August 28, 2007

FSF links up with environmental groups

Author: Bruce Byfield

Continuing its efforts to connect with social activists, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has released an open letter signed by major environmental organizations. The letter urges activists to reject lockdown technologies in general and Windows Vista in particular as hostile to their ethics and the causes they support, and to support free software instead. The letter is only the first in a series that the FSF plans to release in the coming months, each of which will be crafted to make an ethical or pragmatic appeal to a specific group's concerns.

Although at least one well-known environmental group did not sign, stating off the record that it had no policy about software, signatories include The Green Party of England and Wales, People and Planet, Friends of the Earth International, and The New Internationalist.

The letter begins by noting the environmental unsoundness of replacing existing hardware simply in order to run Microsoft Vista, then goes on to suggest that "the disposable computer mentality is a symptom of a larger problem -- one that should concern all social activists. That problem is the dependency of activists on software owned and exclusively controlled by entities that design their software in ways directly opposed to grassroots social change.... each time an activist turns on a Vista computer, she is nominating Microsoft and Big Media as exclusive gatekeepers to this freedom." The letter goes on to discuss Digital Rights Management and Trusted Computing (or Digital Restrictions Management and Treacherous Computing, as it calls them), condemning them both in themselves and as one of the reasons for Vista's increased hardware requirements.

It then introduces free software as an alternative, stating that "While proprietary software functions by dividing people and using technical restrictions to block communication between them, free software was created with social solidarity and sharing in mind.... The celebrated power of the Internet as a tool for political action depends on the ability of ordinary people to have uncensored control over the tools
they use to participate in society. If the tools used by activists are proprietary, they will be inherently limited in what they can challenge and change by those who make and exclusively own the tools."

The letter ends by calling directly on supporters of the groups that signed the letter "to join us as we free ourselves from dependency on those who constantly seek to limit our capabilities" and directing them to sign the letter themselves. "Our visions for society may differ," the letter concludes, "but we all have a common interest in keeping the technological means with which we communicate and organize around our respective visions free."

Readers can add their own signatures to those already on the list.

Following up on the letter

According to Peter Brown, FSF executive director, the point of the letter is not to urge an immediate switch to free software. Nor will the FSF directly help organizations with the transition, although he expects the site to carry success stories from environmental groups.

"People aren't ready to switch completely to free software," Brown says. "We have to recognize that. Our job is to raise free software as an ethical issue. It's like recycling: you don't have to give them a hot line on how to proceed. That's something they do locally, through their own networks."

Instead, Brown explains, the letter and its site are designed to encourage discussion of free software among environmental groups, and to assist technicians working within such groups to connect with each other. To further these ends, he is encouraging the posting of success stories on the site about using free software within these groups.

The ultimate goal is to make free software one of a number of issues that are part of activists' awareness, just as the FSF, although centered on software freedom, routinely recycles cans and paper in its office. "It's not part of our agenda," Brown says, "but here we are following the guidance of the community that we are now part of. So in that sense we can look to a future where organizations that care about these issues can add free software as a natural ethical service that they can expect of themselves and others."

At least some of the signing organizations are already promoting free and open source software (FOSS). According to Tom Chance of the Green Party, his organization has been supporting free software goals since 2005. He points out that Green members of the European Parliament led the fight against software patents in Europe, and that the party has already condemned Vista for reasons similar to those stated in the open letter. In addition, the Party's Principal Speakers, Sian Berry and Derek Wall, have been blogging and speaking regularly about free software and related issues.

"Extremely limited funds and certain specific applications have made progress to a completely free platform slow," Chance admits. Although some desktops in the organization are Windows-based, the party promotes the use of Firefox,, and Scribus internally, and the party's Web servers "are Debian and fully FOSS." In addition, in light of the open letter, the Green Party is currently working to formulate policies about the best way to promote free software.

Paul Roeland of Milieudefensie, the Dutch branch of Friends of the Earth International, reports a similar situation in his organization. Friends of the Earth is already promoting free software among its member organizations, and made a statement supporting this position at its last general meeting. In Mileudefensie specifically, Roeland says, the use of free software has become part of the official IT policy, along with the use of energy-efficient hardware. According to Roeland, free software is "the preferred solution, and we will only us proprietary software if there is no working free equivalent." In particular, Roeland points to proprietary interfaces to electronic banking and accounting.

In addition, Mileudefensie is promoting free software among local chapters in the Netherlands, and assisting other Friends of the Earth organizations in eastern Europe and central Asia to do the same through a combination of articles, courses, and hands-on help.

Mileudefensie intends to expand these efforts, "but we don't have a fixed timeline for that yet," Roeland says. "We have to strike a balance here; many of our general supporters are from the pre-digital age, [and] have no interest in computers at all, so we have to find a proper non-technical way to explain the subject and why they should care."

Similarly, Charlie Harvey of People and Planet says that his organization's policy "is to use FLOSS for everything unless there is a reason that we can't. Sadly there are reasons that we can't drop Microsoft on the desktop for the next couple of years and we may be stuck even longer with nonfree software for certain bits of design work, accounts, and so on." However a minority of the staff is using GNU/Linux already, and People and Planet's servers are now completely free. The organization runs a regular digital rights workshop at its annual conference, as well as occasional other seminars throughout the year on such subjects as the dangers of software patents. As well, "We do a lot of work with our staff to make sure that they understand what are the benefits of free software and why we're using it," Harvey says. "It's part of our standard IT induction. We've also written a page on our Web site that details why P&P uses free software."

From these examples, the open letter seems very much a formal statement of what is already occurring, signed in the hopes of drawing attention to issues already being discussed in order to encourage and increase their integration into existing policies and actions. The hope, of course, is that a public declaration will encourage other organizations and individuals to do the same.

The next steps

According to Brown, this letter is planned as the first of several. "We're going to raise this issue with different classes of users," he says, making arguments calculated to appeal to each group's interests.

The FSF is already planning another letter in September for students and universities. The gist of the letter, Brown says, is "the idea that an institute of learning should use tools that encourage that, not restrict the flow of information. They should be using open tools. It's contrary to the spirit of education to use tools that lock down and lock out, and corrupt education." Just as some of those interested in education have objected to vending deals with major corporations in the cafeteria and vending machines on campuses and in schools, the FSF hopes that students, teachers, and administrators will come to question similar exclusive arrangements in their computing labs.

Another group that the FSF hopes to address is business. Here, the argument will focus on the practicality of free software, citing FOSS-aware companies like Google and pointing out "that freedom is also very good for corporations." This campaign will also encourage companies to view free software as an ethical stance that will enhance their community standings.

With each letter, the campaign will be similar: write a letter, get four or five major representatives of the target audience to sign the letter, then distribute it as widely as possible.

Brown frankly acknowledges that the tactic is experimental, but he expects the FSF to learn as it gains experience. "Each response will help us craft the next one," he says.

What the result of each letter will be is impossible to guess. On one hand, the FSF is a relatively small organization with limited income, and the tactic might be more successful if funds were available to circulate the letters as ads, or to help interested organizations learn about free software. On the other hand, the FSF, as well as the signatories of the first letter, are used to mobilizing volunteers instead of dispensing cash. So it just may be that, in choosing to focus on getting free software on different agendas, the FSF has hit on a winning tactic for getting its philosophy into the mainstream.


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