Fellowship Interview with Nico Rikken

Nico Rikken

Nico Rikken

Nico Rikken is a Fellow of the FSFE from The Netherlands with a background in electrical engineering and interests in open hardware, fabrication, digital preservation, photography and education policy, amongst other things.

Paul Boddie: It seems that we both read each other’s blogs and write about similar topics, particularly things related to open hardware, and it looks like we both follow some of the same projects. For others interested in open hardware and, more generally, hardware that supports Free Software, which projects would you suggest they keep an eye on? Which ones are perhaps the most interesting or exciting ones?

Nico Rikken: There is a strong synergy between free hardware designs and free software, as free software allows modifications corresponding to changes in free hardware designs, and free hardware designs provide the desired transparency for free software to be modified to run. And above all, the freer the stack of hardware and software, the better your freedoms are respected, as the ‘respects your freedom’ certification by the FSF recognizes. The amount of free hardware designs available is actually immense, covering many different applications. For my personal interests I’ve seen energy monitors (OpenEnergyMonitor), attempts for solar power inverters (Open Source Solar Inverter, Open Source Ecology), 3D Printers (Aleph Objects and RepRap), a video camera (Apertus), VJ tools (M-Labs), and an OpenPGP token with true random number generator (NeuG). But these projects work on task-specific hardware and software, and can remain in operation unchanged for many years.

The next frontier in free hardware development seems to me to be twofold, to develop free processor designs like lowRISC, and a modular free hardware design for generic computing like EOMA-68. In recent years there have been noteworthy projects like Novena, and the OLinuXino which provide a free hardware design solution but fail to provide free firmware or a modular approach to hardware. In that regard these projects, including the recent Librem laptop, are just wasted effort. These projects certainly provide much needed additional freedoms but lack an outlook towards the future for further improving performance and freedom. As microchips and processors in particular are only available for a limited duration before the next model comes into production, hardware designs and the corresponding firmware will have be updated continuously. Free processor designs will allow control on the pinout and feature set of the processors, avoiding unnecessary design revisions at the lowest level. A modular hardware structure will avoid having to modify and produce all components each iteration and allows higher production counts making production more viable. So taking this into account, I’ve only observed two projects which are important for the long-term development of free hardware designs of generic computing platforms: EOMA-68 and lowRISC. Of course I’m very interested in finding out about other efforts, as in the distributed community it is hard to know everything that is going on.

Paul Boddie: Your background appears to be much more hardware-oriented than mine, meaning that your perspective on hardware is perhaps quite different from mine, too. You have written that engineering students need to be taught Free Software. Did you establish your interest in Free Software as a consequence of your electrical engineering education, or did it happen over time through a general exposure to technology and the benefits of Free Software?

Nico Rikken: There has been quite some synergy between my formal education and my own hacker attitude. As long as I can remember I’ve been creative with technology, spanning hardware (wood, paper, fabric), electronics, and software. Probably because my dad is a power systems engineer and there was plenty of hardware and tools around in my youth. Part of the creative attitude is figuring out how to achieve a goal, figuring out how stuff works, and using readily available products and methods to speed up the process. When you are creative with digital technology, free software and free hardware designs are like oxygen. Quite notable is the fact that we had a presentation on the Creative Commons licenses in primary school by some expert, although I only recognized the importance of that moment many years later, after I had become aware of free software.

My technical development accelerated when I started my high school education. It offered the theoretical and practical education including the labs and people. In the years in high school a friend and I worked alongside the technical assistants of the school daily to help other students with their physics experiments and do our own in the process. But on the software side I did get the informatics education of the workings of computers, the MS Office suite, SQL and basic web development, but was never taught about free software. I had a friend whose dad was a electronics engineer and they used GNU/Linux at home. He showed it to me briefly but I only considered the look of the desktop, even though he tried to communicate the difference in the underlying technology. All this time I was a MS Windows user, using any software as long as it satisfied my feature requirements and was free of cost.

It wasn’t until I was at university for my electrical engineering education I became aware of GNU/Linux as relevant. It was used in the embedded systems department and was more visible, and some students were experimenting with using it. When I started investigating what Linux actually was, I was struck by the technical superiority and the overall better user interface. I started dual-booting GNU/Linux Mint and was pleased with it. Switching between GNU/Linux Mint and MS Windows daily did introduce some issues, so I was in need of a solution. A friend at the time, who was quite involved in the Dutch hacking community, was using Ubuntu as his daily driver. He convinced me to switch to Ubuntu and ditch MS Windows and was a helping hand in getting across all the tiny problems. From that moment on I’ve only used a Windows VM to do some magazine design work in Adobe InDesign as porting the template to Scribus wasn’t worth the effort.

