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The World We Leave Our Children: How I became a free software extremist

How the birth of my second child changed the way I feel about Free and Open Source software and privacy.

schoolchildren looking out of bus window kids
Credit: Corbis

On September 8th, my son was born. Being my second child, I was far less... let's call it "completely freaked out and scared that everything was going to go wrong and I was going to accidentally kill my baby." I wasn't exactly "super chill" about the event, but far more so than with my first child.

Relaxed enough that, as I held the little guy in my arms that night – mom sound asleep – my mind filled with thoughts of the future. Of the world that I leave to both him and his big sister.

Most days I find myself focused on immediate and practical matters. Making sure there is a roof over their heads, food in their bellies and knowledge in their brains. But, on that night, my mind found its way to a far more philosophical place.

Not so much, "how do I prepare this child for the world that exists?" as "what do I want the world to be like for him?" 

A little digression…

Over the years, I've had countless debates – with some of the greatest minds in the Free and Open Source Software world – about how to practically achieve a higher level of Open Source within a world that is so often… closed and proprietary. How do we encourage companies to add a little Open Source here and there? How do we find mechanisms to fund small amounts of Free Software in an otherwise largely closed source ecosystem?

These have been the questions that I've asked. This has been much of my focus.

And, almost without fail, the great proponents of Free Software have dug in their heels when I present such questions. "No," they say! "There is simply no room for half measures and compromises! The source code is either Free and Open or it is unethical and cannot be tolerated!"

To which, again almost without fail, I become indignant and declare that stance to be far too hardcore and extremist to be practical.

These conversations (and, in some cases, heated arguments) have been interesting. But, in the end, I remained staunchly set in the "let's find a practical solution to have a little more Free Software" mind-set. And the Free Software Extremists remained… extreme. Unmovable. I think both sides found that rather frustrating. 

Ok. Back to the night he was born…

As I held him, I found myself thinking back on my own struggles in making my own source code… Free. Thinking on a world divided between freedom and restriction. Between openness of technology and a world of litigiously enforced software patents. Between total control over your personal data… and a complete lack of personal privacy. 

That core struggle – between Free and Not Free – is a purely artificial one. It is a struggle that we, as humans, created for ourselves.

Source code is inherently "open"... until you close it.

Your personal information is inherently your own… until you grant others the right to take it away from you.

We are free. Until someone comes along and takes that freedom away. Or, perhaps even worse, we give it away. Willingly. In exchange for a shiny new app for our shiny new smartphone – or the illusion that we must give up that freedom for the sake of our current economic system and security.

It was at that moment, as I looked down at my sleeping son's face, that I realized something about myself. 

In my mind there was no longer any excuse to keep things closed. To keep things locked down. To give away rights to our personal data. Not even a little bit. I simply would not allow a world that would treat my son and daughter in such a despicable, horrible way. A world that would force him to either give up his freedom or fight, tooth and nail, to try to reclaim freedoms that he should never have lost in the first place.

I had, somewhere along the line, become a Free Software extremist. Just like all those extremists that I'd spent so many years arguing and debating with. It just took two kids to get me there.

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