The Party of Gno

If something doesn't work, try something else. That's a lesson that the FSF needs to embrace, if it wants to succeed with a mainstream audience. Being the Party of Gno, and trying to tell users to just avoid Windows, Cloud Computing, iPads, and proprietary software isn't cutting it. It's time to come up with credible alternatives or be satisfied with remaining irrelevant to the majority of users.

It’s time for the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and other free software supporters to stop being the Party of Gno, and start thinking of positive ways to push for software freedom. The negative campaigns and telling users what not to use aren’t working. It’s time for change.

Let me start off by saying, I agree with the FSF’s basic mission and philosophy. I want to see free software, not just open source, succeed. Open source has really already succeeded. Look at any organization and you’ll see it using open source. Look at any major company involved in the software industry, including Microsoft, and you’ll see it contributing to open source to some degree. Much of the infrastructure we all use on the Internet every day is open source, and it will continue to grow.

The free software movement, though, seems to be shrinking. It still has its adherents, of course. But, when I look around at Linux events I see a sea of Mac OS X. Most contributors I know see no problem with proprietary services like Dropbox and Ubuntu One. With very few exceptions, most companies that work in the community have settled on some mixture of proprietary and open source services to try to find a working revenue model. In short, the free software philosophy seems to have gone out the window for most users and contributors. And I’ll freely admit, I’ve advocated the pragmatic approach — because after more than 10 years of working in the community, it’s clear that getting things done with a purist approach isn’t working.

Some free software supporters would say that’s an indication that the FSF needs to redouble its efforts and step up attempts to convince users that they shouldn’t use those services. Heaping more of the same on isn’t going to work, though. It’s time for a change in direction if there’s any hope of making software freedom important to the general public. A puritanical “thou shalt not” approach isn’t going to cut it with the majority of the public, most of whom don’t even have software freedom on their radar — much less something that’s worth sacrificing usability or functionality for.

Negative Campaigns Fail

It seems like every time I turn around the FSF is telling users what not to do, but not so much with providing constructive advice. Richard Stallman is stumping against “cloud computing.” The FSF attacked the launch of the iPad because it’s “bad for freedom.” (True, but where’s my alternative?)

The FSF has been running two particularly annoying and juvenile campaigns for a while, Defective by Design and Windows 7 Sins. The FSF isn’t wrong that Digital Restrictions Management (DRM — and yes, they’ve nailed that phrase) and Windows 7 are bad for users.

The problem? Two things. First, they’re awful campaigns if the idea is to reach a mainstream audience. Second, where’s the alternatives? If the goal is to give like-minded free software radicals some material they can high-five over, then mission accomplished. If the goal is to convince anyone outside that tiny circle that they should avoid DRM or Windows 7, then mission failed. The materials look like something rejected by PETA’s ad department for being too amateurish. Instead of reaching the target audience, the materials paint software freedom advocacy in a bad light. By being overly negative and preachy, they’re more likely to make Windows users feel attacked than to be convinced that they should switch.

Provide an Alternative

And speaking of switching, what would users switch to? Look at the get involved page for Windows 7 Sins. Not a single suggestion for projects to contribute to to provide alternatives to Windows 7. I will give points to DBD for at least pointing people to DRM-free music sites and alternatives, but they’re provided as an afterthought. The FSF would do well to find ways to promote DRM-free media first, and then say “hey, this is why this is better” rather than the DBD campaign with free music sources buried on the site.

In general, the programs are all about “no.” Or rather, “gno.” We all know how well anti-campaigns work. Any day now, “just say no” will have wiped out drug use for all time, right? And PETA will have convinced everyone to go totally vegan, too.

Yes, negative campaigns can be effective. However, they require the audience to be receptive to the overall message. Anti-smoking ads work, to the extent that they do, because they touch on a concern that the audience has: Its health. If the general public was concerned about its right and freedoms with regards to computers, then the FSF’s campaigns might be more effective. Actually, if the public was concerned about those things, the campaigns would be entirely unnecessary to begin with. But they’re not. And until the public is concerned about those things, the campaigns will be a heaping pile of fail, unless you consider preaching to the converted a win.

Concerned about software freedom? Really? Find ways to provide alternatives to users instead of telling them what not to do. Educate users about software freedom in a non-preachy way that works. This xkcd cartoon on the dangers of Facebook is more convincing than all of the DBD and Windows 7 Sins material combined.

Richard M. Stallman is right to worry about cloud computing. But telling users not to use Software as a Service (SaaS) is folly, pure and simple. Taking the FSF out of the game is the wrong strategy.


I criticize Stallman’s approach, but I have to acknowledge the enormous contribution he’s made in creating the GNU Project and Free Software Foundation. The world is a better place because of his work. But perhaps this is where others need to step in, because Stallman isn’t going to be able to fix the market and convince users to boycott SaaS and other forms of cloud computing.

What we need is a GNU 2.0. GNU succeeded wildly at providing a UNIX replacement, hand in hand with the Linux kernel. The Linux kernel and GNU utilities are being used as a foundation to build much bigger computing systems, and those are non-free. The only way to guarantee software freedom is build it.

And code alone isn’t going to be enough this time. There are some tricky business problems that need to be figured out to make it possible to sustain development and hosting for free cloud platforms. We need lawyers to tackle the licensing issues. Privacy experts and folks to sort out the data issues. User interface experts who can make the free stuff just as usable and feature complete as the proprietary tools. Without these things, any efforts are guaranteed to be relegated to a small subset of users who are willing to sacrifice usability and features in exchange for sticking to free software principles.