But more importantly that friend, being a hacker, briefly introduced me to the concept of free software and why it was relevant. It didn’t take long before I found Stallman speeches and became aware of the vastness of the free software community. That was the moment I realized how much I had been restricted in the past, and how my own creative work was taken away from me in proprietary data formats. I had falsely assumed that freeware was the equivalent of sharing hardware plans, because that followed from how little consideration I had given to accepting software licenses or considering alternatives because of the license. Having become aware of free software changed my world view, reinforcing itself with every issue that arose. I unwillingly accepted the fact that I needed proprietary software to finish my studies, and sticking to free software certainly brought inconveniences. I have two illustrative examples from this struggle. I failed an exam partly because I had missed out on about half the formulas during the course revision, as LibreOffice wasn’t able to parse the PowerPoint file correctly. Also I wasn’t allowed to use an alternative to Matlab like Scilab as a numerical computation suite as the examiners during the test weren’t instructed about other software tools. In retrospect I believe my education would have been better if I was introduced to the free software and the community more explicitly.

Paul Boddie: Those of us with a software background sometimes look at electrical and hardware engineers and feel that we can perhaps get away with faults in our work that people making physical infrastructure cannot. At the same time, efforts to make software engineering a proper engineering discipline have been decades-long struggles, and now we see some of the consequences in terms of reliability, privacy and security. What do you think software and hardware practitioners can learn from each other? Has any progress in the software domain, or perhaps the broader adoption of technology in society, brought new lessons for those in the hardware domain?

Nico Rikken: Software, especially the software running on a general purpose processor, can be changed more easily. This especially holds true regarding scale. I might as easily modify the hardware of my computer as I might switch my software, but hardware changes don’t really scale. Although my view is limited, I believe hardware design can learn from software by having a more rapid and distributed development cycle, relying on common building blocks (like libraries) as much as possible, and achieving automated tests based on specifications. From a development standpoint this requires diff-based hardware development with automated testing simulations. From a production standpoint this requires small batches to be produced cost-effectively for test runs, and generic testing connectivity on the boards itself. This stimulates the use of common components to avoid forced redesign or high component sourcing costs. Or to put the latter statement differently: I believe hardware development can learn from software development that a certain microchip can be good enough and it is worthwhile to have fewer models covering a similar feature set, more like the UNIX Philosophy. The 741 operational amplifier is a great example of such a default building block.

I don’t see what software can learn from electronics development that much. I however do see points of improvement based on industrial design principles. This has got to do with the way in which a product is meant to target a large audience as a single design is produced numerous times. I personally view the principles for good design by Dieter Rams to represent the pinnacle of industrial design. It recognizes the way in which a product is meant to target a wide audience, and improve their lives. I consider it to be analogous to the UNIX Philosophy, but I especially believe that user interfaces should be developed with these principles in mind. Too often interfaces seem to be an afterthought, or the levels of abstraction aren’t equivalent throughout the program. I recognise there are projects highlighting the importance of usability like GNOME, elementary OS, and LibreOffice. However too often I encounter user interfaces I consider overly complex and badly structured.

Paul Boddie: In your article about smart electrical grids you talk about fifty year timescales and planning for the longer term. And yet at the same time, with many aspects of our lives changing so fast, we now have the risk that our own devices and data might become ephemeral: that we might be throwing devices away and losing data to obsolescence. How do you think anyone can sensibly make the case for more sustainable evolution in technology when it might mean not being able to sell a more exciting product to people who just want newer and better things? And can we learn things from other industries about looking after our data and the ways in which we access it?

Nico Rikken: When considering the power distribution infrastructure, it is highly stable with hardly any moving parts, and a minimal level of wear. The systems are generally over-dimensioned, but this initial investment proves beneficial in the long run. This is very different to a computer which is nearly irrelevant within five years as a result of an evolving need. Regarding the sustainability of our technology, I’d again look at industrial design. Mark Adams, the CEO of the company Vitsoe, based around designs by Dieter Rams, has given me great insights in this regard. He considers recycling a defeat, because that means a product wasn’t suitable for reuse. This originates from the original ethos of the company, requiring a mutual commitment between company and user to allow the company to sell fewer products to more people. Taking this coherent point of view, we have to make hardware modular and easy to repair or repurpose. I think we are heading in the wrong direction as a result of miniaturization, especially if we consider the downward trend in repairability scores by iFixit.

I guess that the other way of going about this is the way 3D printing and IKEA are taking on the issue of sustainability. 3D desktop printing allows a filling factor to be defined, to reduce the amount of material used. Of course this reduces the physical strength, but this allows for material usage optimization. This is why 3D printed cars can be strong, light, and low on resources. And a plain 3D print can easily be recycled by shredding and melting, closing the material loop and only requiring tools and energy. IKEA offers modular furniture enabling reuse, but from experience I can say that it certainly shows if you’ve moved the furniture a couple of times. But the counterargument is that the production process is continuously being optimized to be low on resources. IKEA’s BESTÅ seems to be the latest and greatest on this issue, being highly modular and being made of hybrid materials of particleboard, fiberboard, honeycomb structured recycled paper filling, a foil wrap and tiny plastic shelf supports. It is optimized for recycling at the cost of reusablity, but I guess that better suits the way in which the majority buys and deals with furniture.

