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I understand that there are people don't care at all about FOSS. However, I assume that people in here have an interest to use FOSS over a closed source program. The degree of priority varies by people.

If you are know that Stack Exchange is not open sourced, then why do you still participate here and contribute content to it?

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  • "We should improve society somewhat." – "Yet you participate in society. Curious!" Even if you perceive Software Freedom as an ethical imperative, that cannot reasonably result in going completely software-vegan and avoiding interaction with all proprietary software.
    – amon
    Commented Apr 18 at 21:12
  • 1
    When you say "Stack Exchange is not open-source", what do you mean by that? The content, which is the important bit, is freely-licensed. I interact with it using entirely free browser software, running on a free OS. The back-end might not be freely available, but I'm not running that. Even the hardiest free software enthusiasts go no further than "I will use no non-free software"; "nobody in the world may use non-free software" is not a position I've ever heard seriously held. Is that what you're arguing for?
    – MadHatter Mod
    Commented Apr 19 at 9:15
  • @MadHatter I'm not arguing for anything, I just want to know your positions. Your comment is what an answer looks like. Maybe better if you can elaborate on why you are ok with a nonfree backend. Especially in the context that the company has their own direction, and there are opensource QA sites (e.g. Codidact). Perhaps this question should be in chat, but from my experience with other SE sites I think it's good on meta as well.
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 19 at 9:47
  • Your very first sentence is "StackExchange is not open source". I want to know firstly what you mean by that, and secondly the nature of the issue you have with the meaning you assign to it. Your question seems to presume that not only should one not use non-free software, one should not interact with it either; before I respond to that assertion, I want to be sure it's a position you actually hold.
    – MadHatter Mod
    Commented Apr 19 at 9:49
  • @MadHatter I guess my understanding of that is the same with what is discussed in this one: Will Stack Overflow's engine be (someday, or ever) open sourced?. If you need a more specific detail, can you explain what make you unsure on understanding the sentence?
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 19 at 9:56
  • That answers part a of my question - for which many thanks - but not part b. Given that you mean "StackExchange's backend is not open-source", can you explain the issue you have with that, and moreso, why you think anyone else should have an issue with it?
    – MadHatter Mod
    Commented Apr 19 at 9:56
  • @MadHatter I'm not sure why does that matter. Why does my position have any effect on your position? Plus that I want to avoid priming the answerers on my issue. But well, the issue I have with that is about the power they can have on the community. I myself don't experience that much like other users, so it's still in my comfort zone (and that's the reason I haven't moved to Codidact yet), but I suppose many folks and mods have strong experience on that. And I want to hear more on that. Does that answer your question?
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 19 at 10:10

2 Answers 2

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I admit online services that run on nonfree code are not ideal, under the FSF's philosophy. However, even the FSF says that services designed primarily to publish information to users does not cause the problems inherent in letting a remote service run software for you:

The original idea of web servers wasn't to do computing for you, a visitor; it was to publish information for you to access. Even today this is what most web sites do, and it doesn't raise the SaaSS issue, because accessing someone's published information on a web site isn't a matter of your own computing. Neither is use of a blog site to publish your own works, or using a microblogging service such as Mastodon, or StatusNet, or Ex-Twitter. (These services may or may not have other problems, depending on details.) The same goes for other communication not meant to be private, such as chat groups.

In this article, they highlight the danger of letting someone else do your "computing," which they define as something you could do on your own hardware if you had the code to do so. But uploading and displaying a collective of user-submitted material is categorically not something that can be done on an individual basis, so the article indicates this is not a problematic case for remote computing.

Even if Stack Exchange suddenly released all their code under the GPL tomorrow, this wouldn't change things much for me! It would make it marginally easier to run a competing service, but other free Q&A implementations already exist. The main factor keeping me on Stack Exchange is social weight (i.e., everyone else and their Q&A text is already here), not the absence of competing services. The code to make a Q&A site is not particularly hard; operational concerns such as moderation, uptime, user activity, advertising policies, and licensing of posts are of vastly greater importance to me than the straightforward code that uploads and displays the site's public content. So far, I have encountered no other site that outweighs SE, on the whole, in these collection of factors.

