September 25, 2002

Less of RMS, more of your freedom: FSF's Digital Speech Project

- by Tina Gasperson -
Now that GNU/Linux is becoming a household commodity, the Free Software Foundation is facing changes
in its priorities. Used to be that rounding up Free Software developers to
complete a non-proprietary operating system was job one. Now other things are
more urgent, like fighting digital rights management (or digital "restrictions"
management, as Richard M. Stallman puts it), and enforcing the GPL. So when it comes to the
public face of the FSF, it means you may be seeing less of RMS and more of other
people.

Like Bradley Kuhn, the executive director of the Free Software
Foundation, who is filling the role of spokesman and advocate with
enthusiasm. "I am charged with the task of bringing the message of FSF to a
broader audience," he says. Kuhn is fervent in his belief that software
freedom is for everyone, not just an elite few. "Of course, I love the Free
Software community and am an active member of it. However, there was always one
aspect of our community that didn't sit right with me: the idea that you had to
'prove your hacker credentials' to be taken seriously.

"Too often, we have a tendency to develop Free Software that 'scratches our own
itches.' While lots of useful and important Free Software does get written that
way, navel-gazing work can't be the only focus.

"This means that the FSF's charge to bring and defend software freedom must
reach beyond the insular world of computer science. Trying to convince people to
choose Free Software because of technological superiority or admiration for the
hacker ethic is a tactical error. While I am confident in our ability to keep
pace with proprietary software, it will likely be decades before Free Software
is more convenient than proprietary software in every way.

"It's up to us to teach everyone else that our country wasn't founded on a
notion of 'Give me convenience or give me death,' but rather 'Give me liberty or
give me death.'

"I have felt that the Free Software movement has
teetered for too long on the cusp of directly impacting the general public,"
says Kuhn. "The time has come to stop shouting our technological advantage from
the rooftops, and shout instead about the freedom we bring.

"The public saw us once in the late 1990s
as technological innovators. The time has come for us to get active and get
organized, so that the public can see us as revolutionaries, too."

But not too extreme. Of late, Stallman, the FSF's founder, has
kept out of the spotlight. In August, for example, the Free Software Foundation
held a snazzy $250 per plate fundraising dinner, from which Stallman was
conspicuously absent. FSF's director of communication, Ravi Khanna, told
Wired.com: "We're
trying to portray the FSF as more than just Richard," and that it "made sense
for (Stallman) not to be there."

And this month, there was another fundraising
dinner
that didn't include Stallman. Eben Moglen, general counsel for the
Free Software Foundation, was the featured speaker.

Stallman lays it out this way: "The FSF's focus is Free Software, not me. I
work for computer users' freedom, and the FSF works for computer users'
freedom ... Once upon a time, I was the FSF's only speaker, but one was not
enough, so we decided years ago to
develop more. Now we have seven speakers, but we still need more.

"With both Congress and industry cartels proposing schemes to exclude
Free Software from large areas of computing, we have to talk to
everyone who uses computers and even digital TVs and audio recorders
about the freedoms that they stand to lose. The Digital Speech
Project
addresses this threat."

Kuhn and Khanna are putting a lot of energy into the burgeoning Digital Speech
Project. They initiated an advisory committee whose primary goal is to gain
endorsements for the project from organizations represented on the committee.
The group is also working to put together a statement of principles: a pithy
paragraph or three that communicates the ideals and goals of the project. "In
this statement of principles, we have the DSP committee representatives -- from
consumer rights organizations, civil liberties organizations, musicians' and
artists' advocates, librarians, educators, and software freedom advocates --
coming together to say: 'Technology control measures have gone too far and must
go no further. Furthermore, damage already done by existing legislation like
DMCA must be undone.'"

Kuhn admits that the DSP isn't saying anything new. "It is what many different
groups have been saying for a while. The profundity comes from the realization
that all these different groups are in agreement that we can't let large
copyright holders dictate public technology policy anymore," he says.

The organizers of the Digital Speech Project hope to awaken voting
constituencies to the dangers of legislation like DMCA and CBDTPA. To do that,
they're driving a grassroots campaign that begins with reaching young people.
Kuhn has spent a lot of time recently visiting college campuses and doing the
work of an evangelist. "We dove into the project with vigor earlier this
calendar year. We focused on forming campus Digital Freedom groups. I've heard
this year the Digital Freedom group at the University of Kentucky is getting
very active."

"What I find on these campuses is a growing underground awareness mostly, but
not exclusively, based in the computer science departments, that current notions
of copyright law are too extreme and downright harmful. From what I've seen,
college students, despite the popular opinion from the mainstream press, don't
dismiss the artists' needs when they share music non-commercially online.

"In fact, when I lead class discussion on the topic, all the students who speak
up say they've considered it carefully, and that they find the current system of
music production to be a scam controlled by the publishing companies.

"They know as well as Courtney Love does that the current regime isn't about the
artist; by contrast, it's about corporate control."

The biggest snag, he says, is bringing these students from a place of mere
receptivity to software and digital freedoms, to a place of political action.
"The climate on college campuses right now is tough. The U.S. military campaigns
have polarized the political spectrum, and speaking out against the status quo
has become more dangerous, both socially and politically. This shadows issues
like digital freedom, because they are often seen as side issues from the
foreign policy arguments that are raging."

Kuhn says getting the word ingrained in people who've never thought about
digital freedoms before is slow-going. "We formed the committee as a first step,
because we believe that the best way to approach this project was to first and
foremost build a broad coalition. With that coalition we hope to get the
interest of funders to provide us the resources to design a strong grassroots
campaign."

Another problem is making technical issues make sense to the average non-geek.
"What we've found is that there are a lot of enthusiastic activists for digital
freedom in communities and campuses around the U.S.," Kuhn says. "However, they
suffer from the same problems that the Free Software movement has often suffered
from: difficulty translating the message so that a non-technical audience can
understand. Industry and governmental initiatives like the so-called 'broadcast
protection flag' are buried in confusing technical details.

"We plan to design a campaign that gives the average Free Software activist the
right tools to educate her campus, her community and her circle of friends, that
issues of digital freedom are central to other freedoms we currently enjoy."

Like the legal right to time-shift or space-shift DVDs, TV shows, or music CDs.
Kuhn points out that these issues are more central to students' lives than
foreign policy. "These activities have become the staple of campus life, and we
must provide a roadmap to show students that industry and legislative control
measures may destroy this budding ecosystem of technology advancement."

Kuhn is scheduled to speak at Purdue University on October 25. "I'll be
talking about software freedom in the GNU generation, as well as about
issues surrounding digital freedom. One of the things I'll stress is how
much is happening in back rooms between the industry groups like RIAA to
make certain restrictions mandatory. They literally talk about 'selling'
these restrictions to the public, and this is going to happen if we don't
do something."

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