Taking this argument of sustainability towards electronics, being able to freely replace software is a prerequisite for making electronics long-lasting. This has bugged the Fairphone, despite best intentions. We will have to protest anti-features as consumers, demanding formal legislation to protect our rights and the well-being of our society. Ideally we would go so far as to declare all patents and copyright regarding interfaces unlawful, to enable use and (re)implementation of such interfaces even if it wasn’t part of a formal standardization effort. Also the Phonebloks concept is great in that it allows products of separate lifetimes to be combined, and components to be exchanged when requirements change, rather than having to change the complete device.

Considering the specific question around data, or information in general, I have come to find my digital notes to be far less fleeting than my paper-based notes, because I can keep them at hand all the time and because I can query them. Keeping your own archives available requires the use of common open standards, as I’ve come to find. Some of my earlier creative work is still locked in proprietary formats I have no way of opening. Some of my work in the Office suite I can only open with some loss of detail, although this gets better as projects like LibreOffice are improving the compatibility with proprietary formats. Thanks to libpwd, currently part of the Document Liberation Project, I was able to settle a dispute as secretary of a student climbing association, as the details of the agreement were only available in the WordPerfect format. In that regard I understand why printed documents are preferred for archival, and why most of the communication in the energy metering industry is still ASCII-based.

I do recognise the shallowness of the store of the digital commons, especially regarding websites. As a result of the vastness of the digital media we all consume, I guess it is hard to store all data, other than in a shared resource like the Wayback Machine, which fortunately offers a service for organizations. Also I recently discovered the MHTML format for storing a website in a single open format file. I would think the digital dark age is somewhat exaggerated in the fact that most produced information was discarded in history anyway. However for the information which is actually subject to archival, retrieving it from obsolete media or proprietary formats is a challenge which increases in complexity over time.

Paul Boddie: Another one of your hardware interests that appears to overlap with one of mine is that of photography, and you describe the industry standard of Micro Four Thirds for interchangeable lens cameras. Have you been able to take a closer look at Olympus’ Open Platform Camera initiative and the “OPC Hack & Make Project” or is it as unscrutinisable for you as it is for me?

Nico Rikken: Coming from an advanced compact camera, it took me quite a while to select the system camera I desired, because I was very aware I was going to buy into a lock-in. The amount of technical differences related to the various lens mounts was quite interesting and I came to the conclusion I wanted to have as many technical solutions available as possible when using manual lenses. In a way the best option for compatibility would have been the way the Ricoh GXR did it, by making the interface between body and lens purely electronic. In this way the optical requirements are separated and all components can be updated in case the interfacing standard changes.

Ultimately I believe the optical circuit will be kept to a minimum, because the digital information can more easily be manipulated, even after the fact. I realized this regarding the focusing, as now contrast-based focusing can be faster than phase-based focusing using, with the benefit of various focus-assisting technologies, which can then both be displayed on the rear display or via the viewfinder. A DSLR cannot offer the focus-assisting technologies via the viewfinder and the speed of the contrast-based focusing as required in live-view mode is significantly slower if only due to the different lens drive. More on the innovative side the Lytro is more than about correcting focusing afterwards, it opens up new ways for creative expression by changing perspective in a frozen shot. It is another innovative way of doing cinematography, like putting cameras on cranes, on drones, or the famous ‘bullet time’.

So regarding the Open Platform Camera initiative, based around the Olympus Air I believe it is a step forward regarding digital interoperability. Having an API available rather than image files opens up new capabilities, but I would think a physical connector with the option of a power adapter would have been better as it allows more direct control and can prevent having to recharge the batteries all the time. In that regard I believe enabling the API on current cameras would be more beneficial because I don’t believe the form-factor is actually holding people back from adopting it in their projects, considering the creations from the OPC Hack & Make Project Party in March. I assume the main drivers for the open approach are media attention, image building, testing potential niche markets, and probably selling more lenses. According to Wikipedia 11 companies have formally committed to Micro Four Thirds (MFT). Considering the available lenses even more companies offer products for the system. In that regard it seems to be the most universal lens mount standard available.

If I understand correctly Olympus is one of the mayor patent holders regarding digital photography, so I’m curious in what regard they exercise their patents by licensing. Regarding MFT as a standard, in terms of standardization it is said to be an extension of the original Four Thirds specification, which is said to be highly mobile, 100% digital, and an open standard, but apparently they have a different standard of openness as the same page mentions: “Details of the Four Thirds System standard are available to camera equipment manufacturers and industry organizations on an NDA basis. Full specifications cannot be provided to individuals or other educational/research entities.” Whether or not this includes license agreements regarding the standard we don’t know, but either way you’d have to start or join an imaging company to find out. Maybe the AXIOM Gamma camera will provide the needed information in the MFT module, although I doubt that will happen as a result of the NDA. Considering the number of companies working with MFT, I guess the standard is effectively open, other than for individuals or educational or research entities. Luckily work has been done to reverse engineer the electronic protocol by Lasse Beyer and Marcus Wolschon.

