December 13, 2006

Why FOSS isn't on activist agendas

Author: Bruce Byfield

In theory, free and open source software (FOSS) should have a direct appeal to those concerned with ethics and social issues. Yet, in practice, it rarely does. Although the FOSS and activist communities frequently share ethical positions and social interests ranging from freedom of expression and cooperative organization to consumer rights, privacy, and anti-trust legislation, mostly the two groups remain unaware of each other. Why?

Those comfortable in both the FOSS and activist arenas see several problems that must be overcome before activists can accept FOSS. These problems include the FOSS community's insularity, its failure to deliver the right message to the activists' technophobia, and a failure to make connections. In the end, it may be only by seeing the values that underlie both FOSS and other causes that any connection can be made.

Obstacles in the FOSS community

Henri Poole is a member of Civic Actions, a virtual company that plans online campaigns for activists, and also a director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and a Defective By Design organizer. He compares the lack of communication between the FOSS and activist communities to that of speakers of different languages in Europe. In both cases, not only language and jargon but culture differences cause divisions. Members of the FOSS community, Poole suggests, may be comfortable speaking about ethical and social issues among themselves and on their own preferred terms, but not with outsiders who "don't seem to be part of the tribe." People in the FOSS community, he says, "haven't really gone outside their world enough to see that they're really very similar to people who want justice in economics and religion."

Poole suggests that the relative youth of the FOSS community may be another factor. Poole sees maturation as a gradual process of recognizing connections with others, and raises the possibility that many FOSS advocates may be too young to draw analogies between themselves and social activists.

Instead, they are more likely to see differences. The problem may be compounded by the fact that, in some activist groups -- although by no means all -- the average age tends to be older. Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF and one of the main organizers of the Defective By Design campaign, notes that the FSF "finds that some people who are part of our mailing list or part of our campaigns to be under 30." By contrast, Brown estimates the average age of readers of a politically aware magazine that he approached for coverage to be well over 40.

Marco Fioretti, a writer who has campaigned to interest both the Scouting movement and Christians in FOSS, agrees that the FOSS community is isolated, but is far more critical than either Poole or Brown. Evaluating the responses to his articles about his efforts, Fioretti notes that "while the groups I addressed mostly ignored me or agreed I am right, 80% of the reactions from the FOSS world were not simply negative, but filled with hatred and/or bigotry." Most of the reactions, he said, amounted to either a fear that the Scouts or Christians would hijack the FOSS movement, or accusations that these groups were bigots or racists. Fioretti concludes that "the FOSS community, which is proud to be tolerant, modern, liberal, and freedom-loving, contains a lot of bigots and terribly narrow-minded people."

Brown suggests that this insularity has resulted in a message that has appeal only inside the community. A non-programmer himself, Brown has spent much of his time as FSF executive director looking for ways to broad the appeal of FOSS. His conclusion is that the ethics, not the software, is what needs to be discussed.

Comparing FOSS to recycling, Brown asks rhetorically, "What's recycling about? Is recycling the most economical way of treating garbage? Or is it about protecting the environment?" The popularity of recycling was not generated by talking about the details of processing garbage, Brown implies, but talking about social responsibility. The FOSS community, he suggests, needs to take the same approach.

Obstacles among activists

At the same time, activists have their own share of insularity. When talking to the Scouting movement and Christians, Fioretti says, his main problem was "to begin a discussion. People were visibly struggling to understand why they should listen to me in the first place. They're weren't against my thesis; they simply could not understand what the subject of the discussion was supposed to be. Why should anybody spend so much energy to set and enforce policies on something that looked so unrelated to the organization mission statement and so intrinsically irrelevant as mandating, say, that all parishes or troops should always buy screwdrivers with the handles in at least two colors?" The fact that activists might see connections between pacifism and environmentalism as causes did not mean that they could immediately see connections with their existing beliefs and new ones.

Brown had a similar experience that he attributes to technophobia. Talking about his efforts to interest the activist media in free software, he says, "They were very uncomfortable with the approach. And the main reason was because they don't understand software. They're not technologists, and they're very scared of technology. They typically find it a difficult subject to research and to have an opinion on, and therefore they actually avoid it. They just don't understand it." Largely through this experience, Brown concluded that, if activists were to respond favorably to FOSS, they would only do so at an ethical level. Brown is currently organizing a campaign by the FSF to reach out to the activist community with this new approach.

A possible solution

Poole suggests that the lack of connection comes from the fact that members of both communities have trouble seeing beyond their daily concerns. From his work with Civic Actions, he suggests a possible solution.

Because Civic Action members work remotely, they meet several times a year for what Poole calls a "values remix." At the meeting, members write down their core values, and then discuss them as a group. "We really get to see that what drives us at a real low level. When we go through the process of aligning what's underneath our creativity, our passion, and our work, we end up getting closer together, and we're able to have a conversation with people who don't really speak our language of technology. So our tech people get really close with people with whom they wouldn't be able to have a really close conversation or relation." In other words, by moving to a higher level of abstraction than they usually work on, the members of Civic Action find their common ground.

Poole adds that Civic Action works in the same way with clients. Noting that one of the company's clients is a campaign against the death penalty, Poole suggests that both FOSS and social activism are ultimately both "about respect and liberty. I mean, who has the right to take somebody's life? Who has the right to take some piece of software away from me that I've invented? Who has the right to say to my child it's not all right to remix? We have certain values that we believe in and fundamentally they're all aligned, but we don't have the space to have a conversation about the alignment beneath our day-to-day activities." He suggests that, if members of the FOSS community can make the same connections with social activists as Civic Actions does with its clients, then the two groups will see that, in the end, they stand for the same basic values.

In any attempt to deepen the appeal of FOSS, reaching out to those with shared values is only logical. Moreover, as Brown points out, reaching just one social action group could easily mean reaching most of them. "One group may be working against child poverty, another for recycling," Brown says, "but the people in these organizations can almost be transferred from one to the next." In fact, they often are. No matter what cause activists focus on, they frequently support other causes because they see a direct connection between the values behind the causes. If FOSS can become one of those values, it should therefore spread rapidly.

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


  • Free Software
Click Here!