I used to get a lot of hate mail — a lot. I know, it’s hard to believe. I’m such a nice person. The high point in the wave of defamation was about a year ago, and I made a point of not mentioning it publicly because mean-spirited rejoinders don’t solve any problems. They just create more ill will.
Things have subsided and now it’s rare that anyone writes to me to exercise their vocabulary of epithets. Ninety-nine percent of the malice revolved around a tiny change in one particular package in one particular distro. One default flag could be reversed, and it would provide a tiny measure of safety for inexperienced users.
It wasn’t a patch or a code change or even a feature removal. The flag existed, it could be reversed, the documentation allowed for it, and even encouraged using it. And any number of more “advanced” distributions applied the flag by default, mostly because it was a rather sane point to follow.
Eventually the change was adopted, the package was updated, and as a result now, if you try to delete your root directory in Ubuntu, it will ask you if you’re really sure that’s what you want to do.
That was over two years ago.
So you can imagine my relative surprise when a rather acerbic blog (with a considerable following) aimed at lampooning a particular segment of Linux users took offense at the reversal … more than a year after it had already been done and forgotten. That’s where all the meanness came from, as irate readers arrived on my doorstep, vented profanities, and then wandered off to sour someone else’s day. Late to the party, but no less angry for it.
I won’t pretend to speak for the people who opposed that change, but I can guess that the rationale was, “You are new and inexperienced, and therefore unable to contribute. This is the way things have always been, and your idea isn’t helping anything or anyone. Don’t interfere in things you obviously don’t understand or respect.”
No one told me I couldn’t use Linux, only that I couldn’t change it to suit my beliefs. I was free to try it and use it and endorse it, but if my own perspective differed from the originators, I should keep my mouth shut and learn to live with things as they had been created, decades ago.
The funny thing is, most of the people who wrote to me — or left comments, or attacked me personally — would have exploded in an aneurysm of fury if I had suggested the freedom attached to using Linux be restricted. Or if I had suggested the licensure be rewritten. Or if I wanted a particular demographic to be denied access to Linux. They couldn’t see that they were doing just that, to me.
You cannot release something into the wild, allow people to adjust or use it as they see fit, then chastise them if they decide they prefer things arranged differently from how they were originally drawn up. It’s either free, or it’s not, and you don’t get to decide for someone else how they run things. If you need to control the way other people use their computers, then you need to start from scratch and license your work appropriately. Microsoft and Apple might be able to give you tips on how to get started.
Even small clauses, like those famous no-military-use restrictions, grate me like sand in my mouth. Extending your restriction downstream through other users and developers is an attempt to control the people who might otherwise find it useful.
Either it’s free or it’s not, and that includes differences of philosophy. That might make me sound like Stallman, but I’ve been on the receiving end of a torrent of acrimony, and all because I happened to think things should be slightly different.