Paul Boddie: Do you think established manufacturers can be encouraged to produce truly open products and initiatives or do you think they are genuinely prevented from doing so by legitimate concerns about current or potential competitors and entities like patent trolls?

I hardly think so. They have a vested interest in keeping a strong grip on the market for targeting consumers, and losing the NDA means losing that grip. The Open Platform Camera Initiative by Olympus seems to be a step in the right direction, now lets hope they see the benefit of truly opening up the standard. That would benefit niche applications like astrophotography, book scanning, photographing old negatives, lomography or IR photography. All these types of photography have specific requirements for filters, sensors, focusing or software and opening up the specification would lower the barrier for adopting these features.

Paul Boddie: Could you imagine Micro Four Thirds becoming a genuine open standard?

Creating a motive for opening up the standard can be done using both a carrot and a stick. The carrot approach would be to complete the reverse engineering of the protocol and show what applications could benefit from an open standard. The stick approach would be to introduce a open pseudo-standard, regarding mechanical and electronic connectivity. Ideally such a standard would be between a mirrorless interchangeable-lens camera (MILC) and larger lenses, to allow multiple lenses to be connected with multiple bodies. As adapters start popping up for such a standard, the reputation of universal lens mount of MFT is threatened. I haven’t looked into the serial protocols of the various lens standards, so I’m not aware how easy it would be to pull off a universal lens mount. To me a sensor-based stabilized telescope would be a great test case for reverse engineering the standard and enhancing the camera body for the benefit of the user.

Paul Boddie: You have written about privacy and education a few times, occasionally combining the two topics. I was interested to see that you covered the Microsoft Outlook app credentials-leakage fiasco that also affected users at my former (university) workplace, and you also mentioned how people are being compelled to either use proprietary software and services or be excluded from activities as important as their own education. How do you see individuals being able to maintain their own privacy and choice in such adverse circumstances? As organisations seek to push their users into “the cloud” (sometimes in contravention of applicable laws), what strategies can you envisage for Free Software to pursue to counter such threats?

Nico Rikken: I assume these solutions are introduced with the best intentions, but they bring negative side-effects regarding user freedom. Accepting licences of other organizations than the educational organization should be considered unacceptable, even implicitly via a school policy. Likewise third parties having access to personal information including communication should be unacceptable. Luckily some universities are deploying their own solutions, for example universities in Nordhein-Westfalen and the University of Saskatchewan deploy solutions based on ownCloud, which is one of the ways external dependencies can be avoided. Schools should offer suitable tools with open interfacing standards for collaboration, preventing teams from adopting non-free solutions under social pressure. Using open standards and defaulting to free software is obvious. To avoid unnecessary usage information being generated, all information resources should be available for download, ideally exposing them via an API or web standard like RSS for inclusion in common client applications.

But this is wishful thinking, as I’m aware that current policies are weak, even those policies aren’t adhered to. Simply put, if you want to take a formal education you have to accept your freedoms are violated. The impact can be minimized by continuously protesting the use of non-free software service as a software substitute (SaaSS). I’ve come to find most of the times teachers don’t care as much about the software used, they just know the common proprietary solution. Having some friends to pass along information or convert documents can further reduce observability. Things get particularly difficult if no alternatives exist, or if non-free formats or templates are required.

An alternative way of getting educated is by taking part in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). It seems to be the most promising way out, as content is offered according to open standards. The content availability and reusability is limited depending on the licenses, but the same holds for most educational institutions. Then there is the amount of monitoring involved, but most MOOCs allow pseudonymity unless you desire an official certificate. Assuming you use a VPN service or Tor even, this offers an unprecedented level of anonymity. Just compare this to the non-free software dominated IT systems of educational organizations, combined with the vast number of registered personal details and campus cameras. Whether or not MOOCs can replace a formal education in the coming years I don’t know, neither do I know how corporate organizations will judge MOOC-taught students.

Many thanks to Nico for answering our questions and for his continuing involvement in the Fellowship of the FSFE.

Interview with Fellow Neil McGovern

Neil McGovern

Neil McGovern is a Fellow of the FSFE from the United Kingdom and was recently elected as Debian Project Leader, starting his term of office in April. He has previously participated in local government and has served on the board of the Open Rights Group: a digital rights organisation operating in the UK.

Paul Boddie: Congratulations on your recent election as Debian Project Leader (DPL)! Looking at your election platform, you have been engaged in a number of different activities for quite some time. How do you manage to have time for everything you want to do? Is your employer supportive of your new role or does your free time bear most of the burden?

Neil McGovern: I’d say it’s a mix of both. My employer, Collabora is hugely supportive of the role, Debian and Free Software in general. However, being DPL isn’t just a 9 to 5 job – the timezones that all our contributors work in mean that there’s always work to be done.