But if software freedom advocates actually care about the wider audience, then there’s a lot of work ahead that doesn’t involve telling user to say “gno”. It’s been ineffective so far, and there’s no chance it’s going to work in the future.

What will work, for folks concerned with protecting software freedom? Providing solid and useful free software alternatives. Finding ways to make those alternatives sustainable businesses (or non-profits, like Mozilla) so that contributors can be paid to keep those tools free and functional. The FSF should be at the center of this effort instead of trying to hold users back to the stone age of computing. But if they won’t be, then it’s time for others to solve these problems rather than joining the Party of Gno.

Comments on "The Party of Gno"


Very well said, Joe. I agree with all of this. Negativity hurts the propounder much more than it does the target, and in this case it is clear that while Linux has flourished, the FSF has marginalized itself and continues to do so. I put up a post about this as well at http://jefro.wordpress.com/2010/06/16/the-party-of-gno/

Thanks for speaking the truth.


I agree don\’t struggle just make it obsolete


take ubuntu 10.04, yes it\’s not all free, it has proprietary drivers, plugins, etc., repos configured by default, now put that in a 6 year old notebook 512MB ram (anyone remember), that\’s one thing you would not be able to do with any win (except 95 or so…).

turn on compiz+effects, now show it to a \”windows\” friend, and make some of the nice effects it has, make it play an mp3 which asks for the plugin to be installed, just click next,next,next and you are hearing it. Please don\’t misjudge me, my first time on the Linux world was with slackware back in 95.

I didn\’t tell him anything like \”you should\” \”you should not\”, just a small demo, and he was amazed. And amazingly also, that notebook behaved properly and fast.

Yes, it\’s a mix of free (95%) and proprietary (5% or so), but that\’s what make it shine, but the free is in a very large majority.


Railing against the FSF and Stallman? Wow, what\’s wrong Joe, can\’t think of anything Gnu to write?


I agree with this article 100%. Stallmanists are nothing but an embarrassment to the community and the FSF needs to be a step above that if they want to make a positive difference.


    No ho deixis !!! Nosaltres et llegim … i si te’n vas et trobarem molt a faltar … Pensa que les visites segurament han estat mal recopilades (hi ha forces errors d&t#r17;adminis82ació últimament a lamevaweb, després del canvi de panell i tal …, tothom ho ha notat, no hi ha hagut cap baixada brusca !!).Salut i força, noi.


I agree with that the negative campaigning doesn\’t work. It doesn\’t even reach the mainstream, and those in the industry are tired of hearing it. Providing an alternative would certainly work better. However, in defense of the FSF and others, that is easier said than done. It is becoming increasingly difficult, particularly in the US, to code software that doesn\’t step on one of the thousands of abstract software patents. And a dissimilar alternative, without resources for an ad campaign, usually remains largely unknown.


I agree with your proposal: we need a more positive approach from FSF.
After all, didn\’t GNU started this way? They started substituting every piece of proprietary software in unix systems with free (as in beer) alternatives, and in the end we got a complete system, GNU/Linux.

For example, I\’m still using Dropbox just because it works great on any OS, and couldn\’t find any free/open source alternative, but I\’d love to switch to an open source alternative (now I\’m hoping that owncloud will give us something similar, if not better: http://owncloud.org).

Ok, it\’s maybe more difficult to develop software than to say \”don\’t use that!\”, but if for any proprietary software/service out there we could add \”don\’t use that, instead use *this*, because it\’s free and works better!\” it could be a totally different approach.

I\’m thinking about twitter and identi.ca, for example. The former is closed, the second is open and free. It\’s quite easy to convince people that the open source alternative is better than the closed source one: it works better, it has the same features and some more, and still lets you be present on the proprietary service, so you won\’t loose anything, you only have something to gain.
Wouldn\’t it be great if we could say the same thing for a lot of other free projects?


Amen, preach it brother!!! I have been saying this same thing for years. Nobody likes the negativity. We need a positive campaign that will show people they can get the exact same service from their computer without sacrificing freedom of choice and without spending an arm and a leg to get it! I agree with you all the way, well said!


FSF is a sham on English language. Preaching \”software freedom\” is stupid. Software doesn\’t want to be Free.


@wweng_linux: What is that supposed to me, \”Software doesn\’t want to be Free\”? Are you anthropomorphizing your code?

Free Software is about the rights of the end-users, not the rights of the code itself.




I agree that you can\’t base a whole strategy on negativity. That being said:

  • You cannot create instant drop-in free replacements for all software; that does not validate the non-free software. Not being able to produce (yet) a low-fat low-salt all-good-for-your-health hamburger does not make the current hamburger a wise choice for you; you may have to settle for fruits and vegetables meanwhile, which have nothing to do with burgers and can\’t be sold as an alternative. In some cases you need lots of time and expertise to create an alternative (flash replacement, driver reverse-engineering), in some cases you just can\’t (patent-encumbered software). It\’s quite valid to preach against proprietary software when there\’s no alternative yet.
  • Some arguments just can\’t be anything else than negativity; how can you build a good alternative to DRM? you can\’t, only no-DRM will do. A good alternative to software patents? A good alternative to lock-in?
  • The iPad was released 2 months ago. Of course there is no alternative yet, is the FSF mandate to infiltrate proprietary companies and thus be able to release a competitive product in the same week as Apple?
  • A little perspective helps. Even though the free software people always lagged (and even though the Gno argument was always present), few mainstream programs from a couple of years ago don\’t have a free replacement. Yes, there was a time when the FSF complained about Microsoft Office with no serious alternative to push. We just had to wait.