Website Review: The Family Guide to Digital Freedom

The Family Guide to Digital Freedom is a website and an accompanying book created by Marco Fioretti, a part-time journalist who writes about free and open source software (FOSS). The site is interesting for its attempt to do two things at once: to provide a guide for non-technically inclined computers users to the advantages of open standards and free software, and to critique the FOSS communities. Both goals are overdue for widespread attention, although they sometimes sit uncomfortably beside each other on Fioretti's site.

For the record, I've never met Fioretti, although we sometimes exchange emails. However, from his emails and his articles, which range from attempts to encourage connections to FOSS among the Scouting Movement and Christians to the problems that macros in create for office suite compatibility, he seems to have an iconoclastic streak and a sometimes quixotic enjoyment in defending unpopular, or at least unusual opinions. With its two goals, the Digital Freedom site reinforces this perception.

As I write, the site is still a work in progress. Some pieces of content are not posted yet, and those that are sometimes have typos and minor grammatical errors. Still, enough is posted to give a general sense of the site.

Basically, Digital Freedom is a website about ideas. It is full of text unrelieved by even so much as decorative borders, although Fioretti does his best to keep its essays short, and to break up the text with short paragraphs and numbered headings. The overall effect is that of the best of the Dummies series -- and, just in case anyone finds that comment ambiguous, let me hurriedly add that I mean that the site takes complex ideas and presents them with unusual brevity, clarity, and forcefulness.

Probably no one will read the entire site in one session, but, with the provisions for a mail forum and the polls in the open letter posted under News, Fioretti obviously hopes that the site and book will become the nucleus of an online community. As part of this effort, Fioretti plans to offer the book version of his ideas through as cheaply as possible -- for about seven dollars, he tells me.

Digital Advice

On Digital Freedom's Guide page, Fioretti explains the ideas behind the site. He begins by explaining, "The Family Guide to Digital Freedom explains, in one place and in normal language, what everybody should know about software and above all the real reasons why they should care." He then goes on to explain that digital freedom is a civil rights issue, saying, "There's a lot of stuff happening now to make sure that very powerful interests in these fields are protected," and suggesting that, "until now, almost everybody has been kept in such a state of ignorance, disinformation and bliss that one could basically get away with murder. This book is here to change this situation, and allow you to protect yourself and the future of your children."

On the Essays page, Fioretti turns to specifics. The still unposted "A Parents' Guide to Wikipedia" is a primer on its subject, while "This is a Website Done Right" covers some basic techniques for ensuring that web pages are readable in all browsers. These are (or seem to be) serviceable articles that any beginners, not just the parents and educators who are the main members of Fioretti's intended audience.

So far, so uncontroversial. However, if I were directing members of the audience to the site, I would want to warn them that not all the essays give practical advice. Some, like "Some Dangerous Copyright Myths" are clearly opinion pieces, in which Fioretti gives his opinions instead of his advice.

My concern is not so much with the details of those opinions, and whether I agree with them, but with the fact that they are not clearly labelled as opinions. Fioretti's occasional fondness for extreme positions and arguments reductio ad absurdum does not help, either; he suggests, for instance, that the alternative to copyright would be patrons, then mentions people such as Donald Trump and Paris Hilton, rather than Paul Allen or Peter Norton. Fioretti would be doing his readers a greater service if he simply outlined the issues in copyright without taking sides.

If Fioretti has to give his opinions, then the essays in which he does so should at least be clearly identified -- and, preferably,moved to a separate page. By mixing practical guides and opinion pieces, he risks undermining his own creditability within the community he hopes to build.

Critiques of free software

In several essays, as well as the FAQ and one or two of the links on the About page, Fioretti's main goal is to critique the free and open source software movements. Since this material is opinion, it, too, needs to be clearly labelled. I also wonder whether Fioretti is confusing his interest with those of the members of his intended audience by providing so much material about subjects that are new to them and could potentially confuse them.

That said, I also have to admire Fioretti's courage in courting controversy. As his history shows, Fioretti is clearly a supporter of FOSS, but he is far from an uncritical one. In his FAQ, he explains using the royal we that he is not opposed to FOSS, but, rather, "We are against some excesses of some Free Software "supporters", and against some limits of what has been, until today, their way to advocate Free Software."

Fioretti's basic critique is that "people like R. M. Stallman, L. Lessig and E. Moglen say a lot of right things, but so far their message has failed to reach parents, or almost all non programmers for that matter." As Fioretti points out, few libraries contain any mention of their ideas and the average person has never heard of them. The solution, according to Fioretti, is to approach the average person by explaining the advantages of "free formats and computer protocols" to them, even to the extent of tolerating the use of proprietary products so long as they use open standards.