Paul Boddie: You appear to be fortunate enough to work for an employer that promotes Free Software solutions. For many people interested in Free Software who have to squeeze that interest in around their job, that sounds like the perfect opportunity to combine your own interests with your professional objectives. But what started you off in the direction of Free Software and your current position? And, once on the path, did you deliberately seek out Free Software opportunities, or was it just a happy accident that you ended up where you are today?

Neil McGovern: My first exposure to free software was from a friend at secondary school who started selling CDs of Linux distributions. He initially introduced me to the concept. Before that, I’d mostly used Mac OS, in the olden days before OS X came along. When I went to university to study computer science, I joined University of Sheffield IT Committee. At the time, there wasn’t any facilities offered for students to host web pages. This was originally running Mandrake. In my second year, I moved in with a housemate, who was a Debian Developer, and I started packaging a client for LiveJournal called Drivel.

Since then, I guess it’s less that I’ve less sought out opportunities, but it’s more that the opportunities out there have been very much geared towards people who understand Free Software well, and can help with them. My current job however is very much more than just using and developing Free Software – it’s about enabling companies out there to use Free Software successfully, both for the immediate gain they can get, but also making sure that they understand the benefits of contributing back. A pretty ideal job for a Free Software enthusiast!

Paul Boddie: Your DPL platform states that you intend to “support and enable” the volunteers that get the work of Debian done. One of the challenges of volunteer-run organisations is that of keeping people happy and productive, knowing that they can walk away at any time. What lessons from your history of involvement with Debian and in other areas can you share with us about keeping volunteers happy, productive and, crucially, on board?

Neil McGovern: I think the key issue is about communications. You need to make sure that you actively listen to people, and understand their view point. Given the globally distributed nature of Debian, it’s easy for people to have disagreements – remembering that another human is at the other end of an email address isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Face to face meetings and conferences are essential for countering this – every year when I go to DebConf, I come back reinvigorated to continue working on Debian. :)

Paul Boddie: Especially in recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about Free Software solutions and platforms losing out to proprietary rivals, with special attention given to things like smartphones, “app” marketplaces, and so on. That some of these proprietary offerings build on Free Software makes the situation perhaps even more unpalatable. How do you see Free Software in general, and Debian in particular, having more of a visible role to play in delivering these solutions and services all the way to the end-user and perhaps getting more of the credit?

Neil McGovern: The key issue is trust – when Debian distributes a package, you know that it’s met various quality and stability standards. There’s a risk in moving to an entire container based model that people will simply download random applications from the internet. If a security problem is found in a shared library in Debian, we can fix it once. If that library is embedded in hundreds of different ‘apps’, then they’ll all need fixing independently. This would certainly be a challenge to overcome. Mind you, in our latest release we had over 45,000 binary packages, so I don’t think that there’s a lack of choice of software in Debian!

Debian logo

Paul Boddie: I see you were involved in local government for a while. Would you say that interacting with the Free Software and Debian communities led you to explore a broader political role, or did your political beliefs lead you instead to Debian and Free Software?

Neil McGovern: Well, secretly, the real reason I got involved in politics was that I had had quite a few beers in a local pub with some friends for a 30th birthday, and one of them asked if I wanted to get involved. The next day I woke up with a hangover, and a knocking on the door with said friend holding a bundle of leaflets for me to deliver. :) I don’t think it’s really that one led to another, but more that it stems from my desire to try and help people; be it through representing constituents, or helping create software that everyone can use for free.

Paul Boddie: One of the articles on your blog deals with an awkward situation in local government where you felt you had to support the renewal of proprietary software licences, specifically Microsoft Office. Given your interests in Free Software and open standards, this must have been a bittersweet moment, knowing that the local bureaucracy had fallen into the trap of macros and customisations that make migration to open standards and interoperable products very challenging. Was this a case of knowing which battles are the ones that are worth fighting? And how do you see organisations escaping from these vicious cycles of vendor lock-in? Do you perceive an appetite in public institutions for embracing interoperability and choice or do people just accept the “treadmill” of upgrades as inevitable, perhaps as not even perceiving it as a problem at all?

Neil McGovern: It wasn’t the most pleasant decision I’ve had to make, but it was a case of weighing up what was available and what wasn’t. Since then, ODF-supporting programs have improved greatly, and there’s even commercial support for these. (Disclosure: my company is one of these now.) Additionally, the UK Government announced that it would use ODF as the standard for distributing documents, which is a big win, so I think there is a change that’s happening – Free Software is something that is now being recognised as a real force compared to 5 years ago.

Paul Boddie: A lot of attention has been focused on the next generation of software developers, particularly in the UK education sector, with initiatives like the Raspberry Pi and BBC “Micro Bit” as well as a mainstream awareness of “apps” and “app” development. Do you think there might be a risk of people becoming tempted by arenas of activity where the lessons of Free Software are not being taught or learned, where the vendor’s products are the focus, and where people no longer experience or understand a sustainable and independent community like Debian? Is computing at risk of being dragged back to an updated version of the classic 1980s consumer-producer relationship? Or worse: a rehashed version of something like the “walled garden” networked computing visions of Apple and Microsoft from the early 1990s where the vendor even sets the terms of participation and interaction?

