Last month saw the Free Software Foundation (FSF)’s flagship annual LibrePlanet conference take place entirely virtually. The theme of the weekend was “Living Liberation”, and many of the talks tied into the FSF’s current incrementalist baby steps Freedom Ladder approach to free software activism (in contrast to its more previous, more rigidly absolutist stances).
Technology is not neutral. We’re inside of what we make, and it’s inside of us. We’re living in a world of connections — and it matters which ones get made and unmade.
Last month saw the Free Software Foundation (FSF)’s flagship
annual LibrePlanet conference take place entirely virtually. The
theme of the weekend was
Living Liberation, and many of the
talks tied into the FSF’s current incrementalist baby steps
approach to free software activism (in contrast to its more
previous, more rigidly absolutist stances). The full set of talk
recordings are available both
Day #1 ¶
From GNU Emacs to
Guerry, formerly of the OLPC France, presented a talk on his journey from free software hacker to major achievements in the advocacy of public code. Interestingly, Guerry presented using a text file rather than slides.
Guerry detailed an early project of his—ShareLex—which
he developed after feeling that law (which he described as
like source code for people) was too hard to access for
regular people. He cited Fred Turner’s
From Counterculture to Cyberculture
as a major influence on him, with its key takeaway being the
importance of convincing political parties to get on board with any
proposed socially-transformative technical projects.
He then detailed a potted history of the free software movement,
beginning with prehistory—the initial development of the GNU
Project—and initial efforts to build the movement between
1991–8, through the
conquer the market stage (embodied
by the splinter Open Source movement) between 1998–2010, the
growing involvement of formerly-hostile tech. giants between
2010–20 and on to a (hopeful) stage of
conquer[ing] the public sector between 2020–30.
Guerry predicted that within the next 8–10 years, we will likely see governments begin to join large free software associations and project (e.g., the FSF and Linux Foundation). He felt this would be a positive step, citing the rise of the Public Money, Public Code movement, the long-term stability of national administrations and the public sector’s natural favouring of diversity over monopoly.
Marleen Stikker, Reclaiming public values in the internet ¶
For a cheery first day keynote, Stikker (of Waag, founders of the Fairphone amongst other things) described the parlous state technological society currently finds itself in: vendor lock-in, surveillance cap, threats to democracy and black box software that restricts users’ abilities to inspect, learn from and modify their tools were all mentioned.
public, private and state stacks model, Stikker argued that
technology is not neutral, and
presented the example of pride flags, and how a service that allows
users to choose from a limited selection necessarily restricts what
those users can express within it, and somebody has to make a choice
about which to include and which not to. Pointing to the medical
dignity of the body, she argued that we need to
extend the concept of one’s body to the data that they
Stikker then contrasted a series of good and bad examples, such as the dark pattern-rich Booking.com and the ethical alternative Moonstuck and 23andMe’s genetic data harvesting efforts and a proposed co-operative biobank called Gene.coop. She moved from the foundation-level decisions up through design decisions (with code, in her view, included within it) and up to the technological stack used (with this latter stage encompassing everything from applications and protocols to equipment and infrastructure).
Nicholas Bernhard, Building an Ethical E-book ¶
Bernhard, author of November in America, delivered a presentation on the development of his Nantucket Ebooks platform following a bad author experience with Amazon KDP.
He started by identifying his requirements: he wanted his platform to be Web-browser-based and responsive on mobile (identifying that Project Gutenberg, whilst written in HTML, doesn’t look good on smaller displays), and for it to provide built-in audiobooks.
He pointed to his previous experience in screenwriting, where script submissions must follow an arcane set of formatting rules, necessitating the use of expensive proprietary software like Final Cut. However, this all changed with the introduction of the Fountain markup language, which allowed aspiring film students to write up their scripts in a basic format and then automatically output appropriately-formatted documents.
