January 2, 2003

Jay Sulzberger on Free Software (and computing freedom) advocacy

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

Jay Sulzberger
is a high-profile Free Software advocate, best known as Secretary of LXNY. He's also active on behalf of Internet and computer freedom in general. Other activists don't always agree with Jay's viewpoints, but this never stops him. What follows are some quotes about his beliefs and his approach to free this-and-that advocacy in general. All words that follow except the subheads, links [and editorial insertions in brackets] are Jay's, transcribed during a phone conversation we had on December 30, 2002.

On becoming a Linux user and advocate

I was trying to write up my magnum opus on quantum computing, and failing, and also writing up excursions into futures and derivatives markets, plus working as a "probability consultant" -- you might say "statistical consultant" -- helping professional gamblers determine risks.

I never owned a computer before the mid-90s [he used university-owned computers and terminals]. I suddenly needed a computer. Somebody needed me to do some computations so I bought a laptop. It had a terrible operating system on it, a primitive form of Windows, I believe. It was so bad I was completely shocked, but for a week or two I wrote software using the Basic that came on the thing. I think it was QBasic.

Then, after a little bit, I needed to do a little more serious stuff, and Basic was cramping me, so I asked Richard [Stallman, who he'd met many years earlier but doesn't remember exactly when or in what context] what had happened with GNU, and he said it had gotten a kernel, so I picked it up and I installed it -- Unifix was my first GNU/Linux distribution. It was the first one that ever got formally POSIX certified. That's why I chose it.

Richard M. Stallman as 'hero'

I knew Stallman a little bit before he started FSF. I can remember him struggling, trying to figure out free software, to figure out what moves he could make.

It's just actually incredible that we have a record, Levy's book, of a real hero, and how a real hero in the story must go through hell first. [This statement relates to a tale told in the last chapter of Levy's book, Hackers.)

Working with LXNY

Once I had GNU/Linux -- and notice that I say GNU/Linux -- running on the laptop -- it was smooth sailing.

I got hooked up with a group called LXNY. Michael Smith -- GM of LXNY, said LXNY stood for something or other but it was not Linux, and I went to a meeting. I met a guy there named Bob Young. It was his last meeting. He was going South to work with a little company called Red Hat. He was looking for someone to take over as secretary of the group, and I ended up being it.

Later LXNY stopped meeting, although it stayed active through an email list. Plenty of other groups started up around Linux and got plenty of backing from IBM. I don't know how many Linux groups meet at the IBM building now. [Jay specifically mentions NYLUG and Gnubies, and says there are also "many more."]

LXNY mainly tries to offer support quietly to groups and organizations that are trying to use free software. The main struggle is, it's hard to get volunteers. There's always more people wanting help then we have volunteers. We've failed at some projects because of this....

You need to realize, LXNY is about free software, not about Linux.

New York City has about 1.1 million public school students and over 1000 public schools. There are hundreds of schools that have converted to running free software on their servers. Not many are running Linux desktops, but we hope this will change. We are not claiming to do more than the teachers and the students or the Board of Education. We just help out...

Working with NYLXS

In New York City in the past two years there's risen a wonderful new free software organization run by a madman, Ruben Safir. NYLXS is a membership organization. You have to pay a fee and you also have to volunteer, and then you get to vote. They have classes in free software. They have a lot of projects going on.

They've been very helpful talking to legislators and regulatory bodies.

[Jay, unlike MPAA mogul Jack Valenti, does not consider NYLXS or the associated NY for Fair Use rude. He says, "They believe, as I do, that we have the right to private ownership of computers."]

NY Fair Use and the Commerce Dept. DRM hearing in July 2002

We never disrupted any hearing. Really, Jack Valenti invited us to talk.

We, the American Library Association, and a whole bunch of other groups [later] came and talked privately to the Department of Commerce [about digital rights management]. We took the line that the issue was private ownership and control of your own computer.

Richard Stallman was with us.

Surprisingly, the Commerce people understood us. But over at FCC, there is a direct move to outlaw GNU Radio.

What is GNU radio? A piece of software that'll let you listen, with a little antenna, to any digital radio or watch digital TV. The MPAA and the RIAA and American Association of Publishers want to outlaw it. They're trying to get the FCC to say that any general purpose digital receiving device must be under the control of the entertainment cartel, in that as soon as something passes into your machine and it's labeled as being copyright by them, your machine won't be able to perform a cp on it.

The New York group was instrumental -- a whole bunch of groups, really; it was an informal bunch -- we worked on the Department of Commerce, we're working on FCC now, and now we're working on Congressmen. Whenever we get in to see Congressmen, they say, "Thank you, all we hear from is the MPAA, the RIAA, and the AAP." And in most cases they say, "We had a strong feeling there was something wrong with what they were telling us, but these are difficult issues, they're hard to understand, and now that we've heard your side we're beginning to get a sense that there's another side to the issue."

On being an effective advocate

What I'm trying to get at is the people who say that the direct approach of speaking up as citizens is ineffective. It's not.

The people who say the other side's got all the money and the lobbyists are right. But this is still America, and we still vote. And most Congresspeople, it's not a matter, if they vote for something for the MPAA or RIAA, it's not because they're bribed, it's because they've only heard one side.

What you can do is form a local group that works to educate your Congressman and your Senators about these issues, and in New York we've begun to form this.

There are several different groups that have begun to be effective by approaching legislators and regulators. You should learn about the threats to private ownership of computers and free, public use of the Net. The other side claims the issue is copyright infringement. It's not. The two main issues -- and they are distinct, but they're closely related -- are: One -- private ownership of untrammeled computers such as we have today, and Two -- free private, public, and tribal use of our Net, which we built, primarily with free software.

We've been accused of being noisy, raucous, and rude. We [computer and Internet freedom advocates] may have become very noisy, raucous, and rude more than once in the past, but today we need to be clear, we need to be calm, and we need to be absolutely polite and respectful.

We need to be absolutely clear that we are the Internet's owners, the stakeheholders, the makers, not just "users" or "consumers."

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