Neil McGovern: There’s certainly a renewed focus on computing education in the UK, but that’s mostly because it’s been so poor for the past 15 or so years! We’ve been teaching students how to use a spreadsheet, or a word processor in the guise of ICT, but no efforts have gone in to actual computing. Thankfully, this is actually changing. I do have the inner suspicions that the focus on “apps” is a civil servant somewhere thinking “Kids like apps, right? And they can sell them and everything, so that’s good. Apps! Teach them to make apps!”

Paul Boddie: Finally, noticing your connections with Cambridge, and having an appreciation myself for the role of the Cambridge area and its university in founding technology companies directly or indirectly, I cannot help but ask about the local attitudes to things like Free Software, open standards, and notions of openness in general. Once upon a time, there seemed to be a degree of remorse that the rather proprietary microcomputing-era companies had failed to dominate in the marketplace, and this led to companies like ARM that have done quite well licensing their technologies, albeit in a restrictive way. Do you sense that the Cambridge technology scene has been (or become) more accepting of notions of openness and freedoms around software and technology? Or are there still prominent local opinions about the need to make money by routing around such freedoms? How do you view your involvement in Debian and the Open Rights Group as a way of bringing about changes in attitudes and in wider society towards such issues?

Neil McGovern: Nothing really opened my eyes to the importance of Debian until I turned up to my running group, and got approximately 6 people offer to buy me a pint as they heard I’d been elected DPL. I’m not sure that would have happened in many other cities. I do think that it is a reflection on the main-streaming of Free Software within large companies. We’re now seeing that not only is Free Software being accepted, but experience with it is seen as an advantage. This is perhaps best highlighted by Microsoft throwing a birthday party for the release of Debian 8, a sight I never thought I’d see.

Paul Boddie is a Free Software developer currently residing in Norway, cultivating interests in open hardware, photography and retrocomputing. He joined the FSFE in 2008 and occasionally publishes his own opinions on his blog.

Fellowship interview with Anna Morris

Anna Morris

Anna Morris

Anna Morris is co-founder of FLOSSIE conference for women in Free Software, Manchester Fellowship Group Deputy Coordinator, and Co-Director of ethical-pets.co.uk. She is currently writing a book on video editing with Free Software, and volunteering with Document Freedom Day 2013 in her spare time.

Ana Galan: You recently started a new e-commerce business. What led you to that decision?

Anna Morris: My partner Joseph contracted a viral meningitis a few years ago and never recovered – he couldn’t go out to work any more. After about a year of supporting us both with an online teaching job, I was struggling to match my expectations of a creative and fulfilling life with the burden of being the “breadwinner”. By running an online business we can both work from home together and structure our time freely, to suit both his health and my creative whims! It has worked well over our first year and we are getting close to taking a small income from our sales – which is great, as we started with only a tiny loan from my Grandparents.

AG: How is Free Software helping you to run your business?

AM: Well, as a Free Software advocate I am aware that most computer/internet related things are dependant on Free Software in some way, even if its not noticeable to the untrained eye (like mine). In terms of the software that I am aware of using, however, I can say for sure that it’s been a big help.

On a basic level, one impact has been the software that I can afford to access (especially in terms of commercial use). My web-shop platform is Free Software and my payment gateway (Skrill) gave me a big discount because of this (I assume because its easier for them to interoperate with).

My e-commerce payment gateway gave me a big discount because I use Free Software

Also, things like video editing software, which I use a lot to make promotional materials – I would never have been able to afford the proprietary equivalents (or the pricey manuals). Then, there are things like the creative commons music which I totally depend upon for my videos, and the fonts, so vital to our “brand”, which use the Open Font License.

My blogging platform, operating system, email system, phone software (which I depend upon for social media interaction) are all Free too.

Of-course – some of this has come about through my deliberate choice to use only Free Software, however even if I had no knowledge of Free Software (and even if I opposed it) I don’t suppose many things would be different. For example, I would still be using WordPress and Prestashop without a doubt!

Perhaps most importantly, the learning and subsequent freedom that I have achieved is also down to Free software (and the community surrounding it). Free Software challenges you to learn: to do for yourself, to be fearlessly independent when it comes to your tech. In the past few years I have taken pride in watching my skill base catchup with and overtake that of my proprietary-loving peers, even some paid professionals, simply by having a free and curious mindset. Free software frees you in many ways.

AG: Do you think Free Software could be a good way to help entrepreneurs

and to aid the economy?

Free Software challenges you to be fearlessly independent when it comes to your tech

AM: Yes. But then I think Free Software is a good way to do most things ;)

AG: Most of the businesses associated with Free Software are related to software. As yours

is not, do you have advice to entrepreneurs about the use of Free Software and how they can benefit from it?

