Fellowship Interview with Bjarni Runar Einarsson

Bjarni Runar Einarsson

Bjarni Runar Einarsson is the founder and lead developer of PageKite, an application which allows the publication of websites stored on personal computers and mobiles. He won the Nordic Free Software Award for his work in 2010.

Chris Woolfrey: How did PageKite begin?

Bjarni Runar Einarsson: Well, PageKite started off as a project designed to help decentralised social networks. This was two years ago. I noticed that there was a lot of interest in decentralised social networking, as a backlash against some of the problems implied by the centralised models of Facebook and others like them. I felt it was an important problem to work on, and that for a new, “Free as in Freedom” decentralised network to take off, it would have to be a web-based network, and people would need to be able to run their own personal nodes. Diaspora started soon after, with a similar idea; they called a personal node a pod.

But as I dove into the problem, I realised that in the end, one of the main obstacles to a project like that truly succeeding was that most people cannot run a web server – which is a prerequisite for being able to host your own piece of a decentralised social network.

And that’s how PageKite was born – it’s a project that aims to solve that specific underlying problem and make it feasible for anyone to run a web server on a personal computer. We’ve ended up rather far from our starting point – PageKite today is not a social network on its own. But it can be combined with other Free Software to realise the goal of decentralisation in the social sphere.

As the project developed, we soon realised that this problem affected many other users as well. And the clearest example is the technical folks who are themselves developing websites. These developers generally have a fancy new web site built on a laptop or personal computer, but they can’t show it to anyone without copying it to some remote server. So people developing web sites spend a lot of time copying files around, from their work machines to staging servers or deployment servers, where the results can be shared and viewed and tested. PageKite can save them time, because they don’t need to go through the deployment step every time they want to show progress or test how their server interacts with the wider Internet, because PageKite makes the local server publicly visible.

“PageKite can be combined with other Free Software to realise decentralisation”

Examples of projects that have used PageKite in this way – Free Software projects – include OwnCloud, Mediagoblin and Unhosted. The developers on these projects are building new technology for the web, and PageKite has simply become one of the tools they use on a day to day basis.

Today, that’s sort of our niche – providing tools to web developers. We haven’t abandoned our original mission, but making software simple enough and mature enough for end users takes more time.

CW: How does it work?

BRE: Well, web servers are just software. Most modern operating systems these days may have one or even many web servers built in – on Linux, people often have Apache, and there is also a web server built into the Python programming language, for example. Mac also ships with Apache and Python, and Ruby – multiple web servers under the hood which people simply aren’t aware of.

But this software is not terribly useful most of the time, because the way the web works is that your web server, and the sites it hosts, are not reachable by the wider Internet unless you have a public IP address. And most of the time, most of us are using private IPs, connecting to the Internet using NAT or via a strict firewall which “protects” us from incoming requests. So even if you discover your operating system’s built-in web server and switch it on, nobody can see it or reach it, and it is useless. The traditional solution to this has been to reconfigure routers and firewalls and learn about DNS – lots of very technical work, which is still only possible some of the time.

So in practice running a web server is out of reach for the average computer user, even if the software is widely available and Free. PageKite solves this problem by giving your local server a public name (or multiple names) and then creating a “tunnel” from the Internet to that server. In effect PageKite reaches out to the Internet and says “this tunnel leads to the site named whatever.pagekite.me, please send all the requests for that site over this tunnel”. In technical terms: a “dynamic, tunneled reverse proxy”.

Which is quite a mouthful. But the key point is that this is all handled by a relatively simple piece of software, and does not require that you reconfigure your local network at all. So if the software is packaged nicely, PageKite could be combined with interesting web servers to provide a nice experience to end users. Or it can simply be used to make life a bit easier for a web developer who understands all the technology, but can’t be bothered to go through all the steps himself.

“It’s really important for people to become more computer literate”

CW: Is PageKite a step towards achieving decentralised Free Software social networking?

BRE: PageKite is a step along the way, not an endpoint. But there are multiple ways to reach the end-goal of helping the average user. We don’t have to do everything ourselves. If someone else builds an awesome decentralised social network, and it they just happens to use PageKite to make it easy for end-users to take part, then I would consider that a success.

So the odds are, PageKite will stay in the background as a technical tool, part of the platform that enables other things. Much like dynamic DNS, or the protocols of the web itself.

CW: Is the computer literacy of end-users important in your view?

BRE: I think in the long term, it’s really important for people to become more computer literate. We need kids learning to program in schools, starting at a young age. Just like it’s important to learn to read, and important to learn to cook, and important to learn to drive – everyone should have a basic understanding of how computers work, because they are such an important part of our lives. Not everyone should have to dedicate themselves to it full time of course, but I think everyone should be exposed.

That is my long term perspective. In the short term, I think technical folks have a great responsibility to build socially responsible software. Free Software is a big part of that, but I think people often get lost in the technicalities and forget – or just don’t care – about the bigger picture. The computing landscape has changed really fast in the past decade. There is now this massive push towards “cloud computing” and “<something> as a service” – and that ‘something’ could be most things. If we aren’t careful these could lead to people giving up all control over their computing environment.

The whole question of Software Freedom becomes a moot point if people aren’t even running the software themselves any more – if your computer becomes nothing more than a dumb terminal and all your data lives on someone else’s device, then you are really at their mercy. And due to the economies of scale, it’s very likely that you are just one of millions, and your individual problems don’t matter to whoever is providing you with a service.

We’ve seen this play out repeatedly with Google and Facebook. People lose their accounts, for whatever reason, and there is no way to get it back. No appeal process; because it’s not economically viable for a company like Facebook – with 3000 employees – to provide any level of individual service to 800 million users. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t.

So, if we really do care about controlling our computing environment, and want to be able to build systems that actually care about the needs of an individual user, we need to push for something less centralised. And that’s not even getting into the massive questions around privacy, regulation and issues like that. We need to build alternatives, and that is a technical problem which needs technical people to work on.

But we also need to educate the non-technical folks as to why these things matter. So us techies have lots of responsibilities, in my opinion.

“You aren’t independent if you rely on some centralised solution”

CW: Do you see decentralisation as being fundamental?

BRE:Independence is fundamental. If you are, or have the ability, to be independent in your computing, everything else can follow from that. Decentralisation is one way of looking at it; you aren’t independent if you rely on some centralised solution.

Unless, of course, you yourself are the one providing the central solution – and then nobody else is independent.

But yes, these are the core ideas that drove me towards working on PageKite. It’s a tool which can help people become more independent in how they use and interact with the web.

CW: The idea of open hardware has become particularly popular recently. Why do you think that is?

BRE:I’m not sure they’ve become more important – but recent improvements in manufacturing technology and new developments like 3D printers are making the idea of “open source” physical devices seem more within reach. They’ve probably always been important, but we just didn’t have the ability to realise them.

That may be changing, which is very exciting. At the same time I guess we are also seeing more and more locked-down end user devices. Mobile phones have traditionally been a horribly closed platform and they’ve only begun to open up a bit with Android and to a lesser degree the iPhone. I think having some closed devices is probably tolerable, as long as we still have access to general-purpose computers as well.

But in the end, these are physical things which we own and have control over. Maybe not complete control, but I can take the battery out or stick my phone in a lead safe if I want to. Or just smash it with a hammer…

“In the cloud, we have no control at all”

You know, I’m far more worried about the trend towards putting things in the cloud, where we have no control at all.

CW: Yet cloud services are marketed as providing great convenience

BRE:Yes, which is really quite deceptive. The cloud is easy and convenient… until it isn’t. And when it stops fulfilling your needs, for whatever reason, you may have no recourse except to start from scratch somewhere else. I find it mind boggling how much people have invested in things like Facebook. Thousands of photos, annotations, conversations. Some of which you can copy, but not all. And you can lose access to it in an instant if some automated software routine decides you are an “abusive user” for whatever reason and closes your account. Or even if someone just steals your password.

CW: People are more worried by the idea of having to store all that information themselves, than they are about giving it to a company, don’t you think?

BRE:Yes, and that is rational up to a point – Facebook is run by professionals and they are probably better at making backups than most people. But not all cloud companies are super reliable, and for a non-technical user it is pretty much impossible to tell the difference. The LinkedIn security debacle last week is a great example of that, actually.

LinkedIn is a huge social network, with lots of money and some very skilled engineers. And yet their internal security practices were obsolete by 1970s standards. I was amazed at how bad a job they were doing on that front.

From the outside, it’s impossible to tell whether internal practices are good or bad. At least if you have your data on a computer at home, you know whether your door is locked and you know whether you made backups. You may do a good or a bad job – but you at least know what the score is.

When you put your data in the cloud, you really have no idea. This probably relates to what we were saying about technical literacy earlier. As long as computers and technology seem like black magic to people, they can’t really make educated choices and they don’t understand the limitations of what computers – or what networks can or can not do. So they’re at risk of being conned by people who say “trust me, I’ll take care of it”.

“If you have your data on a computer at home, you know whether your door is locked”

CW: Whose role is it to educate the public about these kinds of issues?

