a blurry mosaic of a faceJosias

On Boycotting FOSS


When we use proprietary software, we are under the power of the owner of the software. The owner's revenue depends on us, either directly through purchases and solutions, or indirectly by advertising. There is a relationship of power, with the owner having power over us.

When we fell that the owner is doing something unethical, we might choose to refuse to use their software. We do this to put financial pressure on them to change their practices. We may also do it to disassociate ourselves from them, showing we disapprove of their actions. We may boycott this way in many other situations, it makes sense to extend it to software.

In contrast, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) has no owner. Most free software is primarily maintained by one individual or group, but licenses give users power over the software, allowing us to control it to the same extent as anyone else. The power balance is shifted.

When the primary developer of a free program does something we find unethical, many are inclined to approach the matter similarly. However, with free software we are not bound by the program or the developer in the same way. We do not remove ourselves from someone's power when we boycott free software. We just restrict our own access to a potentially useful program.

If the software has features we don't like, we can remove them. If the software is hosted by one organization, we can deploy it ourselves. If these are impractical, or if the software is not actually useful, we can abandon it. But we do not need to give up on certain free programs based on reasons other than the software itself.

Of course, one may be boycotting programs made by a particular developer in an effort to hurt their feelings. This is a foolish reason to oppose software. Emotional manipulation is not going to solve any problems.

Unfortunately, I've seen all of this happen in FOSS communities. People refuse to use helpful software because of disagreements with the author. Worse yet, those who do use the software are sometimes shamed. This is terribly effective at weaving disunity within our own communities.

It is unnecessary to sow bitterness within ourselves and others for even a seemingly noble goal. The only result is smug superiority: "We aren't one of them who associate with one of those developers." Frivolously dividing our communities based on software usage is not worthwhile.

We cannot enrich society with free and open source software when we are busy attacking some of those making it.

This post is also available on Gemini.