He also wanted to provide a graphical WYSIWYG editor and, crucially,
for his platform to respect the freedom of both reader and writing,
the best e-book on the planet should be an ethical one. He
presented a series of examples of unethical ebook practices, from
the famous story of Amazon remotely deleting copies of
Nineteen Eighty-Four from customers’
Kindle libraries to an anecdote about his friend listening to an
audiobook during a drive only to have it cut out part-way through
when the service insisted on downloading an update and got stuck
when he drove out of signal range, and another story about the
closure of a Microsoft ebook store (though, he noted, customers were
given a grand $25 compensation for all of their lost books and
Bernhard ended by pointing out that books are not only facing a
corporate threat, but also a renewed political threat. He cited
various current US examples, from a GOP Iowa school board candidate
saying he would demand library records of students who checked out
LGBT books to an Idaho bill to fine libraries and the Tennessee
school board that recently voted unanimously to ban
Maus out of fear that a handful of
instances of swearing might offend students (in the book about the
Holocaust). Closing, Berhard stressed that
very often, we are reading by the publisher’s permission
and, if things continue to go the way they are, by the
politicians, and saying that in the status quo, we are
never reading alone.
Kyle Wiens, Repair is Not a Crime: An update from the front line of the Right to Repair fight ¶
Right to Repair is perhaps the most prominent and successful free software campaign in recent years, and each LibrePlanet includes an update on this. This year’s was delivered by Kyle Wiens, founder of the iFixit tech. teardown review and information service.
Wiens began by tracing the idea of Right to Repair back to the 1963 US Clean Air Act, which mandated that car owners must be able to maintain their own vehicles and to bring them to independent mechanics, rather than only those accredited by the manufacturers. As cars became more computerised, the Act was no longer fit for purpose and so Massachusetts issued a 2012 ballot initiative that required car manufacturers to provide non-proprietary diagnostic and safety information to customers.
Wiens then took aim at
warranty void if seal removed stickers, and the false
perception that you have to ask permission before doing anything
with your product
that they created. He highlighted that the FTC had declared that
such stickers were illegal, and that they could be submitted to the
FTC as evidence of fraud. Wiens then highlighted a
in the New York Times as an example
of both how mainstream the Right to Repair now was, and also how
bipartisan its appeal had managed to remain.
It was not all optimism, though, as Wiens pointed out that whilst
there have been many proposed Right to Repair laws around the world,
few (if any) have yet been successfully passed. However, he did
highlight the recently-introduced
repairability index scheme
(think energy efficiency labels, but for repairability) in France as
a major win.
Day #2 ¶
The second day began with a reminder about the Code of Conduct for the event, as well as an update on the tech. team’s efforts to improve the stream latency.
Julin Shaji, Living Federation ¶
Shaji presented a non-technical, user-side perspective on various federated services within the wider Fediverse. He first presented the scenario of a service that introduced a change that you dislike, and your two options of either agreeing to the change or leaving the service (and, by extension, missing out on any network links made, data generated, etc.). Federated services, he suggested, present a third option: keep the data and even the service, but jump to a different instance (or make one yourself) without the offending change.
Whilst, according to Shaji,
IRC is cool, it suffers from its
inherent centralisation. Users on one IRC network cannot communicate
with users on another which, as we saw with the
last year, is a major vulnerability.
Instead, we should use federated tools based on open standards such as ActivityPub, OStatus, Matrix, etc. These standards allow different services to talk to one another, to share data amongst one another and to ease a user’s transition from one to another. Shaji then walked through a laundry list of examples: Mastodon, Friendica and GNU Social for social networking; Pixelfed for photoblogging; WriteFreely, Plume and an ActivityPub Plugin for WordPress for blogging; PeerTube for video sharing; Sepia for online search; Owncast and NextCloud for cloud storage; etc.
My question, which Shaji was not able to answer, was that it’s
one thing to give these tools a shared network-layer language to
communciate with, but how do we ensure that they are all using a
shared semantic vocabulary at the application level? That is, if I
use Bookwyrm for social cataloguing, how does it understand what a
book is and how to I ensure that an alternative social
cataloguing tool will agree? I feel as though the answer probably
lays in the use of standardised ontologies, but I’ll have to
look deeper into it.