In "A Free Software Manifesto For All of Us," Fioretti expands on this basic idea by making suggestions for "hackers who really want to make the whole world a better place." He goes on to critique the impatience with which much of the FOSS community approaches outsiders, and suggests that, even before the four freedoms of free software, they should support the new freedom "to ignore which software others are using,or was used in the past." He continues in much the same vein in the essay "Seven Things We Are Tired of Hearing From Software Hackers," in which he tries to discredit several ideas that are common in the FOSS community. In particular, he points out that, given how many non-programmers are involved in FOSS today, aphorisms like "given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow" and "every scratch finds an itcher" are no longer true.

This material is probably what members of the FOSS community will find the most interesting about the Digital Freedom site. Some people will reject Fioretti's ideas out of hand, but only the most closed-minded will deny that his ideas aren't worth a discussion, or that, at least once or twice, he makes an observation that most of the community has been missing.

Summing up

Personally, I disagree with Fioretti at several points. I am not so sure, for example, that the free software view of copyright is inapplicable to books or music; at least for mid-list writers and musicians, copyleft seems to increase sales. Similarly, for me, his belief in open standards goes too far in his willingness to accept, at least as a stopgap, proprietary software. Perhaps even more importantly, he ignores altogether the potential ethical appeal of free software as a tactic. Most of all, I worry that open standards can become an end in themselves, rather than leading to free software.

However, since my adolescent is long past, I no longer need to be in complete agreement with somebody to find their views worth hearing. Whatever parts of his arguments that I reject, Fioretti remains right in a couple of essential aspects. Unquestionably, the FOSS community has failed to reach the general public, and too many of its members have grown complacent and smug through talking only to themselves. By encouraging a debate on these subjects, Fioretti is providing a long-needed corrective.

If his goals sometimes seem contradictory or less than perfectly organized, they are no less worthwhile for that. With a few reservations, I wish his website and book every success.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for the
NewsForge and Linux Journal websites.


Bruce Byfield (nanday)


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Nicholas Petreley's picture

Thanks for the review, Bruce. It's often hard to read because of the language issue, but I agree with many of the points he makes.

Hey Bruce - you sniff at

Anonymous's picture

Hey Bruce - you sniff at someone's grammar - and then produce three examples of poor punctuation, fractured grammar and a typo in your first two sentences. (Yes I know you're American - so English isn't your first language either .. ;))

Where to start? First,

Bruce Byfield's picture

Where to start?

First, unlike you, I didn't sniff. I pointed out a fact that Marco himself openly admits. I wanted to mention it because I didn't want people to dismiss the site for a trivial reason.

Second, yes, it's embarrassing to slip up despite my proofreading -- but it happens, especially when you're writing about 16,000 words of articles per month. I've made corrections.

Third, I'm not American -- I'm a Canadian.

Bruce Byfield (nanday)

Bruce Byfield (nanday)

Calm down calm down ..

Anonymous's picture

Calm down calm down ..

Marco 'openly admits' his site is a work in progress, no more.

Sorry I accused you of being American tho' ... they don't do irony either.

Marco Fioretti's comment on the whole review

Marco F.'s picture


Here is my complete answer to this review.

Any feedback is welcome. Thanks again to B. Byfield for this article.

Best Regards,

Marco Fioretti

That must be one of the

Ookaze's picture

That must be one of the worst thing I saw in LJ, and I was subscribed for 5 years (now I don't have time anymore to read it unfortunately).
This website and its authors have a lot of premises which are basically red herrings or misconceptions or just bad logic.
It's very well illustrated in the "7 things we're tired to hear from software hackers". The first one is already a pretty bad formulation of what people say about FOSS.
The advantage is actually that if two programs are not compatible, at least, you can modify the free one to make it compatible with the other. Filters shouldn't exist, OK, if you say so, but this has nothing to do with Free Software at all : FOSS doesn't tell you that these filters should exist, it provides you with a solution. So already, the first thing makes a bad thing from a good thing. And it's followed by technical questions that asks for technical answers, and the author dare say this is for the family ?
The 2nd one is no better : it's purely a red herring ! Free formats and protocols are not needed at all to protect free software. STANDARD formats and protocols (which implies they are free to use) are needed to ease the task of every hackers, not just FOSS hackers, to communicate. Which is as the author says, that's just that every hackers says the same, but that would destroy teh author's argument.
The 3rd one is a straw man. Hackers don't say that at all, that's a wish of some of them at best, an ideal situation. Even then, where does it say that you're not free to chose sth else ? Absolutely nowhere. If all software were free, that would not prevent you from choosing anyone you want. This 3rd one is full of bad logic and straw men like that everywhere (like who's better ? OOo user writing .doc or MS Office user writing .odf ? right ! What about OOo user wrinting .odf and MS Office user writing .doc which is the common case ?).
The 4th one is another red herring. The 5th one refuses to realise that you've more chances to find an itcher in a sample of 1 million people than in a sample of 1000 people.
Same for 6th. 7th is plain insulting, sure enough, I never heard that from any hacker talking to a user, even on Internet.
Doesn't bode well for the book. And I think those are all these bad things that people dislike about the author, not his ideas.
FOSS hackers do what they know how to do, meaning making software. They sure enough don't insult other people trying to help them in fields they don't know about, to show that what they do is better. But that's what the author here does. We need cooperation, showing flaws is a good things, when they are genuine, not forged like here. Such attitude is not welcoming at all.

