Dora Scilipoti, an Italian free software activist and teacher, is leading the Free Software Foundation’s Education Team, which was recently re-launched as a worldwide volunteer-led effort to bring free software to educational institutions. SD Times spoke with Scilipoti about the Education Team and what it will be working on.

SD Times: Why do members of the Education Team believe all educational institutions should accept free software?
Dora Scilipoti: What we say is that educational institutions should use and teach Free Libre software (software that can be used, studied and modified without restriction). This is because the teaching/learning process can’t take place where sharing of knowledge is forbidden.

Suppose there is a student in the class who is particularly brilliant or just interested in software. Suppose he wants to know what is behind the screen, what is this “thing” that makes the program work. Well, we know that that “thing” is the source code, and if the program is proprietary, the student will get answers like “Sorry, it’s a secret,” or “Sorry, we are not allowed to show it to you.” It is like denying students the right to read and study Emily Dickinson’s or Whitman’s works so as to learn how good poetry is written.

In fact, it is important to be precise: The school—or any end user for that matter—does not “buy” a proprietary piece of software, it pays just for permission to use it… That was the license, the document that contains a long list of restrictions in fine print. Just to mention a few: Installation is allowed only on a certain number of computers; no copying; no studying the code (which they don’t provide, anyway); no modifications; no redistribution.

With Free Libre software—and we use the French word to emphasize it is free as in freedom, not as in price—once you bought it or once you got it in any other way, a program with a free license gives the user four freedoms: Use it as you wish; study it and modify it; copy it; redistribute it.

Why start with educational institutions?
Because that’s where the foundation for society is laid. It is a question of social responsibility. In a world where digital technology is literally invading our lives, it is especially important that citizens understand and play an active role over it.

Basically, to introduce proprietary software into the educational system means putting society and its future under the power of proprietary software companies, since they and only they know exactly what their programs do. No one else is allowed to know, and whoever even tries to find out is severely punished. Students are turned into helpless, passive subjects at the mercy of proprietary software developers.

There is a lot of fuss lately on digital inclusion, collaborative learning, cooperative work and the like. With proprietary software, the results are just the opposite of these laudable goals. Digital inclusion becomes digital exclusion; collaboration and cooperative work are forbidden.