BRE:I think it’s unrealistic to expect corporations to always educate their users about the limitations of the products and services they provide. It’s hard enough to get a customer to buy your product in the first place, without frightening him about all the ways it can break.

So there is definitely a need for organisations like FSFE, and there is probably a role for government and schools here as well.

CW: Have you done educational work in this arena yourself?

BRE:A little bit, yes. I’ve been active in advocacy groups here in Iceland, on and off, for the past 15 years or so. Currently the most active organisation in Iceland on this front is called FSFÍ – the abbreviation stands for “Society for Digital Freedoms in Iceland”. So, not Free Software as might be assumed, but Free Software is part of what the group is interested in. Iceland is so small that we have to wear many hats and can’t afford the luxury of just focusing on software!

But generally the organisation tries to look out for any opportunity to discuss or influence policy on issues to do with technology and the Internet. Sometimes people even listen…

CW: Why do you think, that certain places in Europe have more Free Software activism than others? Iceland, Germany, Sweden, Norway – they’re appear to be doing better than, say, the UK.

BRE:That’s an interesting question. I’m afraid I lack insight and can’t really speculate about the U.K. or anywhere outside Iceland, really. But I can maybe venture a guess as to why things in Iceland may be doing OK.

Our situation is a bit special, because we are so few. The population is only about 320,000. So we’re tiny. And we don’t have much bureaucracy – it’s a very open society. I can give the president or prime minister a call, if I want to. They might even pick up the phone themselves.

When our banks collapsed in 2008, a lot of things were shaken up. People had assumed everything was fine, and discovered it really wasn’t. This made them interested in listening to people who might have constructive suggestions on what could be done better.That made things like IMMI, the International Modern Media Initiative, possible.

IMMI is at least in part an offspring of FSFÍ – it’s an attempt to modernise and liberalise our media laws; provide protection for sources, prevent libel tourism, protect freedom of speech. Things like that.

“Iceland – it’s a very open society”

It has relatively solid support in parliament and has made some real progress, which is kind of amazing and I think is a direct result of our small size combined with our economic troubles. I’m sorry if that’s not a repeatable pattern for organisations in other countries though. Waiting for an economic meltdown isn’t a great way to make plans…

But I guess there is still a lesson there – when things are turbulent, small groups can influence things. So if people get in the habit of reaching out and having conversations, that can lead to good things when the time is right. So just go do it. And who knows, maybe your prime minister would pick up the phone if you called him.

CW: Are you working on anything besides Free Software?

BRE:PageKite actually somehow manages to take up all of my time! We’re trying to build a sustainable business around it, which is pretty tricky. My somewhat idealistic stance is that PageKite should have a sustainable life of its own, so people can rely on it.

That means it has to pay its own way, and we avoid business models which require us to fall into the traps of lock-in or spying on our users, advertising, things like that. We have to innovate on the business side, as well as working on the code to make it more reliable and easier to use. We’re trying to develop partnerships with other start-ups that are creating software for the web. So we need to develop technology for those partners, and think about how the business works.

For example we are working on a version of PageKite which is optimised for use on embedded devices. So you might end up with a smart electricity meter or a windmill or something like that, which uses PageKite to expose a web server that can be used for maintanence or monitoring. Some folks are also keen on seeing PageKite on mobile phones, so we are looking into Android and iOS…and then there’s our original end-user focus; we want to build simple tools on top of PageKite that help non technical users become more independent on the web.

We really have far more tasks than we have time. But at least it’s good fun.

Fellowship Interview with Giacomo Poderi

Giacomo Poderi

Giacomo Poderi has worked as a translator and editor for FSFE, as well as completing a master’s degree in Philosophy. Currently he’s working on a Ph.D in sociology, which looks at the user experience in Free Software Projects, focusing on the turn-based strategy game ‘The Battle for Wesnoth’.

CW: Can you explain your doctoral thesis, and what impact it might have on the world of Free Software?

GP: I’m doing a PhD in Sociology here in Trento, researching user participation in Free Software projects. Free Software studies focus nearly exclusively on the part of the Free Software phenomenon which deals with code development. So the only actors who are considered within the stage of Free Software studies are: core developers, co-developers and users who are on their way to becoming developers. This leaves aside a very large majority of people that are connected with Free Software, but who are not capable of, or interested in, coding.

Basically, users-as-developers are well studied and understood in Free Software; but users-as-users, or even users-as-marginal-participants, are barely studied. But if you think about it, many projects – for example KDE, Ubuntu, Fedora, and Libreoffice – put perhaps more effort into ‘community building’ than they do into coding. Outreach, support, funding, infrastructure, maintenance, and so on.

Are these areas less important than fixing the bugs for the next release? I don’t think so. But even so, the activity of coding is studied whilst other activities in the Free Software world are studied much less.

CW: Do you think that Free Software communities are unwelcoming to people who can’t code?

GP: Sometimes, yes. Most likely it is not done ‘consciously’ or with malicious intent. But at least in the case I’m studying, the rhetoric of “If you don’t like how we do it, you can take the code and fork it” is too prevalent in people’s minds – at least in the mind of the insiders.

I understand that human resources alone are never enough, and that’s probably particularly so in Free Software projects. But sometimes I see the rhetoric of “You’re free to take the code” as a way to close dialogue with users.

CW: You mean that you can only take the code, as a user, if you know what to do with it?

GP: No; I mean that sometimes Free Software developers let themselves be carried away with the possibility to use that argument to reject feature requests, for instance. Users who cannot code cannot code, by definition; but the fact that they cannot code doesn’t make them wrong by default, and their needs are important.

“Users who cannot code cannot code, by definition; but the fact that they cannot code doesn’t make them wrong by default, and their needs are important.”

Just a stupid example: a proprietary application, doesn’t allow you to study or adapt the code, but typically the developers provide customer service staff that you can shout at if you need or want to. A Free Software project lets you study and adapt the code, but the alternative to the customer service is a Web forum for user support. And there, sometimes users are treated with the argument I was referring to before. In the case I’m studying I labeled this phenomenon as the “Open Source Argument”; and I don’t want to imply that its used in an unfriendly way, or that it’s being rude towards the users. But to me it is evident that it is often used in cases where more technical answers or explanations could be provided.

CW: So the Free Software community is less inclusive, and its development less democratic, than it typically seems?

GP: Yes. The internal dynamics of these projects in no way resembles democracy. In my case, developers also explicitly acknowledge it. It’s a fact that is largely accepted by everyone in the project I’m studying.

But it’s also an understandable attitude, and it basically has to do with resources. The little resources which are available are deployed for the development and maintenance of what they already have. Few resources are left for bridging user’s needs with developer’s interest.

It also a has to do with the technical complexity of software development, I think. The more the project grows and matures in its ‘trajectory’, the more difficult it is to introduce certain kind of changes. Developers know what, reasonably, can be changed – with the available resources – and they know how to do that whilst preserving the compatibility and functionality of the software.

I don’t think that’s specifically an issue in Free software. But end-users don’t understand this side of things.

CW: Is FSFE an example of a good bridge between users and developers, in that regard?

GP: Yes, definitely. The awareness work that FSFE is doing with government bodies is extremely relevant. Also the whole idea of local groups brought forward within the fellowship is another one. To establish a network of local groups which have an awareness of these matters, but also the passion to support the idea of software freedom, is an excellent way for disseminating it.

“The awareness work that FSFE is doing with government bodies is extremely relevant.”

But also, on FSFE’s side, to understand which issues are the most difficult to diffuse in society, and which ones are more easily digested by people who are not necessarily computer experts. That’s important.

FSFE is great for those who don’t code. I know some mark-up languages, but no coding skills in the strict sense; I’m a good example! When i got involved with FSFE, it was as an intern for Georg Greve, the president at the time. And, beside many other things, I helped him find an office in Zurich; now I’m a member of FSFE’s General Assembly. And mostly, over the last five years, I’ve worked as a translator, as a long term-contributor to the Italian team, and particularly to the project gnuvox.info. I also worked as a newsletter editor – first as a volunteer, then for a short time as an employee.

CW: You mentioned earlier that sociologists and computer scientists don’t always have the best relationship.

GP: On the one hand I think that they really could benefit from each other, if only they had more compatible ways of understanding and communicating their problems. User-centered design, participatory design, and so forth, are all important efforts to make technology more ‘socially relevant’, and an honest integration of a ‘sociological’ understanding into the design and development of technological artifacts is the way to go, at least in my opinion, if we hope and aim for a technology that attempts to solve problems, rather than becoming a product for market exploitation.

I believe in the idea that technology can improve human life, to put it very simply. But I also believe that in order to achieve this, the people who know how to make technology and those “who know what social problems there are” need to speak to each other more often.

My point is that this awareness is shared by both sociologists and computer scientists – and also software engineers, I believe – but the truth is that none of these groups have yet found an effective way to communicate. For instance, here in Trento there are efforts at departmental level to bridge and intertwine the field’s attempts realise ‘real’ interdisciplinary thinking. I know that similar attempts are also present in other universities in Europe. As far as I know these attempts have their problems, with projects starting honestly an interdisciplinary way, but ending up as standard prototyping projects, for instance. I’m hopeful that sooner or later we’ll find a way to integrate these two paradigms.

