The Free Software Foundation was set up by Richard Stallman in 1985 to give a firmer financial grounding to for the GNU Project, his plan to produce a completely free operating system. Although the foundation expanded its activities it continues to be strongly linked to Stallman, who was its president until resigning in 2019 and returned as an ordinary board member in 2021. Reading the Free Software Foundation website makes it apparent that Stallman has authored the majority of the articles, but that is an illusion caused by clicking on the link to the GNU Project website. That project is funded by the Free Software Foundation, but it is separate from the foundation, and Stallman continued to be the GNU Project leader after resigning as Free Software Foundation president.
The main tasks of the Free Software Foundation in addition to funding the GNU Project are to hold the copyright for the family of General Protection Licence free software licences and more controversially to have contributions to GNU Project source code assigned to them. The latter idea appears to be disappearing as it was announced in June 2021 that the most prominent section of the GNU Project, the GNU Compiler Collection or GCC, will no longer require assignation of copyright to the Free Software Foundation, although that could be the beginning of a withdrawal from the GNU project, as previously happened with both Debian GNU/Linux and Gnome. Other tasks of the Free Software Foundation involve running campaigns advocating for free software and against privacy invasion, and organising free software community events. It also endorses a list of approved GNU/Linux distributions, which currently consists of eight lesser known distributions and none of the major ones.
There had been an issue as recently as early 2021 with many of the Free Software Foundation campaign web sites being very out of date, especially with regard to not upgrading to Windows 8. Microsoft has already begun the countdown to launching Windows 11, but Windows 10 finally gets a mention from the Free Software Foundation website. One campaign website that remains horribly dated is the one against Secure Boot, which is still written about in 2021 as if this is all in the future, but arrived in 2012 with the launch of Windows 8. The fears of this locking users into using Windows proved unfounded and all computers that I have used since 2012 have had an option to turn Secure Boot off. Some enterprise focused Linux operating systems can work with Secure Boot because they have obtained a licence key from Microsoft, but most Linux users simply turn Secure Boot off.
The outdated Secure Boot campaign website and the only recently updated Upgrade from Windows website illustrate two basic problems with the Free Software Foundation: its obsession with opposing Microsoft and Apple operating systems and the feeling that it is technologically out of date. Those two problems combine in the complete absence of any Free Software Foundation mention of the Windows Subsystem for Linux, Microsoft's funding of the Linux Foundation, or the ability to run the majority of Linux applications, but not desktop environments or window managers, on macOS.
There was a great deal of controversy in March 2021 over the Free Software Foundation's poorly handled re-admission of Stallman to its Board of Directors, but the most telling aspect of the debacle was the foundation stating that Stallman possessed unrivalled historical, legal, and technical wisdom on free software. One Stallman critique alleged that this made the Free Software Foundation appear to be more of a personality cult than an advocacy organisation. That allegation was strange in that there has never been a stage when the Free Software Foundation did not appear to be a vehicle for promoting Stallman's radical stance on free software and privacy. The stagnation of the Free Software Foundation during Stallman's time away, and particularly the then very outdated nature of the website, suggests that while personality cult is too loaded an accusation, that the Free Software Foundation struggles for a purpose that is not the promotion of Stallman's ideas.
A central problem for the Free Software Foundation is that it (like Stallman) has sought to pivot towards a concern for the end user, but cannot dissociate itself from its origins as a campaign for software developers to design a free Unix like operating system. This problem is embodied in its Free Software Definition, now often referred to as the Four Freedoms, but originally having just three freedoms. That is the real reason that the first freedom is called Freedom Zero and not (as its devotees claim) a reference to the programming tradition to begin counting from zero. I will summarise the Four Freedoms rather than directly quoting them as the Free Software Foundation are known for being litigious and licence their web articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, which forbids using the content as part of a new article. As an academic I can claim fair use exemption from this restrictive licence, but I prefer to avoid a cease and desist letter from the Free Software Foundation's lawyers.
- Freedom Zero requires that the user must be free to use the software in any way that they choose.
- Freedom One insists that the software's source code must be included with permission for the user to alter the code to improve on how they wish the software to operate.
- Freedom Two permits the user to distribute the software to other users.
- Freedom Three is a combination of Freedom One and Two in that it allows the user modified version of the software to also be distributed to others.
The original three freedoms appear to be two developer focused freedoms with an end user freedom sandwiched between them. The original context of the three freedoms in the GNU Project suggests that Freedom Two did not originally refer to the freedom of an end user to pass a copy of the software onto others, but to a software developer giving the source code to fellow developers. The Free Software Foundation state that around 1990 Freedom Zero was added and it is only then that the Free Software Definition gives attention to end users. They should have left it at the three freedoms, because the Free Software Foundation's whole campaigning strategy is to deny freedom to the end user by seeking to bring about the end of proprietary software, which is what the vast majority of end users have installed on their computers. For all their campaigns against Digital Rights Management and privacy invasions, it is clear that the Free Software Foundation remains focused on free software as something that developers build for other developers to play with. Freedom of choice for end users appears to be the very opposite of what the Free Software Foundation desires. It is little wonder that they cannot function without the supposed wisdom of Stallman, who is likewise stuck in a 1980s time-warp, after the BSD and Linux families of operating system produced the Unix like operating systems that the Free Software Foundation backed GNU Project has still not delivered after nearly four decades of trying.