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Install Fests: What to Do about the Deal with the Devil

by Richard Stallman

Published for LibrePlanet March 23/24 2019

Install fests invite users to bring their computers so that experts can install GNU/Linux on them. This is meant to promote the idea of free software as well as the use of free software. In practice, these two goals conflict: users that want to reject nonfree software entirely need to choose their computers carefully to achieve that goal.

The problem is that most computers can't run with a completely free GNU/Linux distro. They contain peripherals, or coprocessors, that won't operate unless the installed system contains some nonfree drivers or firmware. This happens because hardware manufacturers refuse to tell us how to use their products, so that the only way to figure out how is by reverse engineering, which in most cases has not yet been done.

This presents the install fest with a dilemma. If it upholds the ideals of freedom, by installing only free software from 100%-free distros, partly-secret machines won't become entirely functional and the users that bring them will go away disappointed. However, if the install fest installs nonfree distros and nonfree software which make machines entirely function, it will fail to teach users to say no for freedom's sake. They may learn to like GNU/Linux, but they won't learn what the free software movement stands for. In effect, the install fest makes a tacit deal with the devil that suppresses the free software movement's message about freedom and justice.

The nonfree software means the user sacrifices freedom for functionality. If users had to wrestle with this choice, they could draw a moral lesson from it, and maybe get a better computer later. But when the install fest makes the compromise on the user's behalf, it shelters the user from the moral dimension; the user never sees that something other than convenience is at stake. In effect, the install fest makes the deal with the devil, on the user's behalf, behind a curtain so the user doesn't recognize that it is one.

I propose that the install fest show users exactly what deal they are making. Let them talk with the devil individually, learn the deal's bad implications, then make a deal—or refuse!

As always, I call on the install fest itself to install only free software, taking a strict stance. In this way it can set a clear moral example of rejecting nonfree software.

My new idea is that the install fest could allow the devil to hang around, off in a corner of the hall, or the next room. (Actually, a human being wearing sign saying “The Devil,” and maybe a toy mask or horns.) The devil would offer to install nonfree drivers in the user's machine to make more parts of the computer function, explaining to the user that the cost of this is using a nonfree (unjust) program.

The install fest would tolerate the devil's presence but not officially sponsor the devil, or publicize the devil's availability. Therefore, the users who accept the devil's deal would clearly see that the devil installed the nonfree drivers, not the install fest. The install fest would not be morally compromised by the devil's actions, so it could retain full moral authority when it talks about the imperative for freedom.

Those users that get nonfree drivers would see what their moral cost is, and that there are people in the community who refuse to pay that cost. They would have the chance to reflect afterwards on the situation that their flawed computers have put them in, and about how to change that situation, in the small and in the large.

The install fest should offer advice to users that would like to replace some of the machine's components with alternatives that do support free software, and recommend commercial and noncommercial sources of assistance including fsf.org/resources/hw for getting a computer that works fully without nonfree drivers and blobs.

It should also suggest to these users that they send letters of criticism to the companies that make or sell the components that depend on nonfree software to function.

The install-fest devil has nothing to do with the cute BSD demon, and the install fest should make that very clear. This issue concerns the difference between various GNU/Linux distros, and is not about BSD. Indeed, the same approach could be used for installation of BSD.

This devil would be a human being disguised to teach a moral lesson with a theatrical metaphor, so let's not take the metaphor too far. I think we would do well not to say that users are “selling their souls” if they install nonfree software—rather, part of their own freedom is what they forfeit. We don't need to exaggerate to teach the point that trading your freedom for convenience (and leading others to do the same) is putting yourself in a moral jam.

The devil's work would be something I don't approve of—installing nonfree software—so I will not get involved in discussing the practical details. But it is hard to trust a devil to do wrong only within certain limits. What is to stop the devil from offering to install a GNU/Linux distro such as Ubuntu, which offers the user other attractive nonfree programs, not solely the ones needed for the machine's hardware to function at all? Or even offering to install Windows? The people who run the install fest should ask some users what the devil did to their computers.

Isn't it morally better if the install fest doesn't allow the devil? Certainly! The FSF will not let a devil hang around its events. But given the fact that most install fests quietly play the role of the devil, I think that an explicit devil would be less bad. It would convert the install-fest dilemma from a debilitating contradiction into a teaching experience. Users would be able to get, if they insist, the nonfree drivers to make their peripherals run, then use GNU/Linux knowing that there is a further step toward freedom that they should take.

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