Website Review: The Family Guide to Digital Freedom

by Bruce Byfield

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.