CW: Perhaps through collaboration, copyleft, and ‘open source’ thinking?

GP: Collaborative theses, and so on, are a starting point, for sure. But if you think at a different level, I think there is more potential. For example, in sociology and economics there is an emerging concept of social responsibility as applied to entrepreneurial and business activity. Increasingly there are degrees, in Business and similar fields, which are really into that. They are benefiting from a theory that originated in sociology. However, as far as I know the idea of social responsibility isn’t taught within the field of Computer Science at all. Similarly, people in human sciences have no clue about the complexity of reducing an area of human activity into a design problem and of implementing a technical solution to that problem.

“the idea of social responsibility isn’t taught within the field of Computer Science at all.”

There are different practices of appropriation at play. A computer scientist might think that a problem of immigrant integration, for example, can be solved by an iPhone app. And it reduces a very complex problem into a very simple artifact. On the other side, a sociologist who may understand the problems of immigrant integration from a theoretical point of view, doesn’t know what the potential of a well designed system could be. But if they did, perhaps the solution they would come to, would be not an iPhone app but a minor improvement in the town social services information system.

The two fields appropriate differently a ‘real’ problem area in order to make it fit their own paradigms. As I see it, the users of Free Software are a little bit like the immigrants in my fictitious example. They are appropriated, in different ways, by the two fields.

Fellowship interview with Bernd Wurst

Bernd Wurst

This month I chatted with Bernd Wurst, who operates Free Software based servers and workstations for the customers of his pro-privacy web-hosting and IT service company, schokokeks.org. He grew up on a farm in a rural district of southern Germany and got in
touch with computers in the early nineties. He has been using and advocating Free Software since 2001, and volunteers for the Freedroidz project.

Chris Woolfrey: What first got you involved in Free Software?

Bernd Wurst: I switched to Free Software at about 2001, after discovering it at university where I studied computer science. After switching over my desktop, I learned a lot about the philosophy of Free Software. Since then all computers I’ve operated – my family’s, too and some friends – have been switched to Free Software. I used Gentoo GNU/Linux to really learn the internals – I think Gentoo GNU/Linux had only just been founded when I started using it.

Those experiences were very valuable to me. As a Gentoo GNU/Linux user, you can’t avoid being a bug reporter for a great number of Free Software projects – as packages are build on thousands of computers many errors occur – so I think I’ve supported a lot of projects. But I’ve never been an official team member of any project, or anything like that.

“As a Gentoo user you can’t avoid being a bug reporter for many Free Software projects”

I don’t see myself as a coder. My web hosting company schokokeks.org – founded together with Hanno Boeck – relies on Free Software, so we certainly do bug reporting and stuff. Really I’m an administrator, so in terms of Free Software, I’m only a user. But I am a proud member of OpenStreetMap, having mapped my hometown. I am a member of the FSFE Education Team, and I’m involved in the freedroidz project.

The Freedroidz project is a really cool idea: pupils should have fun while they learn something. So the guys from a compant called Tarent took LEGO mindstroms robots and made a plugin for the Eclipse development environment application, which allows you to get the LeJOS alternative firmware for LEGO robots running on them. The Lego Mindstroms platform offers a bunch of sensors and can control some motor units. So you can easily build robots with it. The guys from the Freedroidz project also built a simple to use Java library, so that programming a simple robot can be done by about 10 lines of code.

It was in I think 2010 that I first saw anything about freedroidz – it had booth at the “chemnitzer linux-tage” conference. I had a nice conversation with FSFE President Karsten Gerloff about this cool project could be made available to pupils. He involved Elmar Geese, CEO of Tarent, the sponsor and founder of the freedroidz project. Elmar invited us – me, my wife who is a teacher, and another teacher from my wife’s school – to Bonn. We sat and thought about what could be done. In summer 2010, The Freedroidz team came to our school and did a workshop with our pupils here.

“The Freedroidz team came to our school and did a workshop with our pupils”

After that, we and some members of the FSFE met again in Bonn and started the plan to bring Freedroidz to schools regularly. But the next planned event, at least in my region of Germany, was cancelled. I don’t exactly know why but as far as I know it shall be scheduled again the next months.

CW: Lots of people say its important for children to understand how computers work, but can be difficult to find a way of teaching them that’s fun for kids, can’t it?

BW: That’s the cool thing about it: even young kids can learn programming, without feeling like they’re at school. Our initial school workshop had kids aged from about 12 to 17, and they all had a lot of fun. The older ones built more complex robots and had to dig deeper into programming.

Another great thing: they can take all needed software home and reuse it when they have access to any LEGO mindstorms robot. So we not only taught them programming but also what it is that’s important about Free Software.

CW: And the whole thing seems like it’d be easy to pass on to other schools and teachers

BW: Definitely. I think that schools should share much more knowledge than they do. Free Software can be a good starting point!

“Schools should share much more knowledge than they do”

CW: You mentioned earlier that you’re not a coder. What attracts you to Free Software, and helping out with these projects?

BW: When I say I’m not a coder I mean I don’t call it fun to do hundreds of lines of code by myself. But as I studied computer science – and learned to code PASCAL about 18 years ago – I sort of can write code. So if I find a bug in a software, I sometimes get my ass up and do the fix by myself. Sure, Free Software is the fundamental basis for being able do that. I always want to have that freedom.

On the other hand our company not only does web hosting but also IT support for local customers. I installed some GNU/Linux-based boxes and few have been unhappy about it. So it’s valuable for me and future customers to identify the reasons that some people refuse to use Free Software, and that the bugs and so on are found, and if possible repaired for future releases.

Of course, when I find bugs in software that I’m using myself, I simply want them to be fixed. Reporting the issue is the first step.

CW: You mentioned earlier that in some of your early encounters with GNU/Linux, there were often bugs and problems?

“Having software source code means you can optimize it for your computer’s”

BW: Do you know Gentoo GNU/Linux? It compiles all software locally on the computer it runs on, rather than downloading and installing pre-compiled binary packages. Hardware adjustment flags are set accordingly to the local CPU. So Software used on Gentoo systems gets compiled on many, many different systems with many optimizing compiler stuff. That process provides a great opportunity for bug hunting. It was a great resource for learning for me, too.

Gentoo GNU/Linux has also had bleeding edge releases by default. So Gentoo users used to find lots of bugs in applications before Debian GNU/Linux developers had even thought of including those applications in Debian. That’s changed now: Gentoo GNU/Linux is much more stable today.

CW: What do you think those earlier experiences taught you about Free Software?

BW: Many things. Knowing that all improvements that are done on the software are relayed publicly and that all users can benefit, there’s much more motivation to report issues or to fix things.

Having the source code for software is also important. You can optimize the code to your computer architecture. That aspect of Gentoo GNU/Linux could only work with software released in source code, as we know. Of course, software that is available as source code, but which is not Free Software (and therefore may not be altered of improved) is not useful and hardly even worth mentioning.

“For me, the “Free” in Free Software is mostly about freedom to fix things for the public”

It’s a silly situation, and one I ran into, long ago. For me, the “Free” in Free Software is mostly about freedom to fix things for the public. Being able to get software updates free of license costs is a logical consequence of that.

CW: Do you think the importance of that is something which can only be fully appreciated by people who are programmers?

BW: Getting bugs in the software that you use fixed is clearly something that everybody appreciates. But it’s possible that plenty of people only want bugs be fixed because it benefits them. I think non-administrators that cannot get updated software for free – because they have to pay someone to install it – don’t care about getting updated versions free of charge.

But that’s perfectly okay. I think if a regular user calls me, shows me the bug and then gets a fixed version a few days later, then the customer appreciates Free Software. Even if he had to pay something towards it.

Fellowship Interview with Guido Günther

Guido Günther

Guido Günther joined the Debian Project while completing his degree in physics at the University of Konstanz. He helped with development of Debian for new processor architectures, and co-initiated Debian’s Groupware Meetings.

He also enjoys contributing to the GNOME project, and advanced Free Software virtualisation technologies. He works as a professional Free Software developer and consultant.

Chris Woolfrey: You’ve worked extensively on making Debian GNU/Linux run on MIPS computers: was that your first involvement with the project?

Guido Günther: My first involvement back then was packaging software that wasn’t available in Debian already. My first package was portsentry, if I remember correctly.

I first got involved, really, when I was a student. I’d noticed two SGI Indy computer workstations in a dark corner of the physics department. They were unused at that time, and just consuming power, so I wanted to put them into use again. I read something about a Linux MIPS port and tried to get it booted. Others were already working on a Debian userland, and so I joined the effort and picked up some lose ends, like a missing X server, for those machines, as well as some GNU C library components. Since I had little idea of anything in that field in those days, it was a very interesting experience.

CW: Is that when you got involved with Linux kernel development?

GG: Yes. We didn’t have a bootloader for the SGI Indy machines, either, and in order to get that working I had to understand how the kernel uses computer memory, how it gets initially started, and so on.

