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Technological Neutrality and Free Software

by Richard Stallman

Proprietary developers arguing against laws to move towards free software often claim this violates the principle of “technological neutrality”. The conclusion is wrong, but where is the error?

Technological neutrality is the principle that the state should not impose preferences for or against specific kinds of technology. For example, there should not be a rule that specifies whether state agencies should use solid state memory or magnetic disks, or whether they should use GNU/Linux or BSD. Rather, the agency should let bidders propose any acceptable technology as part of their solutions, and choose the best/cheapest offer by the usual rules.

The principle of technological neutrality is valid, but it has limits. Some kinds of technology are harmful; they may pollute air or water, encourage antibiotic resistance, abuse their users, abuse the workers that make them, or cause massive unemployment. These should be taxed, regulated, discouraged, or even banned.

The principle of technological neutrality applies only to purely technical decisions. It is not “ethical neutrality” or “social neutrality”; it does not apply to decisions about ethical and social issues—such as the choice between free software and proprietary software.

For instance, when the state adopts a policy of migrating to free software in order to restore the computing sovereignty of the country and lead the people towards freedom and cooperation, this isn't a technical preference. This is an ethical, social and political policy, not a technological policy. The state is not supposed to be neutral about maintaining the people's freedom or encouraging cooperation. It is not supposed to be neutral about maintaining or recovering its sovereignty.

It is the state's duty to insist that the software in its public agencies respect the computing sovereignty of the country, and that the software taught in its schools educate its students in freedom and cooperation. The state must insist on free software, exclusively, in public agencies and in education. The state has the responsibility to maintain control of its computing, so it must not surrender that control to Service as a Software Substitute. In addition, the state must not reveal to companies the personal data that it maintains about citizens.

When no ethical imperatives apply to a certain technical decision, it can be left to the domain of technological neutrality.

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