Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen Sandler share the pitfalls and “farce” of trying not to use proprietary software.


At some point — and usually it’s early on — every free and open source software enthusiast bumps up against a big problem.
You believe in the principles of FOSS, but the world still essentially runs on proprietary software. Maybe it’s your employer. Your family and friends. Your bank. Every. single. airlines. Your church, your club, your volunteer organization. Almost every thing you do is tinged by it.

Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen Sandler feel your pain. Kuhn labored for years as executive director of the Free Software Foundation, where founder Richard Stallman shuns everything from mobile phones to loyalty cards on principle. Sandler needs a pacemaker and has been waging a long battle to access the software behind it.

The pair, who now work together at the Software Freedom Conservancy say that while “ideally, it would be possible to live a software freedom lifestyle in the way a vegetarian lives a vegetarian lifestyle: minor inconveniences at some restaurants and stores, but generally most industrialized societies provide opportunity and resources to support that moral choice” they recognize we’re not there yet. Trying to be “purists” isn’t easy, they admit in a recent FOSDEM keynote.

The advent of network services mixing server-side secret software and proprietary JavaScript or apps are central to the decline in the ability to live a productive, convenient life in software freedom, they maintain. However, few in our community focus on the implications of this and related problems and few now even try to resist. “We have tried to resist and while we have succeeded occasionally, we have failed overall to live life in software freedom,” they declare.

The SFC, for example, has a rule: People can use proprietary software if it helps them do their jobs. While he tried to use only FOSS, because he was in charge of the banking Kuhn found himself with “this weird problem,” unable to sign in without JavaScript running in Firefox. So it came down to enabling it or “I’d be in the bank all day, every day, doing all of our transactions,” Kuhn says.

Sandler agrees. “If you’re functional in the world, if you need to take care of things yourself — book a flight or basically do anything on the web — you’ll find that same situation,” Sandler says. “This is the cruel reality.” They also share a few funny anecdotes about “outsourcing” proprietary software use  — getting other folks to call ride shares or use Yelp — but say they’ve since stopped the “farce.” At the SFC, if it’s a question of asking someone to interact with them using FOSS or staffers having to use proprietary software, they’ll take the onus of using proprietary “as a way to support other people’s software freedom.”

They did have some suggestions on how volunteer developers can most effectively focus efforts to build a world where everyone can live in software freedom: mindfulness minus obsession, getting out of your comfort zone, making small choices, spending the time to shine a light on the problem and not letting the paradox paralyze you. For more, checkout their podcast (or oggcast, if you want to be precise) “Free as in Freedom” (

Catch the whole 45-minute keynote from FOSDEM here.

H/T Thierry Carrez