To boot the machines from hard disk I wrote Arcboot, based on ext2load. Ext2load already had all the basic routines to interface with the machines firmware called ARCS – a bit like a “BIOS“, but more flexible. Throw that together with e2fslibs (as known from e2fsprogs) to read files from ext2/3 filesystems, load the kernel to the correct addresses, build up the kernel command line, jump to the kernel’s start address and you have a simple, working bootloader – mostly by combining already existing Free Software.

“I wrote the missing bootloader for Debian MIPS by combining already existing Free Software”

For the initial installation process we needed another version that was able to do the same for kernel and initrd via network boot, using bootp. That was even simpler since the ARCS console does all the networking. I only had to extend the kernel so that it would read the initrd / initramfs ‘s start address from it’s kernel command line. We released the first version of the Debian MIPS port with Debian Woody (3.0) on July 19th 2002.

That’s the nice thing about Free Software: you can build on the work of others. Debian was the first Free Software project I contributed to. Since it had worked so well (compared to other distributions we’d tried in this physics department) I really wanted to contribute something back, so I started packaging things we needed at university that weren’t included.

CW: You happened to try Free Software out, it worked, and you just got going.

GG: Yes, exactly: got pulled in deeper and deeper and became a Debian Developer, eventually. I was thrilled by the opportunity to look into things in as much detail as I wanted and to change things as I needed them – without running into dead ends like in the proprietary software world.

CW: So has it always been a hobby for you?

“I was thrilled by the opportunity to look into things in as much detail as I wanted”

GG: The hobby turned into a profession. While working as a physicist writing computer simulations at the University of Konstanz I noticed on a mailing list that the German Ministry of Foreign affairs was looking for Debian Developers. I applied and moved to Bonn.

I worked there in Linux server and client development. Besides it’s locations in Germany the ministry also takes care of the IT in the embassies and consulates. This makes it a very unique IT network, with about 200 locations worldwide, some with excellent and reliable internet connections, others with very limited bandwidth and high latency. The plans to run this infrastructure with Free Software made this a very interesting place for me to work.

CW: Did the ministry promote Free Software, or was it merely a coincidence that they were using Debian?

GG: There were several reasons that they used it. On the technical side, Debian has a very solid update mechanism, all the tools for caching packages, and so on, are already there. It has a great software palette to choose from, and all of it receives security updates.

Also on commercial Linux distributions it’s hard to modify low level parts of the system without invalidating support contracts. So the decision was made to have local companies deploy and run Debian, and provide technical support for the ministry.

From a technical point of view this worked out very well. All the locations ended up running Debian based servers with a failovers setup, using drbd, holding the valuable data like mails and documents, running databases and application servers for web applications that, for example, allow you to order a new passport. The set-up allowed even for disconnected operation when the connection to Germany wasn’t available for whatever reason. By 2009 we had also migrated 2900 desktops and laptops to Linux and an updated Debian Lenny-based client was available shortly after the Lenny release, offering lots of usability improvements over the initial version.

“Our Debian system allowed citizens to do things like order new passports”

CW: So it was chosen more for its technical benefits than any political reasoning?

GG: Well, there was a great emphasis on avoiding ‘vendor lock-in’ of course, with the intention of reducing IT costs, and making the needed systems even affordable at all.

For me it was important to work in an environment wasn’t tied to one vendor; its features and update cycles. Having tax payer’s money invested in Free Software that’s available to everyone, instead of being spent on proprietary software license costs, was a big motivator. That, and being able to modify the software exactly to the end user’s needs, makes Free Software a perfect fit for the public sector. At least in my opinion.

Unfortunately the ministry decided to switch away from Free Software — even though two studies, by a well known consulting company, stated that the Open Source strategy was a valid one — so it was time to move on. I started my own company, http://godiug.net/, which supports customers with Free Software solutions.

CW: How is that going?

“The ministry decided to switch away from Free Software so it was time to move on”

GG: Things are going pretty well. The projects I’ve worked on so far use either Linux, Debian, libvirt or GNOME, so everything’s fine. Extending these and customizing things to the customers needs are my main focus.

CW: Are your customers generally people who are already involved with Free Software in some way?

GG: Usually, yes. Many of them are building Free Software solutions themselves and all of them are interested in getting their work included back upstream, usually both for political – contribute back – and technical – don’t want to maintain a fork – reasons, as far as I can tell.

CW: You’ve been involved with FSFE for a long time. Are you surprised by how far it’s come?

Very, very much. I’m very impressed with what the FSFE has achieved on the EU and national level. Back when I was working in the public sector I was able to glimpse the vast amounts of money that are thrown at lobbying for proprietary software and so called industry standards in Germany and the EU. It’s astonishing how the FSFE has still managed to get itself heard. Supporting this was one of my motivations for becoming a fellow.

FSFE is successful. Although it is a small counterweight by financial means, it has a very long lever to compensate for that, it seems.

CW: Would you say the same for Free Software in general, in terms of growth? Could you have started your Free Software consultancy business years ago?

“At CeBit this year Free Software was second in popularity only to video games”

GG: Since I’m mostly surrounded by people involved in Free Software, and have been for several years, it’s hard to say. But given the interest in Free Software at venues like the CeBIT, I think the interest is still growing. Besides the one with the games in it, the hall with Free Software was by far the most crowded this year.

Running a business would have certainly been possible earlier on, but I think fewer customers would care about the political goals of Free Software. I think these days, for more people, Free Software isn’t a cheap or free of charge second class citizen, as perhaps it used to be. Rather it is software with an added value: Freedom.

Fellowship Interview with Heiki Ojasild

Heiki Ojasild

Heiki Ojasild joined the Free Software Foundation Europe in 2011, undertaking the task of translating fsfe.org into Estonian, his mother tongue. He is currently developing an XChat add-on, as well as a website for free SVG and JavaScript games. In 2010 he took part in the Baltic Olympiad in Informatics. I talked to him about copyright, Digital Restrictions Management, kopimism, and activism.

CW: How did you first become involved with Free Software?

HO: I vividly remember, years ago my nephew cousin told me about GNU/Linux and I couldn’t believe it worked the way it did. I thought that computers couldn’t function without Windows. At the time it seemed such a strange concept that I didn’t pay much attention to it, even after he had demonstrated it to me.

It was a couple of years before I learned to code and started participating in informatics competitions. Then, at first, learning to use GNU/Linux became a status symbol for me. I just thought that I would be cooler using it. Gradually I realised I had less crashes and trouble with Linux. By the time I had talked my mother into buying me a personal laptop, I had made a decision to go with GNU/Linux as the main system and saved her the Microsoft tax. I was 15 at the time.

That was almost 3 years ago. During my high school years I’ve become interested in philosophy, and gradually became interested in the ideology behind Free Software.

At first, I was just awed and accepted everything in Stallman’s essays as gold. Nowadays I am a bit more critical, but I am still convinced that Free Software is the future.

“learning to use GNU/Linux became a status symbol for me”

I became involved with FSFE when I spotted a blatantly incompetent Estonian translation on the FSFE website. That was in August 2011. I reported it and Nicolas Jean (FSFE’s Web Team Coordiantor) removed it and told me that I would be welcome to translate the website. For some reason – a personality flaw, maybe? – I couldn’t decline.

Gradually I grew closer to FSFE and became involved with both translations and website maintenance. At some point in October 2011 I arrived at the conclusion that I should join the Fellowship. I probably just fancied the @fsfe.org mailing alias. I became a Fellow, And I have been growing more attached to the FSFE ever since.

CW: What are you working on at the moment?

HO: On the FSFE side, I am currently translating PdfReaders.org into Estonian. I’m also trying to persuade my friends to do the same. At the same time, I’ve been scouring the web for proprietary software advertising on Estonian governmental institutions’ websites, as part of the PDF Readers campaign. I have some new targets waiting in the queue because I want to finish the translation before contacting them. I occasionally contribute improvements and translations to the main website. Mostly I tend to blog about issues that are dear to me. On the technology side, I have been trying to work on an XChat add-on and I am planning to launch a new website for free SVG and JavaScript games.

These projects are low priority, however. Activism is far more important to me at the moment, and there are lots of thorns in my side as well as interests: proprietary software advertising, proprietary software in schools, skepticism, copyright, pirate parties, secularism, and kopimism are just a few favourites. Since Jessica Ahlquist won her case to remove the prayer banner in her school in the U.S., I have been contemplating possibilities to stop schools in Estonia from supporting religion, even if they do it only during Christmas. I am also considering trying to register a kopimistic church in Estonia. An achievement in one of the subject areas dear to me has the effect of increasing my attempts in all of them. Activism is certainly contagious!

CW: So your primary interest in Free Software relates to political activism?

HO: Nowadays definitely. For me, Free Software is philosophy. And applied philosophy is politics. One can be involved in politics either through a political party or through a campaign group. And the activism I have in mind is being active in politics through a campaign group.

CW: The ‘E’ in FSFE of course stands for Europe. How European do you think FSFE is?