Denis Carikli, Replicant: Struggle for indepenedence ¶
Carikli began by presenting the unethical bona fides of the smartphone industry: they cost the Earth in their manufacturing processes; most of the workers involved in the supply chain are heavily exploited; they are riddles with non-free software; and they are ideal tracking devices for oppressive regimes. However, Carikli argued, abstention was not an appropriate response. Despite all of these things, 2.7B people use them, including people at risk (from battered spouses to activists). The Replicant project, aiming to create a fully-free Android distribution, was created to cater to these people, as a form of harm reduction.
Carikly acknowledged that there are many limitations to the project, from its restriction to old phones (currently only the Samsung Galaxy S2 and S3) to the lack of wireless modem support. Upcoming risks include the upstream LineageOS ending support for the devices that Replicant supports, and the progressive decommissioning of the 3G networks that those devices rely on. However, he said there was some good news in the freedom-respecting mobile phone space, highlighting the successes of the Pinephone and Librem 5 projects.
Hundred Rabbits, Software Doldrums ¶
Hundred Rabbits, an artist couple living on a sailboat, presented the Sunday keynote on their experiences with using free software (and tech. more generally) in an austere, highly-constrained environment.
Initially both using Macs, mobile phones, and all the other
high-tech gadgetry that one might expect from a pair of creative
professionals, connected to a grid that meant
electricity felt limitless, the pair made do with Internet
cafés on-land until they reached French Polynesia and found such
establishments to be much rarer. This led them on a journey of
discovery, from learning how batteries work and the implications of
their devices’ varying wattages to the limitations of solar
on a boat, everything you put on the deck is sacrificial, so you
can’t just add more solar panels), to the value of low-tech solutions such as crank/pedal power,
paper and analog tools. They also highlighted the advantage of
finding tools that do a single job simply and well, as maintenance
tends to be markedly easier and the devices more durable to begin
Connectivity issues were a persistent problem that all but
eliminated the use of modern cloud services,
such is the horror of the modern Internet. One such example
involved a 10 GB Xcode update that was entirely infeasible for them
to download on their ropey Internet connection, as well as the sheer
danger posed by having devices that
brick when they can’t phone home. As they stressed, the
ocean is a hostile environment—the air is constantly full of
salt and moisture, electronics corrode—and inflexibility
(e.g., sailing into bad weather to try and make an appointment)
In summary, the pair had
adapted ourselves to the limitations of the vessel rather than
adapting the vessel to our needs. They then presented a handful of lightweight software tools that
they have produced to help them with this, including the program
that their presentation had been put together on.
Abhas Abhinav, Building a Liberated Home — For Myself and Others ¶
Abhinav, who has spent many years working in free software and
hardware, began by preaching to the choir, asking the audience to
consider the chances that if they purchased something today—a
piece of tech., or a software program—it would a) not require
Internet access or call home and b) allow them to exercise the four
freedoms. He followed up with a hypothetical:
How would you feel if your daughter asked you to show her how
something worked, and you were forced to admit that you
couldn’t, because it was proprietary?
He then presented his key premise: that whilst the focus of the free
software movement had traditionally been on free software (doy),
unless we mindfully choose the hardware that runs our lives, we
are going to run out of places to run free software. This, he said, presented us with the challenge of consciously
un-choosing something that we had not deliberately chosen
previously, and he proposed a bottom-up approach in which one starts
from scratch, assesses their needs, studies both buy and build
options and chooses things with an eye to which will best support
Closing Keynote by the Free Software Foundation ¶
The closing keynote was delivered by the newly-appointed FSF
Executive Director Zoë Kooyman, who drew together the various
threads of the presentations throughout the weekend: the need for
software freedom in education and government; the many fronts in the
battle for software freedom; and the need to
make sure people understand how to fight for [it].
We need to teach our children with free software, she
stressed, whilst also highlighting that where
we used to vote in paper, and do our taxes in paper, the
digitalisation of government means that we now increasingly see
proprietary organisations…working with governments on
my thoughts on the
crime against humanity that is Microsoft Teams). Admitting that many
of the people she talks to about these issues don’t appear to
care, Kooyman said that she
like[s] to think I’m planting seeds.
Geoffrey Knauth gave the closing remarks on behalf of the FSF Board.