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Why Women need to Start Caring about Software Freedom

Oct. 25, 2018, 2:47 p.m.

Imagine a future where the world’s governments are controlled by warring corporations, freedom of communication and information is limited only to non-seditious speech which does not challenge the new status-quo, and technology is used to surveil and control the population, preventing uprisings before they start.

Now imagine that this is not science fiction, but rather a very possible outcome of the path we are headed down. And in fact, this dark reality has already begun.

As late-stage capitalism threatens to seize more and more control of our democracy, the tools we have available to us to resist will be increasingly important. In today’s world, that means technology. But despite exponential growth in technological advancements over the past decade, the amount of technology that is freely owned by the people remains limited. Meanwhile, proprietary technology which is owned and controlled by the very corporations we may need to rise against have become our primary means for communicating, organizing, and resisting. This has backed us into a dangerous corner as a society, and if we don’t change things soon there will likely be serious consequences.

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But while women are still fighting for basic rights over our own bodies, let alone to be taken seriously as technologists, why should we care about software freedom?

The answer to this is simple: if we don’t, women will suffer.

Women and girls are already suffering under the gender roles that prevent us from gaining access to technological education and skills, keeping us not only out of lucrative careers but out of positions of power in the rising technology regimes. Technology is a clear path to economic freedom for anyone, and for women economic freedom can be life or death (consider, for example, that 99% of domestic violence victims experience financial abuse which can prevent them from leaving). In developing nations, women and girls are 21% less likely to have a cell phone, and worldwide 350 million fewer women than men have access to the internet. When technology is a key factor in safety, economic empowerment, and freedom – these disparities add up.

Free software is in a unique position to help solve these problems. The One Laptop Per Child program, for example, provides rugged computers to children in over 42 countries giving them access to the internet, programming tools, games, and learning resources – all built on Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). A program like this would be impossible with proprietary software without direct support of a corporation like Microsoft, for example. NGOs simply aren’t in a position to be buying 2 million software licenses.

Programs like these that provide technology access to people in developing nations improve the lives and health of the entire community. Yet, the direct improvement to the lives of women and girls, specifically, is likely to be greater as women and girls have been historically disproportionately denied access to education and economic freedom.

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Women are also suffering currently under the male-dominated proprietary software that runs our lives. Karen Sandler discovered this the hard way when her proprietary pacemaker shocked her during pregnancy, a bug that would have likely been noticed had there either been more female engineers on the team that created that device, or the source code of the device was available.

But perhaps more importantly, proprietary software is used (and will only continue to be used) to hurt women in the most insidious way: upholding status quo, including patriarchy. Other minorities and oppressed groups will also be hurt by this. In fact, the only people who benefit from the tyranny of proprietary software are those who currently have everything to lose. Women must start caring about our freedom to organize, communicate, and share information or we will lose any chance we have at overthrowing the patriarchy.

It is absolutely foolish to believe that the corporate overlords of the future (or today) would have motivation to allow women’s liberation. Obviously women’s liberation and social liberty as a whole are deeply entwined, and it can be argued that one can not exist without the other. As we march nearer and nearer to the dystopian future of Black Mirror, are we really foolish enough to believe women’s liberation will somehow happen in between?

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But despite the doom and gloom, women are also in a unique position to aid the failing Free Software Movement. As women make up only 30% of the technology workforce, and perhaps even less of the open source community. These communities have typically been hostile to women, and as a woman in open source myself, I can say it is no surprise that other women have stayed away. Without the financial incentive that big tech jobs come with, why would we put up with these boys clubs?

The problem that the Free Software Movement currently faces is this: it does not see itself as a social justice movement yet. If FOSS advocates were thinking more like the great social change-makers of our time, the need for women would be clear. Women have historically played major roles in the greatest social movements of our time (despite receiving little recognition for their work), and the unique social and strategic skills that we are able to bring to a movement are necessary. Yet, no movement has been so starved for women as FOSS. Despite decades of sustained activism, legal battles, and technological advancements, the FOSS community limps along, the issue of proprietary software barely entering mainstream consciousness.

As the dangers of proprietary software will disproportionately affect women, we can not afford to let the FOSS movement fail us any longer. It is time for women to start caring about software freedom; not just for diversity’s sake, but for the sake of the liberty of generations of women and girls to come.

Image source: OLPC