HO: The technical set-up is certainly sufficient to be pan-European. The legal and social situation…well, if one takes a look at the team page, it is evident that representatives of many European countries are part of the FSFE. However, the situation could be better. FSFE needs to find a way to expand our activities into all of the European countries. And I have no magic solution to that problem. Nevertheless, the culture of FSFE is certainly European. It is open, welcoming, and democratic.

“I cannot trust Google to provide me with the most relevant results any more”

CW: How important do you feel your translation of fsfe.org is?

HO: I’m not sure. On the one hand, most Estonians can speak and understand English well enough that they could probably understand a lot of materials in English in the first place. On the other, if we want to distribute the materials in Estonia and reference them in communications, it is only polite to ensure maximum reach and comprehension. I am also of the opinion that as we translate the materials and develop local terminology, the issues become easier to understand for people, and it becomes more likely that people will get involved in our work. It is certainly important to increasing the amount of people perceiving FSFE as being European, rather than German.

CW: Increasing the perception that each country has an equal role in the organisation, you mean?

HO: Absolutely.

CW: How well known is Free Software in Estonia?

HO: Some packages are well known, like Mozilla Firefox. Lots of people here have heard of Free Software. Unfortunately, most of them have several misconceptions, chief among them the misunderstanding of Free Software being about price, not Freedom. It is also common to generalize one’s impressions and common hearsay into what Free Software is, instead of adopting the position held by the FSF and FSFE, or reading the individual software licenses. Also, as far as I know, most primary and secondary education providers use and teach proprietary software.

CW: Is perception changing? Is it on the government agenda?

HO: As far as I know, it is neither changing nor on a government agenda. There exists some ancient document that calls governmental institutions to use open document formats but that is not followed either. Probably Estonian MEP Indrek Tarand is the only Estonian politician who could be regarded as having an understanding of Free Software and doing something for it. He started the European Parliamentary Free Software User Group and is their patron. The user group certainly helps to promote Free Software in the public sector by offering support to Free Software users. It is not much, but it is more than most Estonian politicians can claim to have done.

CW: What excites you in the world of Free Software at the moment? You’ve switched to YaCy recently I notice.

HO: Everything. Google’s actions have clearly demonstrated the need for new and distributed search engines, and that has made me switch to YaCy. Google’s attempts at mixing search results with their other products are anti-competitive, and in case of the last tweaks to the Personalized Search, actually deteriorate the user experience. Their early commitment to the users has been replaced with a commitment to the shareholders, who want more profit from the company’s products. That commitment to the shareholders has caused both the Buzz fiasco and now the integration between search results and Google+. Google might have the best web index at present, but I cannot trust Google to provide me with the most relevant results any more. So I switched to YaCy.

“I am plainly horrified by how locked down and crippled my Kindle is”

I also enjoy pretty much anything interesting related to cryptography, steganography, and otherwise “sticking it to the man”. I’m currently keeping an eye on the Amazon Kindle jail-breaking community. I hope someone manages to jailbreak the K4. I got it for Christmas, and I am plainly horrified by how locked down and crippled this beautiful device is. When I asked for the device, I was thinking I could exorcise the undue influence Amazon holds over the device, and effectively get subsidised hardware. I was a bit naive. Though I still hope I will manage to cut Amazon out of the loop one day, encrypt the file system, and fill the device with Project Gutenberg e-books.

CW: The Free Software / Free Hardware issue is such a difficult one. Is enough work done to explain the link between software and hardware and promote the idea of Free Hardware over vendor lock-in in your view?

HO: Yes and no. The FSF has certainly warned people about the dangers. However, I believe that DRM should be outlawed. As long as companies are allowed to keep users from writing and running their own software (which would cut into their profits), that’s what they’ll do.

CW: You’re a fan of Wittgenstein. Do you think of computer code as a language in the way that Wittgenstein talked about language?

HO: I think of code in the same way as any other language, only less ambiguous. Though, obviously the C++ standards committee did not wish to succumb to English, and thus invented undefined behaviour. Regarding freedom, I think that all data must be free.

All data, regardless of its meaning, can be applied in a manner sufficiently tool-like to require its ‘freeness’, if we use the tool discourse. Should we use a discourse establishing free software as a thing in itself, it would be too strange for me to comprehend. In my opinion, freeness of information is natural. Copyright is the result of deviant and misguided politics. And nowadays abolishing copyright is political because people have become used to copyright existing, and they do not see the need to justify its existence.

Fellowship Interview with Paul Boddie

Paul Boddie

Originally from Manchester, UK, Paul Boddie moved to Oslo in 1998 after living in France. Paul has been working with Python since 1995, and from 2006 to 2010 was involved in organising the annual EuroPython conference, administering various conference-related tools and developing the conference website.

He is also a MoinMoin theme and extension developer and, after joining FSFE in 2008, created the EventAggregator extension to allow management of FSFE events from within the wiki, and also developed the current FSFE Wiki theme. His other projects include a variety of Python-related tools, with a special interest in alternative Python implementations.

Chris Woolfrey: What are you working on at the moment?

Paul Boddie: I’m writing applications that access and combine databases in the bioinformatics domain, although I also have an ongoing project dealing with the text-mining of biological and medical literature to extract gene and protein-related information. I also have a fair amount to do in terms of maintaining and hopefully developing further some software written in the group in which I work. We have to make the work available, so there’s a need to publish information on the web. It ends up as a mix of software development, some maintenance tasks, and a degree of web publishing and content management.

I’m working on a range of personal projects, too, which includes things like the EventAggregator that is used on the FSFE Fellowship Wiki, a selection of MoinMoin-related extensions (which is why I was able to get involved a bit more with the Fellowship Wiki) and some longer term interests in things like source code analysis and compilation for dynamic programming languages like Python.

The EventAggregator has been an interesting project. The reason why it got there is because the administrators were looking for a calendar solution, and it just didn’t seem that they had found anything suitable. There are some WordPress solutions, but there seemed to be some caveats involved with them, and there are some MoinMoin solutions, but they were fairly simple personal calendar solutions. The only one that’s more sophisticated doesn’t appear to be well maintained.

I think that the administrators wanted something that integrated with the existing applications instead of having to deploy something else. If they were choosing something now, maybe they might have gone with GriCal whose principal developer I have collaborated with in order to have the Wiki calendar show events registered on grical.org, a calendar service oriented towards Free Software.

I suppose this highlights a difference between the Fellowship and, say, the Python community. The latter would probably have chosen the more “pragmatic” Google Calendar option, which I think is widely used on the Python website for various things. But then that would mean that you lose control over the user experience (which is awful considering those calendar widgets that you can embed in your website), and you also lose control over storage and integration. Developing EventAggregator has been interesting, but it hasn’t primarily been for my personal benefit, even though I find it useful and satisfying to see it used by other people. I think that taking control over an activity by developing software for it, especially when you can decide what it does and how it should work, is the right thing to do. Ultimately, that is also the correct “pragmatic” decision.

My work is done almost completely using Free Software. I’m fortunate enough to be in an environment where people understand what systems like GNU/Linux offer, and where I can choose the tools I want to use. And there is definite encouragement for people to choose Free Software tools instead of demanding proprietary software licenses for everything. When I worked at CERN in administration, it was wedded to a range of proprietary solutions, where Free Software often had to be the lubricant to make the wheels turn.

CERN…was wedded to a range of proprietary solutions, where Free Software often had to be the lubricant to make the wheels turn

CW: How did you get involved with Free Software in the first place?

PB: I probably started using Free Software in earnest around the time I was studying Computer Science at Heriot-Watt University, mostly because the tools being used were frequently Free Software. Although the computing environment was heterogeneous – DEC workstations running Ultrix (and later OSF/1), HP workstations running HP-UX, Sun machines running SunOS, and so on – there was no way that a university department was going to pay lots of money for things like compilers, and so everyone was using gcc. And I suppose that brought in other tools that we take for granted.

So it was a bit like many people’s first experience of Free Software: there are proprietary systems, but the Free tools are the ones you end up using for various reasons. This has come back again and again in my career. I think that one starts off being only vaguely conscious of Free Software, what it is and why it was made, and then develops a greater awareness of those things.

CW: Was your involvement the result of technical needs?

PB: Well, I started university being enthusiastic about Acorn Computers’ ARM-based microcomputers, which were rather proprietary and where the tools were generally not free (or Free), but where the user interface was very nice. But after a while, I became more aware of technologies like Tcl/Tk which really put the tools available for the supposedly superior RISC OS environment to shame. And there were people who wanted to have the full package on RISC OS but found that the Tk part was too hard to port.

So there was a big contrast between the proprietary universe of RISC OS supported by a struggling platform vendor with people selling mediocre tools for various sums of money and the non-proprietary universe of, or on top of, Unix with its portable and impressive tools that made up for various shortcomings of the user interface.

I think my university experience was influential in exposing me to a wide selection of tools, most of which were Free Software. Eventually, I’d seen and at least dabbled with things like Tcl/Tk, Perl (although I learned that at CERN), Python, and Java (which obviously wasn’t Free Software at the time).

lots of people just try to brush the political aspect aside as “ideology”, using the word in a derogatory sense

CW: Has your involvement with Free Software become more political over the years?

