The Symmetry of My UnAmerican McCarthyist Cancer

Friday 14 December 2012 by Bradley M. Kuhn

In mid-2001, after working for FSF part-time for the prior year and a half, I'd actually just started working at FSF full-time. I'd recently relocated to Cambridge, MA to work on-site at the FSF offices. The phone started ringing. The aggressive Microsoft attacks had started; the press wanted to know FSF's response. First, Ballmer'd said the GPL was a cancer. Then, Allchin said it was unAmerican1. Then, Bill Gates added (rather pointlessly and oddly) that it was a pac-man that eats up your business. Microsoft even shopped weird talking-points to the press as part of their botched political axe-job on FSF.

FSF staffing levels have always been small, but FSF was even smaller then. I led a staff of four to respond to the near constant press inquiries for the entire summer. We coordinated speaking engagements for RMS related to the attacks, and got transcripts published. We did all the stuff that you do when the wealthiest corporation in the world decides it wants to destroy a small 501(c)(3) charity that publishes a license that fosters software sharing. From my point of view, I'll admit now that I was, back then, in slightly over my head: this was my first-ever non-software-development job. I was new to politics, new to management, new to just about everything that I needed to do to lead the response to something like that. I learned fast; hopefully it was fast enough.

The experience made a huge impression on me. I got quickly comfortable to the idea that, if you work for a radical social justice cause, there's always someone powerful attacking your political positions, but if you believe your cause is just and what you're doing is right, you'll survive. I found that good non-profit work is indeed something that just one of us can do against all that money and power trying to crush us into roaches0. Non-profit work really was the dream career I'd always wanted.

Still, the experience left me permanently distrustful of Microsoft. I've tried to kept an open mind, and watch for potential change in behavior. I admittedly don't think Microsoft became a friend to Free Software in the 11 years since they put me through the wringer during what was almost literally my first day on the job as FSF's Executive Director (a position I ultimately held until 2005). But, I am now somewhat sure Microsoft's executives aren't hatching new plans to kill copyleft every morning anymore. Indeed, I was excited this week to see that my colleagues at the Samba Project acknowledged Microsoft's help in creating documentation that allowed Samba to implement compatibility with Active Directory. Even I have to admit that companies do change, and sometimes a little bit for the better.

But, companies don't always change for the better. Over an even shorter period, I've watched another company get worse at almost the same rate as Microsoft's improving.

Specifically, this week, Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical, Ltd. said that those of us who stand strongly against proprietary software device drivers are insecure McCarthyists. I wonder if Mark realized the irony of using the term McCarthyism to refer to the same people who Microsoft called unAmerican just a decade ago.

I marvel at these shifting winds of politics. These days, the guy out there slurring against copyleft advocates claims to be the biggest promoter of Free Software himself, and in fact built most of his product on the Free Software that is often defended by the people he claims are on a witch-hunt.

I wrote many blog posts in 2010 critical of Canonical, Ltd. and its policies. Someone asked me in October if I'd stopped because Canonical, Ltd. got better, or if they'd just bought me off. I answered simply, saying, First of all, Mark hasn't shared any of his unfathomable financial wealth with me. But, more importantly, Mark is making enough bad decisions that Canonical, Ltd.'s behavior is now widely criticized, even by the tech press. Others are doing a good enough job pointing out the problems now; I don't have to. Indeed, I'm supportive of RMS' recent comments about Canonical, Ltd. and its Ubuntu project (and RMS surely has a larger microphone than I do, since he's famous). I've also got nothing to add to his well-argued points, so I simply endorse them.

Nevertheless, I just couldn't let the situation go without commenting. This week, I watched Microsoft (who once ran a campaign to kill FSF's flagship license) do something helpful to Free Software, while also watching Canonical, Ltd. (who has helped write a lot of GPL'd software) pull a page from Microsoft's old playbook to attack GPL advocates. That's got an intriguing symmetry to it. It's not “history repeating itself”, because all the details are different. But, one fact is still exactly the same: The Wealthy sure do like to call us names when it suits them.

Update 2012-12-15: In addition to my usual comment thread (which has been quite active on this post), there's also a comment thread on Hacker News and also one on reddit about this blog post.

Update 2012-12-18: Karen Sandler and I discuss some of the issues related to Shuttleworth's comments on Free as in Freedom, Episode 0x36.

0 Strangely, my head (somewhat-uselessly) still contains now, as it did then, verbatim copies of Dead Kennedys' lyric sheets, so I quoted that easily from memory. Fortunately, I am pretty sure verbatim copying something into your own brain isn't copyright infringement (yet).

1I realized after reading some of the reddit comments that it might be useful to link here to the essay I wrote at the time of Allchin's comments, called The GNU GPL and the American Dream.

Posted on Friday 14 December 2012 at 20:48 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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