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The Magic Black Box Paradox of Freedom

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The free software community understands that free software gives the user more freedom than proprietary software. Proprietary software confines its users, prohibits them from making changes that would allow everyone to benefit, etc. Free software advocates (myself included) have a habit of claiming that using free (libre) software means the same thing as having freedom. But does the fact that someone is using free software necessarily imply that the person has as much freedom as is possible?

Freedom is the ability to do what one wants. Some restrictions to freedom are understandable and necessary. No sane individual would argue for the freedom to kill, or the freedom to steal. In modern society, restriction on an individual’s freedom are most acceptable if said restrictions protect the freedom of others.

In computer software, the application of this idea is less straightforward. Each person must make a choice between free software and proprietary software. Those who value freedom will always choose free software. Those who have less respect for freedom, though, will likely choose the proprietary software. To these people, the restrictions of the software are not worth the possible loss of “the freedom to understand how to use an interface at first glance” or “the freedom to use one’s computer the same way one has always been using it”.

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