PB: It is a political thing for me now, yes. When discussing Free Software with people, lots just try to brush that aspect of it aside as “ideology”, using the word in a derogatory sense, but many of them don’t understand the problems with proprietary software and platforms, perhaps because they haven’t had enough bitter experiences with those things yet.

Again, I think that my interest was motivated initially by convenience; there were lots of great tools that you didn’t need to ask anyone’s permission to use, but developed a bit after being exposed to the dynamics of developing and distributing Free Software, and also being reminded of the pitfalls of proprietary solutions.

I suppose that using a proprietary platform that has more or less disappeared can be instructive. A lot of people don’t give a second thought to things like document longevity (or “document freedom” as it is sometimes known), and perhaps even aren’t aware of the issues – if you save your Microsoft Word document with the latest version of Microsoft Word, and if everyone else has that version, then the attitude is “what’s the problem?”. But it’s only due to my brother’s experiments with various proprietary formats that that I am able to actually read various files I authored in the 1990s.

I’m sure many people just regard their old work as disposable or not so important, at least where things like textual documents are concerned, and given the slightly more powerful than average solution I was using back in that era, maybe I’m more sensitive to the issue because there’s a large amount of creative input to those works: things like diagrams and pictures that I spent time on as well as the actual text, although I’d hope that many people’s plain text documents would be valuable to them, such as their university degree thesis, for example.

But I suppose there is a personal archive quality to it: how many people would tolerate not being able to view their photographs after only a couple of decades? I think that data preservation is a good way of explaining the benefits of Free Software because it leads to the next realisation: that of sustainable computing and being able to maintain the ability to use, maintain and develop solutions indefinitely.

pragmatism should encompass notions of sustainability

CW: And the idea of sustainability is what might be called the political element?

PB: Well, there’s the distinction that is often made between “pragmatic” and “ideological” reasons for using Free Software, with the “open source” label being used more with the former term, and the intent that people are trying to express with the “pragmatic” label is that they just choose something that does the job at the time, and if something better comes along then they’ll use that instead.

Working like that is supposed to be outside any political sphere because one is supposedly not acting according to some kind of moral code: the merits of each solution are supposedly evaluated in an objective and immediate way. But one can argue that pragmatism should encompass notions of sustainability (which are regarded as political) because the supposedly “pragmatic” approach considers only what is best in the short term and ignores issues that might arise in the longer term. It is still pragmatic to consider one’s own long-term interests.

I think we all know of cases where a “pragmatic” solution was chosen that wasn’t in the long-term interests of those who made that decision.

CW: You mean there’s an inherent “good” in using Free Software and you’re happy to promote that?

PB: I think that although it is often said that Free Software is empowering, it isn’t always made explicit that it is essentially a means of providing people with control over their work, their tools, and these days over large parts of their lives. It is about giving the control to people who don’t usually have it. As I said before, I think it takes time for people to realise this after having been initially exposed to Free Software, but perhaps I was just slow on the uptake.

CW: You’ve volunteered at, and hacked for, a lot conferences and meet-ups. Can you expand on how that atmosphere is or isn’t a good way of promoting Free Software?

PB: I’ve been involved with the European Python community conference, EuroPython, and have been using Python since 1995. That was mostly a matter of having a very usable, convenient tool to do my university degree project. Since that time, I’ve gradually become more involved with writing Python code, improving other people’s Python-related code, and then sharing Python code with others.

Since Python is Free Software, I think that my general community involvement has made me very aware of many of the issues that we’ve already discussed. After a while, you get to see how projects are formed, developed, promoted, and so on. And Python conferences have quite a lot to do with promoting Python as a Free Software tool, partly by supporting users of the language and software, and partly by just increasing the visibility of the technology.

It’s no accident that I got involved with EuroPython when it went to CERN in 2006. It gave me an opportunity to go back to my former workplace and promote Python when in my job it had actually been somewhat difficult to get Python adopted in any significant way, which was disappointing given the restrictive and inferior nature of some of the tools being used. In fact, the scientific community at CERN have adopted Python quite aggressively since I worked there, and even parts of the administrative side of the organisation were using Python for their systems.

But with regard to promoting Free Software, I think there’s something of a divide in the Python community between promoting Python as Python and promoting Python as Free Software. Some people are quite happy to promote proprietary solutions that use Python because to them this means that Python gets a larger audience (although it is frequently a dubious claim, in my mind), whereas other people would rather developers used a Free Software solution that isn’t Python in preference to a Python-based solution that is proprietary (and I can say that I’m in that crowd).

So, Python conferences are a good way of promoting Python, but they don’t seem to necessarily be about promoting Free Software in general. Then again, I know that when EuroPython was organised in the UK in 2009 and 2010, John Pinner, who was the chief organiser – and who does a lot of work for Python and Free Software – seemed to want more of a Free Software emphasis on the event; although that didn’t mean excluding people who wanted to promote Python-based proprietary products.

In general, I think people get more out of talks that present Free Software because the threshold to adoption, experimentation and involvement is a lot lower than if someone gets up and talks about a proprietary product. In a way, that convenience aspect that drew me into using Free Software solutions remains a very potent force.

CW: That’s the pragmatic thing again right? It’s almost like you’re saying that you don’t need to promote FS – it promotes itself…

PB: To the right audience I think it does, yes.

CW: But do these conferences find that audience?

PB: Whether you find the right audience depends a lot on publicity. I think that a lot of people who choose to go to a community conference like EuroPython are likely to be enthusiasts for the technology, and they are perhaps likely to be in favour of Free Software, too. Community conferences are quite “barebones” affairs, really: there isn’t much in the way of merchandise, swag, free stuff, but then the ticket price is relatively low.

In contrast, commercial conferences have a higher ticket price, may well have most of the attendees being sponsored by their employers, and the motivation (or excuse) for going might be that it will help you in your job, even if it’s just to get away from the office for a few days.

An important distinction that came up when EuroPython was trying to find people to volunteer was that between attendees and participants. You need people to actually participate, not just attend and expect the experience to be comfortable, smooth, problem-free. That culture of participation, rather than expecting everything to be done for you, may well also attract people who use Free Software because of the culture of participation.

That said, I think that when EuroPython was held in the UK, the demographic might have been slightly different to when it was held in other countries. In the UK, people seem to be quite focused on how they might use Python in their workplace, and the whole collaborative development aspect seemed to be relatively new to some of the participants. I hope that the benefits of Free Software collaboration reached a wider audience and that people got to feel that the barriers to participating aren’t as big as they might expect.

CW: Might event management show, in itself, the benefits of Free Software? Is an event managed using Free Software going to turn about better than one that isn’t?

PB: Organising conferences? That’s a huge topic that I could probably talk about for hours! On the subject of using Free Software to organise conferences, I think that the initial decision people make when planning a conference in general is whether they involve a commercial operator or do it themselves. However, unless you’re expecting a huge number of people or don’t have the time to plan things yourself, you’re likely to avoid the commercial option as I have heard that it can be very expensive.

So, once you’ve decided to do it yourself, you can look around at the different activities and how you might handle them. There are Web-based solutions for a lot of these things, some being software-as-a-service and proprietary, others being run as a service but where you could choose to host the software yourself.

There’s a lot of choice and a lot of adequate Free Software solutions, so I don’t think there’s a really good reason not to choose one of them. But that doesn’t mean that all the work is done once you’ve made that choice, of course!

Yes, I think FS works very well. In a sense we’re spoiled for choice, but in the famous tradition of Free Software, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t creating even more solutions because there’s something they don’t like about the ones already out there.

Maybe the biggest challenge in terms of raw software is the interface to payment services, which are obviously proprietary and unfriendly beasts – or that’s how they seem to me. But there are plenty of people working with (or against) these things, so the more significant problem is perhaps the nature of those services themselves, and that’s a completely different concern.

There are a lot of people who have problems even using PayPal to make payments: the service stops liking your card details or your account information and you get stuck in an endless re-authentication loop. There are also a lot of people who don’t trust PayPal with their money. Meanwhile, other payment services are about as helpful as the average bank.

interfaces to payment services, which are proprietary and unfriendly beasts, is one of the biggest challenges

CW: What about BitCoin?

I think there are huge trust and credibility issues with BitCoin, sadly. But there are apparently alternative payment services out there that are as easy to adopt as PayPal, so it’s just a matter of using them. And again, it’s easy to get hung up on matters like this, but one effective means of taking registration payments is bank transfers. If you are only dealing with people from countries whose banks don’t regard you as being insane when you ask to make a transfer to someone else’s account, especially in another country, then just accepting bank transfers is a viable option.

Sadly, when involving the UK, people want other payment methods because the banks like to overcharge for simple things like transfers. Even Norwegian banks offer “single payment area” rates for transfers, and Norway isn’t even in the EU, let alone a country with the Euro as its currency.

I have to say that conference organisation is, to a large extent, about dealing with matters without letting them consume everything else. It can be very easy for good-enough solutions to be discussed at length in an attempt to make them perfect solutions, and there are plenty of areas providing opportunities for such discussions.

