Free software means software that respects the user’s freedom. It means that users are free to run the programs as they wish, free to study and change the software (or hire others to do it for them), free to redistribute copies to others, and free to publish modified versions. As a consequence, users are free to share, and form communities to exercise effective control over the software they use. Free software may also be gratis, zero price, but this is not always the case.
Some users refer to this as open source. That term focuses on the technical benefits that result when software can be reviewed by large numbers of developers and users, the business advantages of using it, and the business models that support its development and use. The term free software refers to the social and ethical importance of freedom, as well as to the practical benefits it brings.
The social and practical imperatives for sharing and changing useful works such as software create a revolution in what it means to publish. The technology of the printing press taught readers to think of written works as fixed – written once, for readers to use passively thereafter. This technology did not make it easy for readers, who generally did not have presses of their own, to adapt, improve, and share copies of books, and they became accustomed to these limitations. So when citizens in large numbers began to use personal computers, many did not question the legal and business systems that placed similar limitations on using software. But this time, the limitation was not a natural consequence of the technology. It was imposed by software developers, who found it profitable to keep users under their control. The developers forbid users to share the software, and by denying users the source code, prevent them from changing it.
Today, however, there is an alternative: free software, the product of a community built by a million willing developers – some volunteers, some paid to contribute. Free software allows users to take full advantage of what their computers can do. It is our door to escape from the limitations of the printing press, into a world where useful works, such as software, are developed among the users, by the users, for the users.
Where software is not made artificially scarce by misguided incentive systems that encourage development of software by locking up its users.
Where the users can collaborate as they see fit in making the software do what they want it to do. Where the users of software are free to run it, share it, and adapt it together or individually. This is the world of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).
Non-free software keeps users divided and helpless. When a nation increases the use of non-free software, it is not development, it is permanent dependency. Only the use of FOSS permits sustainable development – it is technology that local people are free to learn about, maintain, adapt, and reapply.
How can governments move their countries towards FOSS? In two ways. First, switching to Free Software in schools will teach children the spirit of community cooperation, while producing graduates that are skilled in using and maintaining Free Software. Second, mandating migration to Free Software in government agencies will create demand for these graduates’ skills, and build a local economy of Free Software support.
The International Open Source Network (IOSN) is an initiative of UNDP’s Asia-Pacific Development Information Programme (APDIP), and operates under the principle of “Software Freedom for All” (SFA). Its work includes provision of support and assistance, a centre of excellence, and an information clearing-house for Free and Open Source Software in the Asia-Pacific region.
Through the IOSN/SFA initiative, UNDP provides policy support and advisory services to government bodies, non-profit organizations, donor agencies and others. It publishes practical tools and materials, including simple “how to” primers and guidebooks, training materials, and live CDs of the GNU/Linux operating system for FOSS practitioners and end-users. It also supports FOSS R&D activities in localization and in other areas, and organizes conferences and training programmes to network stakeholders and strengthen local capacities. It welcomes both those interested in benefiting from these services and those who would like to collaborate in extending them.
I’m pleased to cooperate with the work of IOSN/SFA, APDIP and UNDP in taking the message of software freedom to the public and the development sector. Together we can help overcome the digital divide, and replace dependency with development.