LibrePlanet 2022

Living Liberation

TODO (TODO)

~2,600 words

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Last modified: April 5th, 12,022 HE

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 Freedom Ladder approach to free software activism (in contrast to its more previous, more rigidly absolutist stances). The full set of talk recordings are available both here and here.

Day #1

Bastien Guerry, From GNU Emacs to code.gouv.fr

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.

Referencing the 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 concept of dignity of the body, she argued that we need to extend the concept of one’s body to the data that they generate.

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, saying that 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 notes).

Expanding on what would be required for an ethical e-book, he identified that it must a) be readable and shareable anonymously b) be readable offline (as a requirement for (a)) and c) use only free software. As a result, the Nantucket Ebooks Web site uses exclusively free-software-licensed Javascript (and also works fine with Javascript disabled) and the Shanty markup language that the e-books are written in is licensed under the GFDL.

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 2019 op-ed 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 Freenode debacle 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 power (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 with.

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) kills.

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 free software.

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 software tools (see also 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.