Fellowship interview with Rikard Fröberg

Rikard Fröberg - Photographer: Mathias Klang, CC-BY-NC 2.0
Rikard Fröberg
Photographer: Mathias Klang
CC-BY-NC 2.0

Rikard Fröberg used to work in the IT industry as a consultant and teacher, but in the late 90s changed his focus to Free Software and free culture. He helped start up Gnutiken, and has helped organise FSCONS for the last three years. Currently employed by The Society for Free Culture and Software as a project manager, Rikard is managing a project for increasing accessibility at events.

Chris Woolfrey: You’re currently working at The Society for Free Culture and Software (FFKP), and you’re involved with a number of grassroots projects, such as Cloudberry. How important do you think it is that Free Software has an active and engaged network of users?

Rikard Fröberg: Speaking as an FFKP employee, I have to say it’s not only important, it’s imperative for Free Software to provide contexts and meeting spaces for users and developers alike, so that they can exchange ideas and gain understanding of their respective views. Not that every Free Software project would be nothing without engaged users, but many projects have such a large user-base that it would be a waste not to have some form of interaction with its many users.

But that interaction sometimes needs managing. Some projects and pieces of software have staff and officials from municipalities, regions, and even states, as part of its user-base, and that might actually pose a challenge for the community, and its interactions with that kind of user-base. Government officials, for instance, might not be familiar with the tools and culture for participating in user communities, such as filing bugs on some bug tracker,
or filing feature requests on a mailing list. Here, I see the need for some intermediary forum where representatives from the Free Software community can meet with the end-users on more equal terms and with means more familiar to such end-users in terms of how they generally approach and discuss things with providers of software and services.

“Government officials might not be familiar with the tools and culture for participating in user communities”

CW: Does the Cloudberry project aim to fulfil this role with artists and musicians?

RF: Cloudberry is an effort to include the artists and copyright holders in the discussion of how their works will, could and should be shared among their public. At an earlier stage of Creative Commons (CC) history, most of the promotion and information around the models and licenses came from lawyers and tended to have a strong focus on law in general and intellectual property law in particular. These are topics which do not appeal to all artists and producers of artistic work. Here, Cloudberry reaches out to hear their side of the story in order to adopt and incorporate their narrative, needs and reality into the discussion and description of CC and its licenses.

On the other hand, a great deal of the work that is being shared with CC licenses is shared on and found via the Internet. And many of the people engaged in remixing of other people’s work both find and share their works online. So, the users dealing with works that carry a CC license, in many cases, act on and through the means of technology and could perhaps thus be considered technical users.

The idea behind the Creative Commons needs to find its way to the more technically inclined crowd too. Even if the younger generation – sometimes referred to as digital natives – are technologically savvy, they may not be as aware of how copyright works.

Many innovations and services are created around artistic work: film, sound and photos. Using CC for licensing schemes actually opens up a whole range of new
technical innovations as well as new business models. Flickr, for instance, recently proclaimed they have over 200 million photos with some kind of CC license. Technical users in a wider sense definitely must be part of CC’s target groups.

The Creative Commons needs to be able to communicate its ideas and workings to a broad range of audiences, all the way from those who create, via those who consume and enjoys their work, to the technical innovators and also actually businesses. And then I’ve not even touched upon states , governments, the academia, and policy makers…

CW: How does Free Software fit into that model of free culture? Is it the most important, or maybe the most fundamental component?

RF: I think some of the strengths of Free Software are ideas and ideals which are shared by other instances of free culture. We have CC with its reformative licenses, Open Access, and even movements touching upon much more earthly matters, such as Open Source Ecology.

The FS movement, though, was early in formalizing the ideas around the freedoms of something as immaterial as code. Much of what runs and influences our daily
lives involve software. We have the Internet and the de facto infrastructure for many forms of communication and exchange of knowledge that takes place there, such as mail and the web. And more and more people, at least in the West and the industrialized world, carry around in their pockets a phone which is also a computer (connected to the Internet no less). So it’s hard to ignore that software is a key part of culture and our daily lives, so Free Software of
course is an important and fundamental part of a free culture. Is it the most important? I can’t tell, but it’s obvious that different fields of free culture influence one another, so perhaps the most important thing is to keep that
exchange of ideas going.

“different fields of free culture influence one another…the most important thing is to keep the exchange of ideas going”

CW: An important feature of the Free Software movement is that people from all over the world can work together in online communities. Do you consider it a problem that typically such communities rarely meet physically, in order to discuss ideas and benefit from each other personally?

RF: It might be the case. The Web might be labelled “social” by some, but we should never underestimate the power and impact of meeting with each other face-to-face. Online discussion, in my opinion, has a weakness in that it lacks the subtleties and nuances of conversations that take place in a physical meeting. It can lead to misunderstandings and lengthy discussions over details, and I also think that, often, a culture evolves in online communities and mailing lists which can be exclusive, or stand in the way of people who aren’t comfortable or familiar with the jargon and these sometimes informal cultural rules.

Physical meetings, I think, allow for more interaction between people from different groups who do not necessarily share the same interests and background, because most of us already have a grasp of the social protocol away from the keyboard. And it’s fun to meet with people, I think.

You need both online communities and physical meetings, I guess. The benefits from the online communities are, obviously, that you do not need to travel to interact with people in different time zones, and the asynchronous nature of electronic communication allows for people to not even be awake at the same time, while still engaging in the same discussions.

CW: Is the primary benefit of FSCONS that it provides an opportunity for such real world meetings?

RF: It’s not for us to say, really. But from what we hear, many visitors and speakers appreciate the social interactions and unexpected meetings
that do occur during the conference. Also, we hear a lot that the broad range of topics makes the conference stand out compared to many purely technical conferences. We also try to create natural meeting spaces and allow for such interactions when planning the schedule and venue layout. And we do arrange social events every evening of the conference for exactly this reason; we feel that the physical meetings are a key component in our conference.

The schedule is filling up, and I think we have a broad range of topics this year. I’m managing a track called ‘Universal Design – Aiming for Accessibility’. I’m sure we’ll present something therewhich will attract some attention. Personally, I think there’s several exciting tracks this year. We have the ‘Future of money’ track, which should be both timely and intriguing, with talks on Bitcoin and Flattr, for instance. And then there’s ‘Free Software in Politics’, co-arranged with the FSFE, with a whole range of interesting sessions. I’m also interested in the ‘Human Rights and Digital Freedoms’ track, which has plenty of interesting talks and presenters in it. But I guess there’s something for everyone, and I just wish I’d have time to attend them all. We have two excellent keynotes: Christina Haralanova will present a talk on ‘Hackers for Social Justice’, and Richard Stallman will give a session in a format you are not used to see him doing at keynotes around the conference-sphere…but more on that will be presented soon on the conference website.

Experience tells me that the FSCONS planning starts a week or so after the wrap-up of the previous one, so expect us!

Fellowship Interview with Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas is studying his third year of his bachelors degree in Computer Science at the University of Gothenburg. He is currently the president of the recently started Fripost: the free e-mail association.

Chris Woolfrey: Fripost has been running almost a year. How has it developed?

Stefan Kangas: The association started in November 2010 – we more or less launched it with a presentation at FSCONS that year. During the spring we grew steadily and have now reached our goal of having 50 members, which was our aim for the first year. We still have a couple of months left until November, so we’re quite happy with that!

People have been using our email servers since around February. The systems are basically up and running, but at this point mainly on borrowed and donated hardware. We set our membership fee at 300 SEK per year (around 33 Euros) and that’s basically covering the running costs of an exclusive internet connection for the main server. Though it’s consumer grade at this point, we’re currently looking at a better solution; we want to be hosted in a more serious location.

We’ve discussed whether or not a virtual private server is OK, seeing as we want to keep everything under our own control. Obviously we want to control all hardware as well as the software. But at the moment we basically receive email and store it on our IMAP server. We have no outgoing email, though we are currently working on setting this up. We received the server just this week which has been lent to us for this purpose.

This spring we had a party which was quite successful, basically a “launch party”. We are looking to organize another party for October 1st. It’s nice that parts of the Fripost work are already going on outside the “main” channels, which means we can spread the work load amongst more people; a goal that we have for everything in the project.

We’re looking to keep this organization going for years, slowly scaling everything up as we go. We don’t want to jump right into the deep end of the pool, so to speak.

CW: Do you intend to compete with the likes of Google and Microsoft in the mail hosting market in future?

SK: We certainly hope to. Look, the way I see it we are already providing an alternative. Sure, we still have some stuff that needs sorting out, but to me, we have already achieved more than I would have dared hope for when we launched. So in my view it’s been a great success; and it’s all thanks to our members, people who have joined because they believe strongly in our ideals.

“The main strength of Fripost is that our members are dedicated to our ideas of freedom”

We think the cost of joining is quite high right now, but we hope to lower it as we get more members. People who already paying this arguably high price show a high level of commitment. That’s the main strength of Fripost: that our members are dedicated to our ideas of freedom.

