What Does Free Software Mean for Students?

08/23/2022

The following is a mirror of a post I wrote for my university's Linux Club, here.

What does 'Free Software' mean?

I aim to be a campus advocate for Free Software, especially in the context of education.

Free Software, in short, is software that is licensed to you with the freedom to

  • Use the program for any purpose,
  • Study the program (including viewing the 'source code' of the program, or a human-readable copy),
  • Redistribute copies of the program, and
  • Distribute modified copies of the program to benefit others.

Most software that schools mandate the usage of is nonfree, or proprietary, meaning that they do not offer at least one of these freedoms, but usually they do not offer a single one of these freedoms.

Why is nonfree software bad for students?

Nonfree software is not only bad for students, but for any computer user, regardless of whether they are a programmer or not. Most nonfree programs, by not affording you the four freedoms, restrict your usage of the program, reducing its usefulness, and often times harming end-users with policies that encroach on their privacy and agency. For example, while it's inconvenient that you have to log into Adobe to use their Acrobat reader, it's also harmful to the end user, since it puts a restriction on what terms the program is allowed to be used (you must be online). Ideally, a document reader should only serve to read documents, but since Adobe obfuscates what Acrobat does, they can also hide features behind pay-walls (You have to pay a subscription to sign documents?) and embed them permanently in the program as ads, since no one else is allowed to implement the features themselves.

Additionally, the obfuscation of a program's function makes it useless as a learning platform, since a student isn't able to see what the program is doing. If a student was able to see what their software was doing via source code, then the program itself becomes an opportunity for learning and the student becomes a potential contributor to software that helps everyone. Unfortunately, many learning tools that universities across the country mandate the usage of to earn a degree are still nonfree, usually under the excuse that they are "industry standard" (read: 'we got a discount on bulk license fees').

This severely harms the average student's experience, as they find themselves required to agree to countless proprietary license agreements after they've signed up for classes and paid their fees for school. Almost no student reads these terms, which leads to administration expecting complacency out of their students, and forcing more nonfree software on students, who have no choice but to accept that they have to install malware on their own computers. Zoom is another widely adopted example of egregiously unsafe software to force students to be using.

What do you do? What can I do?

Since the software required by schools is determined on a per-department basis, and is completely undocumented, it can be difficult or impossible to identify all of the software licenses our school implicitly attaches us to when we give them money to enroll. It's possible to avoid most 'required' nonfree software usage by using Free Software that mimics the function of popular proprietary programs (MS Office, et cetera). However, sometimes the use of nonfree software is strictly required, like in the case of an "anti-cheating browser" that hijacks your computer to try to prevent you from cheating during a test. I encourage every student to speak up about the mandated use of nonfree software, suggest alternatives, and when it is really not possible to go without it, to use a school-owned computer instead of installing malware on their own computers.

The Bowling Green State University administration is uninterested in making the software they mandate for students accessible and safe in favor of the status quo, but this can change if enough students show their interest in Free Software.

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