As someone who cares about digital freedoms, I find it much more valuable that they require all user-submitted questions and answers to be available under Creative Commons licenses. To me, this is a vastly greater freedom (and one not widely admitted elsewhere online, outside of Wikipedia) than merely releasing the code of a Q&A website.

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  • So I take that for you, open data is more important than open source. Is that correct? Is this view shared in most people follow the movements?
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 21 at 3:49
  • 2
    @Ooker I'm not sure I can weight the two options easily, in general! But, narrowly, within a category of services for which even the FSF says freedom of underlying code is not a high priority, it is easy for me to decide open data is more important. Even setting aside the FSF's opinion, I'd say for SE specifically, it's much better (given an option between the two) to have years of SE's massive unique Q&A dataset freely available, than their code that lets users post material to a website and and vote on it
    – apsillers Mod
    Commented Apr 21 at 17:07
  • Can you give the link to where FSF says about category of services?
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 22 at 5:53
  • @Ooker I mean the article by Stallman I've linked to and quoted in my answer, about what software-freedom concerns attach to network services versus runnable software, and how those concerns differ by service function (i.e., considering whether they perform significant computing on users' behalf or merely disseminate information)
    – apsillers Mod
    Commented Apr 22 at 10:27
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When I interact with SE, I do so using free software running on a free OS, exchanging free content. Nothing SE does requires or pressurises me not to use free software.

As far as I can tell, your question presumes that it is desirable that nobody should use non-free software, because otherwise there's no issue with using free software to put free content onto a distribution platform using free formats, but run by non-free software. But nobody I know of in the free software community holds the position that the whole world must stop using non-free software; the position is always that (a) I should not use it, and (b) other people should not, by their software choices, require or encourage me to use it.

Consider RMS's famous piece about Word attachments. He notes that

For us users of free operating systems, receiving Word documents is an inconvenience or an obstacle. But the worst impact of sending Word format is on people who might switch to free systems

At no point does he say that the choice to use Word to write an attachment is bad for the person who chooses to use it. He goes on to note that

I therefore make a practice of responding to Word attachments with a polite message explaining why the practice of sending Word files is a bad thing, and asking the person to resend the material in a nonsecret format.

Note that he doesn't suggest they stop using Word; only that they use it in such a way that he doesn't experience any pressure to run Word. His new standard, canned response specifically tells them how to send "plain text, HTML or PDF using Word". That somebody else uses Word to write, say, ASCII attachments is completely fine with rms. I've no doubt he wishes they would freely choose to use emacs to do that instead, but he doesn't go so far as to say there is any reason why they should so choose, if they don't wish to.

So in brief, I take no exception to what SE is doing with respect to the freedom of their backend code because, in that respect, they are doing nothing that is exceptionable by the normal standards of the free software community. (That sentence is quite carefully worded because I take a number of other exceptions to what SE does; just that none of them relate to the freedom of the backend code.)

Regarding the specific mention of codidact, I'd love to use it, but however free its backend may be, it doesn't have an Open-Source-specific "community" (using that term the way codidact does, to mean a topic-specific site subsection). So I simply can't have there the interactions that I have here.

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  • Hmm, if I understand correctly, RMS or the free software movement in general view the act of making nonfree software is unethical. Is that correct? If so, then why doesn't "the whole world must stop using non-free software" follow?
    – Ooker
    Commented Apr 19 at 12:44
  • 1
    I don't know that that is correct, but if it were, what would follow from it is that the whole world should stop writing non-free software, not using it. The FSF, and the free software movement, is pretty big on user freedoms - which must of course include the freedom to do foolish things.
    – MadHatter Mod
    Commented Apr 19 at 12:58

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