The freedoms of software and its ethical uses

Ethics and Information Technology 11 (4):287-297 (2009)
The “free” in “free software” refers to a cluster of four specific freedoms identified by the Free Software Definition. The first freedom, termed “Freedom Zero,” intends to protect the right of the user to deploy software in whatever fashion, towards whatever end, he or she sees fit. But software may be used to achieve ethically questionable ends. This highlights a tension in the provision of software freedoms: while the definition explicitly forbids direct restrictions on users’ freedoms, it does not address other means by which software may indirectly restrict freedoms. In particular, ethically-inflected debate has featured prominently in the discussion of restrictions on digital rights management and privacy-violating code in version 3 of the GPL (GPLv3). The discussion of this proposed language revealed the spectrum of ethical positions and valuations held by members of the free software community. In our analysis, we will provide arguments for upholding Freedom Zero; we embed the problem of possible uses of software in the broader context of the uses of scientific knowledge, and go on to argue that the provision of Freedom Zero mitigates against too great a moral burden—of anticipating possible uses of software—being placed on the programmer and that, most importantly, it facilitates deliberative discourse in the free software community.
Keywords Free software  Open source software  Software ethics  Ethical uses of software
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