Answer from Marco

Marco F.'s picture

[The seven things we're tired of hearing from software hackers contains] technical questions that asks for technical answers, and the author dare say this is for the family?

No. Have you read my answer to this review? I have already explained there that what today is the "Essays" section has a very different history, nature and audience from the rest of the website. Of course, it is my fault for not having made this separation clearer, and I plan to fix this.

STANDARD formats and protocols (which implies they are free to use)

"Standard" and "free (as in freedom) to use are two very different things. The first thing doesn't imply at all the second. You might want to look at the restrictions on MPEG4 usage or the critics to
OASIS wrt their policy with the other standards they develop, not just OpenDocument.

The 3rd one is a straw man. Hackers don't say that at all

Please replace "Hackers" with "me (Ookaze) and the hackers I've met so far"

If all software were free, that would not prevent you from choosing anyone you want.

I referred also to sw development and distribution model, not just end users, as in "let developers free to develop proprietary software as long as it doesn't (through proprietary FORMATS) really harm society, locking information".

What about OOo user wrinting .odf and MS Office user writing .doc which is the common case?

It's a very dumb situation which should end as soon as possible. Computers and the software they run are (for most desktop users at least) mere communication tools. Communication can happen only if it's based on Free as in Freedom formats and protocols. OOo users writing .odf and MS Office users writing .doc is inherently stupid and limits collaboration and information interchange to the simplest files. It's like if everybody used a different alphabet depending from the brand of pen he or she uses to write in that particular day.

The 5th one refuses to realise that you've more chances to find an itcher in a sample of 1 million people than in a sample of 1000 people.

You fail to realise that:

  • an itcher is one that "scratches a part that itches", that is, in this context, somebody able to patch a bug. NOT TO SIMPLY DISCOVER IT!
  • your math is broken, or at least expired: in the next few years, 99.9% of your million users will be people who are unable to program to save their life. Therefore, you're left, to have that bug fixed, with the same absolute quantity of people that could fix it today. Which, by the way, is just what happens with OOo

7th is plain insulting, sure enough, I never heard that from any hacker talking to a user, even on Internet.

This may only prove that, so far, your own experience with Free SW vs non programmers has been much more limited/happier than mine.

I have no problem to believe that you have had such an happy experience and never saw (even online) an hacker act in that way with a newbie. Me, I use FOSS since 1995 and have seen this attitude too many times to tolerate it any longer. There are too many characters like those around, and one of them can vanify the efforts of 100 well meaning hackers.

Doesn't bode well for the book

Don't worry, the book is something else: practical info and advice for non programmers, from a parent point of view, and almost nothing of what I have written in the "Essays" (see my answer to Byfield again).

Such attitude is not welcoming at all.

Again: the book is NOT a repetition of the complaints I have made (and confirm) in the Essays towards SOME hackers. Rest assured I do have many better ways to spend my time. You may look at it this way:

  • The "Essays" are the past, or so I hope: a sum of all the reasons why I think Free SW has failed, so far, to reach the masses: too many individual FOSS "advocates" (not the FSF) repeating arguments that, valid or not, have NO meaning at all for non programmers, or simply being asocial and elitists for the fun of it
  • The book is the present and future, that is my own personal way/
    proposal to bring Free as in freedom standards & software, plus some
    other things, to all non programmers in a way that they can finally understand and accept as useful and relevant for their lives

Hope this helps,

Marco Fioretti

I bought the book

Schuhe's picture

I think it's different to others, because it about free software and copyright and other computer stuff but it's written in a easy fancy way. Even my mum read it.

Especially the Essays page on the website is very interessting.


Again from Marco on: errors, formatting....

Marco F.'s picture

Hello, it's me again. I forgot to add one thing:

I am not a native English speaker and the digifreedom pages are uploaded with a semi-custom set of scripts which I am still tweaking. Therefore, I am aware that the site contains both language-related and technical (links, formatting...) errors.

Thanks in advance to everybody who will help me to improve my written English and signal any other problem with the website. I just wanted to suggest that such messages are addressed to me personally, through the website, rather than consuming bandwidth here or in any other public forum (it would also be a much quicker way to reach me and get those errors fixed).


Note from Marco Fioretti

 Marco F.'s picture


Thanks to Bruce for posting this review. I have only had the time to read it very, very quickly before going to work: I will be able to answer Bruce's concerns (and those of all LJ's readers, of course) only tonight, so stay tuned! Right now, I can only agree that the website is still a work in progress, that some parts are still draft or do need to be explained better and that I will work on all this as soon as possible, within the next 12/18 hours.

In the meantime, thanks again to Bruce for helping me to get feedback from the FOSS community.