Sparking Change: What Free Software can Learn from Social Justice Movements

Originally Published in the FSF Bulletin, Issue #34

June 27, 2019, midnight

In his celebrated 1963 “Letter From Birmingham Jail," Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. contrasted "a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." This, he claimed, was the greatest force against civil progress. King’s description of negative and positive peace is something that still rings true across social movements today, from movements for racial equality, to ending sexual assault, to animal rights. Those who take direct action are chided, even by those who support their end goal, for being too radical, too confrontational, and too emotional – yet these actions are vital for social change.

In our own movement, the general public remains largely unaware of the consequences of the software they use. Meanwhile, under the surface, it is violating their privacy and stomping on their freedom by giving corporations control over their computing and thus, by extension, what they read, think, and know. Despite the fact that proprietary software poses unprecedented risks to individual liberty, democracy, and societal freedoms, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple act with impunity. This lack of tension while injustice remains the status quo is what negative peace looks like.

Throughout history hundreds of methods of protest, resistance, direct action, and subversion have been used to topple oppressive regimes and systems. The Albert Einstein Institution recognized 198 Methods of Non-violent Action. Although there have been notable exceptions in organizations such as the FSF and their partners, the bulk Free Software Movement on the ground has been primarily focused on one: #72, non-consumption of boycotted goods.

Software is now deeply intertwined with the means of production, communication, and travel. We are quickly approaching a society in which every action is determined, predicted, or prevented by an algorithm. In a movement that is so vital to the freedom of not just software, but to the toppling of all oppression, we can not afford to just use one tool in our box.

Boycotting proprietary software is good, but it is not enough. Without using the tools of non-violent confrontation, software remains in a tensionless state of negative peace. As software freedom activists we must move beyond boycott to focusing on bringing visibility to this social crisis, so that it can no longer be ignored.

In past social movements, ending the state of negative peace through non-violent direct action has been a necessary part of achieving change. Taking example from both the suffragettes in England and the AIDS epidemic here in the US, real change was only achieved by those activists with a disruptive and confrontational approach to the cause. For example, in 1906 Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst started disrupting political events and got themselves arrested on purpose. They used their time in jail to garner more public attention and sympathy through hunger strikes. This breaking of the negative peace, and the creation of controversy, meant that the men in power could no longer ignore the issue.

The Free Software Movement can learn from these successes and begin to build the tension that will inevitably break the negative peace to lead us to positive peace. We can start by building grassroots networks of connected and empowered activists through conferences (such as Libre Planet and SeaGL), as well as local organizations. Connect with activists in other movements, and learn from them. Plan protests and marches together, coordinate sit-ins and disruptions of events, organize walk-outs, and raise the tension. Attend these events when others plan them. Yes, even if you’ve never protested before.

If you can’t take direct action yourself, support the activists who do. Become comfortable with non-violent confrontation in your daily life. Correct language normalizing proprietary software. Challenge its use even when you know you won’t win. Refuse to remain silent.

The threat of proprietary software is too great for us to allow the state of negative peace to remain. Creating tension that breaks the negative peace is our clear path forward, and it is in the hands of each of us to do so. This will be how we spark change.

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