The Culture of Freedom: Free Software, Free Speech

A few weeks ago, I spoke at this year's WordCamp London. My theme was free software and free speech. The first part of my talk was a quick run-through free software's amazing achievements - something I've spoken about several times before. But the second part concentrated on what I called open publishing.

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A few weeks ago, I spoke at this year's WordCamp London. My theme was free software and free speech. The first part of my talk was a quick run-through free software's amazing achievements - something I've spoken about several times before. But the second part concentrated on what I called open publishing.

One thing I noted at the beginning was that whereas free software is a philosophy, and inherently about freedom, open source is a methodology. I pointed out that Richard Stallman's greatest contribution was not so much the software of the GNU project, but the ideas embodied in the GNU GPL, which is a brilliant encapsulation of what true sharing implies. Those ideas have spread widely, inspiring all the great projects we know today.

Equally, I think the real achievement of Linus Torvalds was not so much the code he hacked in his Helsinki bedroom - although that was impressive and important - as the methodology that he stumbled upon in the process. His true genius - and his huge gift to humanity - was to make that possible, and to refine the ideas that lie at its heart.

The essence of that methodology consists of five things. It is:

Net-based

Open to everyone

Uses a liberal licence

Collaborative

Modular

For the concluding part of may talk, I explored how this open source methodology manifested itself in the world of open publishing. The fact that it is net-based is hugely important, because it means that the barrier to publishing has been lowered almost to the point of disappearing. That matters, because as A. J. Liebling famously said: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one". Today, thanks to the Internet, we have all the advantages of owning a press without any of the massive costs or organisational issues.

An important characteristic of blogs and similar platforms is that the default for them is open. Generally, you do not have to pay to access them, which removes barriers for readers. Open publishing is thus the antithesis to hundreds of years of information control, where access was very strictly controlled - either directly, by locking books up in royal or ecclesiastical libraries, or indirectly through pricing mechanisms. Open publishing thus completes the revolution begun by printing and general literacy, making information freely available for all.

The liberal licence refers to the creative elements, not to the underlying platform code. Again, this is about breaking down barriers - in this case, to the re-use of information. Most open publishing encourages the re-use (at best) or quotation and linking (at least) of material.

That liberal licensing, whether explicit or implicit, means that collaboration is possible - in contrast to traditional publishing's competitive ethos where using material in this way was regarded as completely unacceptable. Instead, people were expected to obtain all the relevant information themselves, duplicating the effort. That's exactly how things are in the world of proprietary software, where many different companies wrote word processors from scratch, unable to build on the work of their competitors.

With open publishing, as with open source, one of the key benefits is that existing work can be used in order to move a discussion forward. That explains why blogs and similar platforms can see extremely rapid development of ideas in a way that is impossible when content is regarded as something that cannot be touched or re-used. And as with free software, this kind of open publishing brings with it a new ethic requiring attribution and link-back when material is built upon.

Finally, it's worth noting the open publishing is modular, and at several levels. Because the platform is open, online publications now cover a plethora of subjects, unconstrained by the need to cover the considerable costs of traditional publishing - or, indeed, to make any money at all. This has led to a flowering of online publishing, and contributed to its highly-granular nature.

Within specific online publications, the basic unit is a post. Once more, there is huge freedom here, since they are unconstrained by physical or economic limitations. They can vary from just a few words to thousands of them. The modularity of the post makes them incredibly easy to create: you just open up an input page and start writing.

I concluded my WordCamp talk reflecting on extraordinary the power of open publishing. One of the best demonstrations of that in the real word was during the battle over the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in the US. This was a serious assault on Internet freedoms, and it was largely defeated because the Internet community mobilised against it using open publishing platforms. Exactly how it did that is charted in an important paper from a group of researchers at Harvard University, led by Yochai Benkler, entitled "Social Mobilization and the Networked Public Sphere: Mapping the SOPA-PIPA Debate".

In this paper, we use a new set of online research tools to develop a detailed study of the public debate over proposed legislation in the United States that was designed to give prosecutors and copyright holders new tools to pursue suspected online copyright violations. Our study applies a mixed-methods approach by combining text and link analysis with human coding and informal interviews to map the evolution of the controversy over time and to analyze the mobilization, roles, and interactions of various actors.

This novel, data-driven perspective on the dynamics of the networked public sphere supports an optimistic view of the potential for networked democratic participation, and offers a view of a vibrant, diverse, and decentralized networked public sphere that exhibited broad participation, leveraged topical expertise, and focused public sentiment to shape national public policy.

That "networked public sphere" not only stopped SOPA, it also catalysed the resistance to ACTA. And ACTA, in its turn, has formed a template for the growing fight against TTIP. Without free software, and the open publishing that it has enabled, I strongly doubt SOPA would have been blocked. And that means ACTA would probably have gone through the European Parliament vote in July 2012, and the situation with regard to TTIP would be looking very different today.

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