AM: Well, my business is specifically an ethical business. Any ethical business should be thinking about the ethics of the tools they use – even if it is difficult to understand all the information straight away.

If I had a physical shop, I would not build it with means and materials that are detrimental to society: why should my web-shop be different?

Here are a few practical examples: At Ethical Pets, we do not sell GM pet foods: why should we use proprietary software that helps fund GM trials?

We specifically supply fairly traded products: why should we give money to companies with appalling labour practices?

Why should we give money to companies with appalling labour practices?

We spend a lot of energy encouraging customers to research, contemplate and make up their own mind about issues such as animal nutrition, animal testing and environmental impact. Should I therefore give my custom to companies who lock down their products/software and invest in censorship?

Also, as a Christian, I find the idea of such grandiose gluttony and tech coverting quite abhorrent.

Of course, just like sourcing Ethical Pet products, it’s not a simple learning curve to reach the point where you use Free Software in every aspect of your business and life… but making a start easy enough, and the extensive community actually makes it a real joy.

AG: Name a Free Software application you cannot live without it

AM: Clever answer: When Joey was very ill with meningitis, many of the hospital machines, for example the MRI scanners, were running Free Software – “live without” is a relative term in Free Software.

Real answer: well, other than my Star Trek tricorder from F-droid Android repository… (I was a happy little geek the day I found THAT app!) I guess KDEnlive is my real baby: It has opened up so many creative doors and windows for me! I recently got a job writing a manual (for Arabic speaking political activists) about video editing using Free Software – this was a pivotal moment for me on a personal level.

AG: Is there any Free Software you would particularly like to see improved?

GNU/Linux users are too often the last to get their hands on the latest versions of software

AM: Again, KDEnlive: I get tired of depreciated versions being the only ones available on most Free operating systems. In fact, this is an issue in general – GNU/Linux users are too often the last to get their hands on the latest versions of software. In KDEnlive, if I report a bug and it gets fixed, I don’t get that updated version for months on my current OS. I don’t want to be forced to learn how to compile this software myself just to keep up to speed: I do have a social life to attend to, ya’know!

Also, I think that Free Software has problems with hosted options – for example: social media, web-mail, mail-shot software etc. The few Free Software options here are often specialised for techies with money to spend on server space. They often lack friendly interfaces and rely on skill and time to spend from the user. I know I have said that one of the joys of Free Software is the learning curve – but it shouldn’t require quite so much work on my part to, for example, make a newsletter for my business, as I recently did for the first time. Folks with a day job or children would probably have to give up where I have time to persevere.

AG: What Free Software motto should readers take away this Christmas?

AM: Any of the many words of encouragement bestowed by my good friend Sam Tuke would do – he just wont let me quit! Everyone should have a Free Software buddy: to keep them on the right path when problems are abundant, be proud of them when they have learned something new, and help them contribute to more and better to Free Software. We all have something to give!

An separate interview with Anna which has not been published in this series is available here.

Fellowship Interview with Hugo Roy

Hugo Roy

Hugo Roy is a Free Software hacktivist and FSFE’s French Team coordinator. He currently lives between Berlin and Paris, and is a law student at Sciences Po University. He began life with FSFE in 2009, assisting FSFE president Karsten Gerloff on policy issues, and is also co-founder of the Digital Freedoms association. He is a member of April and of French Data Network.

Chris Woolfrey:Tell me what you’ve been working on recently.

Hugo Roy: Since 2010 I’ve been representing FSFE in France. This involves getting involved in events and conferences, and occasionally acting as an interface between various organisations and FSFE — some very local, and some national. There is a very strong and organised Free Software community in France — for instance with the yearly conference RMLL (Rencontres Mondiales du Logiciel Libre) — so one of my ongoing jobs is to show a face for FSFE, make a personal connection and explain what we do and why we exist. Then on further levels, it sometimes gets into collaboration on campaigns or issues. For instance, one of my main area of activities in Free Software is legal and public affairs.

At the moment I’m mainly working on setting up our Free Your Android campaign in France, with phone liberation workshops. I really believe in this project: I think mobile devices are becoming more and more important, and having control over them, and more importantly over the services that we run them with, is becoming more important too.

CW: You’re studying copyright law at the moment. Did you become interested in the study of copyright law as a result of an involvement with Free Software?

HR: Yes. I discovered Free Software as a movement around 2004, when I was in Collège. I was already using almost exclusively Free Software at the time, I just didn’t know it! Then a couple of years later I decided to install GNU/Linux, and have stuck with it since then.

But the writings of Richard Stallman, and also his involvement with the creation of one of the most interesting legal tools ever, the GNU GPL, has definitely influenced my interest in copyright and law in general. And I have to say it’s been very interesting to discuss this topic in class, with professors who have showed interest on Stallman’s work. The whole concept of “property” is turned upside down!

“The GPL turns the whole concept of property upside down”

CW: Can you explain what you mean by that?

