December 29, 2006

2006: The year the FSF reached out to the community

Author: Bruce Byfield

At the start of 2006, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was largely inward-looking, focused on the GNU Project and high-level strategic concerns such as licensing. Now, without abandoning these issues, the FSF had transformed into an openly activist organization, reaching out to its supporters and encouraging their participation in civic campaigns often designed to enlist non-hackers in their causes. Yet what happened seems to bemuse even FSF employees.

The list of the community-based actions the FSF has taken in the past year is a long one. It begins with an expanded role for some of its longstanding institutions. Throughout the year, the FSF's high-priority list seems to have exerted some influence on such items as the open source release of the Java code and the growing interest in LinuxBIOS by chipset manufacturers. Similarly, the FSF's compliance lab, although now more than five years old, enlisted five volunteers to answer licensing questions using a ticket system, and now fields more than 75 questions each week, according to compliance engineer Brett Smith. In the last couple of years, too, rather than maintaining just the GNU Project Web site, the FSF has also started a non-developer site that Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF, describes as carrying "more of a mainstream message."

Even more importantly, during 2006, the FSF initiated public discussions about the revision of the GNU General Public License, as well as several public campaigns, ranging from the recent BadVista campaign against the anti-freedom tendencies of the latest version of Windows to an effort to interest mainstream activist media to start covering free software issues. It also launched the Defective By Design campaign against digital rights management (DRM) technologies in May. These actions have had mixed success, and some, especially the GPL revision process, have been widely criticized, but the point is that a few years ago, nobody could have guessed that the FSF might one day undertake them.

However, if your perception hasn't caught up with the new reality, you're not the only one. Many members of the FSF are not fully aware of the change in direction. Although he is one of the main organizers of the FSF's activities throughout the year, Brown says that he became aware of the trend toward action only after NewsForge raised the idea and he discussed it with those in the FSF's office.

Reasons for the change

John Sullivan, program administrator of the FSF, suggests that part of the reason for the change may be a more activist leadership in the FSF. Referring to people like Brown and professional activist Henri Poole, who is also an FSF director, Sullivan says, "We have a group right now that like interacting with the community, and that want the FSF to be more involved in organizing and having free software recognized outside the regular community."

Brown paraphrases an unnamed FSF staffer, saying "the FSF has historically been concerned with dealing with individual projects and maintainers, typically through Richard [Stallman]." More recently, Brown suggests, the focus has shifted away from Stallman, as some of the FSF's key issues, such as DRM, have become more mainstream and more of the FSF has had to become involved if the issues were to be addressed. "What we see right now is a lot of success for free software," Brown says. "At the same time, we also see some major threats. What we've done is respond to the strategic situation that we see. If our work is strategically more outward, more community-oriented, that's because we believe that's what we need to be doing at the moment."

Sullivan agrees. Talking about the increased media attention for some of the FSF's issues, Sullivan says, "What we've been doing is responding to that."

Perhaps surprisingly for an organization that has often been accused of being authoritarian, Brown traces the start of the change to a grassroots organization whose members attended the FSF's general meeting in 2005. "We were inspired by a free software group that was self-initiated in New York State," Brown says. "At the members' meeting, its members got up and described their work. All the board members were there, and we were absolutely stunned by their efforts. It was the ideal that we were striving for, with local groups not talking about open source or about Linux vs. Microsoft but really caring about freedom issues and how they tied into their local environment and society. There they were, talking about how they were reaching out to the schools, and they were telling people about the issues of freedom. That was a real eye-opener for us."

Since then, Brown says, "There's been a higher expectation for us to deliver in these areas." One sign of this change occurred at the 2006 member's meeting, when the FSF ran a feedback session for its members for the first time. "We realized that we had to give a forum to make sure that we weren't blinkered and [to learn what members] considered were the important issues."

Evaluation and next steps

Brown acknowledges that the FSF's activist activities have not been universally successful. He notes, for example, that, although the Defective By Design campaign's phone-in action against the Record Industry Association of America was immensely popular, against all expectations, a similar action against Sony managed only a lukewarm turnout.

Even more importantly, the GPL revision process may have widened the gap between the free software and open source movements. However, he attributes the tension more to "pent-up anger about what the FSF has done" among open source advocates than to the process itself, and still hopes that current talks about the content of the revision drafts will resolve the problem.

At the same time, Brown is philosophical about such low points. "In anything you do, there'll be good and bad things," he says. "And you learn from your mistakes."

At any rate, he suggests, some things need to be done simply for principle. "We are, at the end of the day, not trying to be the most popular organization in the world. A lot of organizations look at a situation and say, 'What's the best way to get ahead? How do we have to compromise our beliefs to achieve something, to become more successful?' But when you have a leader like Richard Stallman, those considerations are just never there. There's none of this short-term stuff."

Looking ahead to 2007, Brown sees only more of the same activism for the FSF. Both the BadVista and Defective By Design campaigns will continue, and he suggests that other campaigns in the coming year will probably focus on hardware drivers for GNU/Linux and software patents.

"It's going to be a busy year," Brown predicts. "2006 was great, but 2007 is going to be huge."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.


  • Free Software
Click Here!