Over at Gmail and Hotmail they obviously have some benefits, like much better uptime, and probably much greater bandwidth, as well as resilience to certain types of attacks, like distributed denial of service attacks, and stuff like that. But we have something they don’t have, which is a guarantee that it is the users who control their computing.

So this is a huge win. And basically, when you weigh everything together, the technical drawbacks are greatly outweighed by the social benefits. At least this is the way we feel, and obviously the people who have decided to join the association agree.

In that case, the question, really, is what one expects from a proper alternative more than anything else. And yeah, we would rather not have these technical drawbacks, but at this point they are inevitable. To resolve them we need more resources, which means growing, since we can never accept any outside financing for the primary stuff, because that would make users dependent on a third party. We need economic independence, as well as organisational independence.

CW: If a company offered Fripost a big donation, you wouldn’t take it?

SK: It’s not really about that. The way we see it, we can accept donations for “secondary stuff” or stuff that is not critical to the association. But the running costs have to be 100 per cent self-financed.

A one time donation that comes with no demands is just fine. Or at least, this has been the majority view up until now, but we haven’t gotten any such donations! Sure, if some rich dude wants to give us a million dollars, we would accept it. But only if we’re completely sure that we can do this without compromising our independence.

“The technical drawbacks are greatly outweighed by the social benefits”

Really, we don’t expect any outside donations. And the association has to be built in such a way that every step taken means we never expect any outside donations, because if we compromised on that, we compromise on the independence of our members. We’d probably never go to the EU and ask them for money for a project. Typically doing that means having to fit some norm concerning how these projects should be formed. It may or may not be the case that it would be what the majority of the members wanted to do, but we wouldn’t do it.

Let’s put it this way: if someone gives us a 19″ server, that’s just fine. But the membership fees alone have to be enough to keep it running. A case in point: we’ve already said ‘no’ to hardware – some huge rack server that took up like 8 units – that was too big for the association; we simply couldn’t afford to keep it running.

CW: Is finding open hardware to use an issue for Fripost?

SK: Yes, absolutely. One thing this work has shown us is that it’s not always entirely obvious what the limits to freedom really are or should be, where the line is to be drawn? Obviously projects like freebios, and cool guys working with open hardware, like OpenMoko, are already addressing these questions of hardware freedom, but at Fripost it is also about who owns what, who controls the internet connection, who pays for the electricity bills.

These are far ranging questions. Am I really free if I do not have physical access to the server? Am I really free if I do not have a root account? These are real questions.

I don’t know if our line of reasoning here is mainstream, but it’s something like this: if we have this association, democratically built, with democratically elected representatives, functionaries and administrators, with democratic by-laws and so on, then users will collectively exercise their freedom. That’s necessary for stuff like emailing, whereas it might not be for something basic like a text editor, that you just run locally. Email is a whole different thing; you need several servers at different locations, and it’s simply infeasible for one individual to achieve all this by themselves. So looking at it practically, in fact, not going for direct control of the servers, direct root access, and so on, means more user freedom, when you really think about it, it’s about the collective. Which is interesting, since superficially you would expect the opposite to be the case

When we started out we thought about this a lot. I think it was after Eben Moglen’s speech ‘Freedom in the Cloud’ that I first raised the question at our FSFE Fellowship meeting; we were quite unclear about what exactly to do and why, but we knew it was more than just the obvious “get box running, install postfix, win”.

“At Fripost freedom is also about who owns hardware, who controls the network, and who pays the bills”

We had to think about stuff like this a lot. We’ve even drafted a manifesto of sorts, starting with the idea of “user freedom”: what does it actually mean? We all know we have the four freedoms, but when you start discussing software as a service (SaaS), and even the questions posed by stuff like the Affero GNU Public License, it’s clear that it’s not always the case that these four freedoms are maintained. So we toyed around with the idea that one could define “free computer usage”: obviously, one needs to do all computing with free software, but also, one needs to exercise direct control over the hardware.

CW: That’s a real dedication to freedom that you’re describing. Is there a political implication to the community ownership model that you’ve outlined?

SK: We are trying to be a broad association for everyone who believes in our ideals. It’s not really about left or right here, though obviously we say some things that might provoke some people.

We say that a user can never attain the same amount of freedom if she is merely a customer, but that one really has to be a member if she wants the amount of freedom that Fripost looks to provide. We see it like this: if you are a customer, then you can leave, and you may or may not get to take your data with you. It’s not you, but the owners of the business that really exercises power over your computing. That’s always true of services in “the cloud”, which is what email really is once everyone hands management and control of their messages to Google or Microsoft.

It’s funny, because although the structure of the Internet is inherently distributed, along with many of its protocols like SMTP, the way that the Internet is used today means that most communication ends up going through just one of a few centralized nodes, and the power has moved away from the users.

But it’s important to remember that this isn’t just a problem with Google and Microsoft and the like. How distributed were services like email to begin with? My email might have been with my Internet service provider, my university, or my employer. So our association is about more than just “taking back” the Internet; it is about really freeing the Internet’s users once and for all.

Obviously emailing is just one out of a gazillion different things that needs freeing, but it is the most crucial one, or at least we believe so. Citizens communicate with authorities, employers, and all sorts of people via email, and we don’t do that to the same extent on Twitter or Facebook. We don’t do our taxes on Twitter or Facebook, but we can get messages about them via email. But email isn’t necessarily any less Free.

It’s really about having the users exercise direct control over their computing, and we want to feel free, and to be free in our lives. We don’t need to get embroiled in politics in order to achieve this. Everyone is welcome to join.

CW: Do you think that Fripost’s dedication to freedom could be an obstacle to growing to have many more members?

“Email is the service that most crucially needs to be freed”

SK: No, we completely think democracy is feasible on a large scale. But you have to start small, and take it step by step.

CW: Tell me more about the practical side of how Fripost runs its systems.

SK: At the moment, we have one server that acts as main storage for all emails. Users connect to this server via IMAP [use abbr tag], and is the main server, the most important one for users; this is the one we are looking to upgrade to a serious location, we hope within the next two months. In addition we’ve got two servers at two different locations which are receiving email from the open internet. They move the emails over encrypted SMTP tunnels to the main storage servers. At a completely separate location we have a backup server, with two identical disks in a raid 1 array. Currently, it backs up the main server every 20 minutes. The main server has 2 of these disks too, also in raid 1 array. In terms of the webmail interface, we’re using Roundcube.

We’ve got the git/wiki on another server, and the web server is separate too. We’re encrypting all data on the main server as well as the backup server, and the disks are encrypted, so we hope that gives additional protection.

We’re working very hard to keep the servers secure. We’ve been lucky; we’ve only had one occasion of downtime on the IMAP server since we got it running in March. And we hope this improves once we upgrade stuff, and get better hosting.

In terms of the software we’re using, we’ve got Debian GNU/Linux squeeze, postfix, dovecot, apache, Roundcube, Org mode, ikiwiki, bacula, and plenty more.

CW: What are the plans for Fripost in the next 12 months?

SK: To involve more interested people. We’re keeping everything in Git: minutes from meetings, documentation, the website, our wiki…

“We want to spread information as much as possible both inside and outside the association”

The technical documentation is especially nice; we try to keep it in such a state that if one of the admins goes AWOL, then anyone can pick up where that admin left off, and I think there’s almost a recipe for building our systems – it’s all there. If someone would like to give it a try it would be awesome, and if our documentation is poor, patches are welcome. If something is unclear we would be delighted if someone pointed out where it needs improving.

We want to encourage people. Some people were thinking about building a Fripost Debian package, so that people could just install it and get most of the stuff automatically.

Basically, we want to spread information as much as possible, and share knowledge, inside and outside the association. We want to see similar associations cropping up all over Europe, in lots of countries, even all over the world. So if someone wants to do it: go for it! We’d encourage them. It’s a lot of fun, it’s really rewarding work, and you’d be amazed when you see the positive response you get. Nobody who’s been actively working on this over the last year has expected to see these kinds of results this fast.

But it’s so important, and it’s easy to do. It’s all very feasible, and a lot of fun. It’s a concrete way for people to create pockets of Freedom in which people can participate. Obviously you need some technical people that can set up the servers and keep everything running, but this is the good part: non-technical people can free stuff that would otherwise not be possible for them.

“It’s a way of opening up the Free Software movement to people that we don’t normally reach”

It’s a way of opening up the Free Software movement and our ideals to other areas of work, to reach people we don’t normally reach. We’ve seen people come to Fripost that would never have come to a Fellowship meeting, where we’re always discussing hardcore stuff like software patents.

Because let’s be frank: that’s not what really gets people going. Obviously it is important for everyone but Fripost is one way of opening people’s eyes to the right direction without scaring them away with technical stuff, or law stuff, or abstract ideas. Instead, we’re dealing with something concrete that they are familiar with and use every day. And people are worried about this stuff! People are really, really worried about user freedom on the internet. Facebook has been a real eye-opener.

The Free Software movement needs to think about how to channel that, and also take the opportunity to spread our ideas, since we’ve been talking about this stuff for way longer, and we know about user freedom. And when it comes to questions people have about Internet freedom, our ideas are superior to most of what anyone else produces.