HR: Well, if you look at copyright, it’s an exclusive right, it’s a power given to someone to exclude others. Now, if you look at the GNU GPL, it’s essentially a copyright license. But what the GNU GPL does, what we call copyleft, is make sure that all contributions by others will be included for the community to benefit. So the GNU GPL uses exclusive rights to create inclusivity.

What’s also interesting is that exclusive rights such as those relating to private property are often put forward as necessary to increase the common good. Whether you take the utilitarian point of view or the natural rights point of view, property as an exclusive right is seen as a necessity to create value. Now if we apply this to software, let’s just compare proprietary software and Free Software. Which one do you think creates more value? With Free Software, everyone benefits from the value that’s created, so everyone’s empowered to create more value, and with copyleft, we’re even encouraged to do so by publishing our modifications under an inclusive license.

CW:Can this model apply to other products as well? More tangible things?

HR: If it works, why not? When I read all these articles about 3D printers, it’s mind-blowing. We could all share designs for physical things under copyleft-type licenses, and then all manufacture the objects ourselves in a completely different way.

“Free Software movement has always had wider implications”

Of course, we’re a long way before it happens and before we see the full consequences, but sharing in this way could help solve a huge problem. Our economies currently create a lot of waste. Think about all the objects we throw away, all the refuse. This might count for economic “growth” but is it really created value, or is it created waste? Currently there’s a big incentive for companies to produce waste in tangible goods, especially regarding planned obsolescence. But I think this could change; if the production of objects were changed, for instance if design plans were shared, and the production distributed.

CW: Are you expected in your role as French Team Coordinator to draw attention to the wider implications of Free Software to society?

HR: I think the role of the coordinator really depends on the mission the coordinator has. For instance in France, what matters is team building, raising awareness about FSFE and coordination with teams. That’s obviously a very different task in Germany where FSFE is very well known.

But I’d like to say something about the wider implications and drawing those connections. There’s a French website about Free Software called Framablog, where they talk about a lot of related issues, and their motto is “It would be unfortunate if Free Software did nothing else than liberating code”. Free software is about liberating people.

The movement always has wider implications. For instance since June I’ve put a lot of my energy into Terms of Service; Didn’t Read, for which we recently ran a successful crowd-funding campaign. This project is not strictly about Free Software, but it’s about software as a service, and about user freedoms and rights.

“We should have more rights online; we shouldn’t accept a regression of our rights”

It’s important that people understand, in the same way that some of us have understood what’s proprietary software and why it’s not good for our autonomy, that using services on the web has a direct effect on our freedom. For instance if you use a service that restricts your freedom of expression, or might suspend your account at any time, or a service that even forbids you to use a pseudonym to express yourself, then you ought to know about it, so that you can fight against it. We should have more rights online; we shouldn’t accept a regression of our rights. That’s the paradox of our time: as technology increases our possibilities, big companies are restricting our rights with that very technology: DRM, proprietary software etc., and also through legal schemes like restrictive terms of service, and pushing through laws that restrict our freedom, like ACTA, the HADOPI law, and so on.

Services that use Free Software (e.g. AGPL licensed software) have an incentive not to screw their users. Ultimately let’s hope that there will be more AGPL software-based services, and software applications offered as services become more distributed. In all these things, Free Software is a common denominator, it’s as simple as that: without Free Software, freedom is at risk.

CW: How aware are French people of their rights online, and issues concerning software freedom?

HR: That’s a really difficult question to answer. We’ve sure had some debate in the last few years – what with the HADOPI law being passed, but also to a lesser extent with ACTA. But the debate around HADOPI and the copyright on internet-based creative works is mostly a diversion of the real issues, in my opinion.

CW: What are the real problems?

HR: The public domain is dying. Let’s take one example:  George Méliès” movie, Trip to the Moon. It’s in the public domain, and it is a beautiful 20-minute movie. In the last few years they rediscovered some parts that were lost, and so were able to restore the movie to almost the exact work done by Méliès on the original, in which every clip had been hand painted -this was in the days before colour film. It’s beautiful.

“The public domain is dying”

This restored version, which was funded by a French foundation, has been published recently with a new soundtrack added to it -so they’ve now been able re-enclose a work which was once in the public domain. Because of the new soundtrack they can make the argument that it’s a new work, which can be copyrighted; even though under copyright law restoration doesn’t count as a new creation, meaning it shouldn’t be entitled to a new copyright. So if I shared this film, which should really be in the public domain, with you, I’d be infringing on copyright.

Another example: libraries, obviously, have a lot of old books which are in the public domain. Now that they’re scanning and digitizing them, they’re adding restrictions to them, or they’re licensing out to private companies the task of scanning the documents, and then giving those companies exclusive rights to exploit the scans, sometimes not even with public access.

CW: How does that tie back into the Free Software movement for you? Through the GPL?

HR: It’s about what rights and freedom we have. The GPL is a fair contract. Copyright as it is today, is not fair at all.

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.