August 31, 2006

FSF reaches out to social activists

Author: Bruce Byfield

2006 may be remembered as the year that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) reached out to the community. The FSF has already undertaken an unprecedented year-long consultation process about the revisions to the GNU General Public License, and the Defective By Design campaign against digital rights management technologies. Now, the FSF is planning a third campaign to deliver its message about ethical software to social activists outside the technical communities. "We think that social groups taking on policies about free software can act as a huge lever within schools, trade unions, local governments, and churches," says Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF.

The message, Brown says, will be a simple one, calculated to appeal to these groups: "Free software is an issue of free speech when we're moving more of our lives on to computers." The goal is appeal to the strong ethical stance of activist groups, and to encourage them to adopt policies in favor of free software.

"All these groups share a body of issues that they all recognize and care about," Brown says. "One group may be working against child poverty, another for recycling, but the people in these organizations can almost be transferred from one to the next. And from my experience with networking within social groups, if we could have one success, then it could very quickly lead to lots of success, because this community really communicates well." In other words, the FSF hopes that the promotion of free software will rapidly become part of this standard body of issues in the activist community.

The origins of the campaign

One of the inspirations for the campaign came a few months ago when Brown phoned a friend at the BBC to alert him to the Defective By Design campaign. His friend, Brown says, was overwhelmed. "He was like, 'This is a big topic that we're talking about. It covers disks, it covers downloads, it covers television, it covers iPods. How on earth am I going to wrap this up in a story?'"

He received an equally discouraging reaction when he contacted a magazine that features in-depth coverage of social and political issues. The magazine is run by a non-profit cooperative, and regularly researches and analyzes complex issues such as world poverty and the International Monetary Fund. Yet, talking to the members of the editorial collective, he says, "I found it pretty clear that they were uncomfortable because they don't understand software." Compared to the members of the free software community whom the FSF usually deals with, "They were slightly older, and they're very scared of technology. They typically find [free software] a difficult subject to research and have an opinion on. Therefore, they actively avoid it."

Looking through back issues at other activist magazines such as The Nation and Mother Jones, Brown realized that the situation was no better elsewhere. Such magazines almost never cover free software. "And when there is coverage," he says, "it's always slanted with what we would consider the wrong issues. It's about the geekiness of it. It's about technologists being clever."

The problem, Brown concluded, was the message. "When you're talking about recycling, you don't say that you'll take waste to this location and heat it to so many degrees. No one needs to know that." In the same way, he adds, "You don't need to know the architecture of GNU/Linux in order to make a judgment call about the ethics of free software. The ethics are the message. It's not about how the software works."

Planning the message

The campaign is scheduled to launch sometime in September, but details are still being finalized. Currently, the FSF is preparing standard language about various free software issues, such as DRM technologies. It is also preparing a package to distribute to GNU/Linux user groups to encourage their members to participate. The FSF would like them to become "activists around the issue of free software," he says.

In addition, Brown says, "We're going to write to all the magazines and organizations that we think should care and actually make a direct appeal to them to look at their policies and write about free software and issues related to software." He encourages anyone who is willing to help with the campaign, or knows of magazines or organizations to target, to contact the FSF with their suggestions.

Messages that will not be part of the campaign include discussions of software monopolies, the price of free software, or the open source position that access to source code results in higher quality software. "The trouble with talking about monopolies," Brown says, "is that it suggests that if there were competition between proprietary companies, that would be OK with us. But, no, it wouldn't."

Similarly, Brown says, "If Microsoft decided tomorrow to make their operating system free of charge and you could have all the practical rights that people say are good about open source but none of the freedoms, that would mean the death of free software, because not many people have learned to care about freedom. The point is that, if we can get more people taking on the issue of free software as a social issue, in a sense we secure free software."

Brown admits that taking such positions might make winning the support of non-technologists easier, but, speaking on behalf of the FSF, he adds, "We never want to advocate for a short-term victory, because that makes people focus on the wrong issues. We've always got to focus on the bigger issue, so if people are going to choose free software, they're going to choose it for the right reasons. Free software's for the long haul."

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


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