Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

Upholding Freedoms of Communication

Recently, I was alerted to a blog post by Bradley Kuhn of the Software Freedom Conservancy where he describes the way in which proprietary e-mail infrastructure not only withholds the freedoms end-users should expect from their software, but where the operators of such infrastructure also stifle the free exchange of information by refusing to deliver mail, apparently denying delivery according to seemingly arbitrary criteria (if we are to be charitable about why, for example, Microsoft might block the mails sent by an organisation that safeguards the rights of Free Software users and developers).

The article acknowledges that preventing spam and antisocial activities is difficult, but it rightfully raises the possibility that if things continue in the same way they have been going, one day the only way to use e-mail will be through subscribing to an opaque service that, for all we as customers would know, censors our messages, gathers and exploits personal information about us, and prevents people from contacting each other based on the whims of the operator and whatever agenda they might have.

Solved and Boring

Sadly, things like e-mail don’t seem to get the glory amongst software and solutions developers that other methods of online communication have experienced in recent years: apparently, it’s all been about real-time chat, instant messaging, and social networking. I had a conversation a few years ago on the topic of social networking with an agreeable fellow who was developing a solution, but I rather felt that when I mentioned e-mail as the original social networking service and suggested that it could be tamed for a decent “social” experience, he regarded me as being somewhat insane to even consider e-mail for anything serious any more.

But anyway, e-mail is one of those things that has been regarded as a “solved problem“, meaning that the bulk of the work needed to support it is regarded as having been done a long time ago, and the work needed to keep it usable and up-to-date with evolving standards is probably now regarded as a chore (if anyone really thinks about that work at all, because some clearly do not). Instead of being an exciting thing bringing us new capabilities, it is at best seen as a demanding legacy that takes time away from other, more rewarding challenges. Still, we tell ourselves, there are solid Free Software solutions available to provide e-mail infrastructure, and so the need is addressed, a box is ticked, and we have nothing to worry about.

Getting it Right

Now, mail infrastructure can be an intimidating thing. As people will undoubtedly tell you, you don’t want to be putting a mail server straight onto the Internet unless you know what you are doing. And so begins the exercise of discovering what you should be doing, which either entails reading up about the matter or just paying someone else to do the thinking on your behalf, which in the latter case either takes the form of getting some outside expertise to get you set up or instead just paying someone else to provide you with a “mail solution”. In this day and age, that mail solution is quite likely to be a service – not some software that you have to install somewhere – and with the convenience of not having to manage anything, you rely completely on your service provider to do the right thing.

So to keep the software under your own control, as Bradley points out, Free Software needs to be well-documented and easy to adopt in a foolproof way. One might regard “foolproof” as an unkind term, but nobody should need to be an expert in everything, and everybody should be able to start out on the path to understanding without being flamed for being ignorant of the technical details. Indeed, I would go further and say that Free Software should lend itself to secure-by-default deployment which should hold up when integrating different components, as opposed to finger-pointing and admonishments when people try and figure out the best practices themselves. It is not enough to point people at “how to” documents and tell them to not only master a particular domain but also to master the nuances of specific technologies to which they have only just been introduced.

Thankfully, some people understand. The FreedomBox initiative is ostensibly about letting people host their own network services at home, which one might think is mostly a matter of making a computer small and efficient enough to sit around switched on all the time, combined with finding ways to let people operate such services behind potentially restrictive ISP barriers. But the work required to achieve this in a defensible and sustainable way involves providing software that is easily and correctly configured and which works properly from the moment the system is deployed. It is no big surprise that such work is being done in close association with Debian.

Signs of the Times

With regard to software that end-users see, the situation could be a lot worse. KDE’s Kontact and KMail have kept up a reasonably good experience over the years, despite signs of neglect and some fairly incoherent aspects of the user interface (at least as I see it on Debian); I guess Evolution is still out there and still gets some development attention, as is presumably the case with numerous other, less well-known mail programs; Thunderbird is still around despite signs that Mozilla presumably thought that people should have been using webmail solutions instead.

Indeed, the position of Mozilla’s leadership on Thunderbird says a lot about the times we live in. Web and mobile things – particularly mobile things – are the new cool, and if people aren’t excited by e-mail and don’t see the value in it, then developers don’t see the value in developing solutions for it, either. But sometimes those trying to focus on current fashions fail to see the value in the unfashionable, and a backlash ensued: after all, what would people end up using at work and in “the enterprise” if Thunderbird were no longer properly supported? At the same time, those relying on Thunderbird’s viability, particularly those supplying it for use in organisations, were perhaps not quite as forthcoming with support for the project as they could have been.

Ultimately, Thunderbird has kept going, which is just as well given that the Free Software cross-platform alternatives are not always obvious or necessarily as well-maintained as they could be. Again, a lesson was given (if not necessarily learned) about how neglect of one kind of Free Software can endanger the viability of Free Software in an entire area of activity.

Webmail is perhaps a slightly happier story in some ways. Roundcube remains a viable and popular Web-hosted mail client, and the project is pursuing an initiative called Roundcube Next that seeks to refactor the code in order to better support new interfaces and changing user expectations. Mailpile, although not a traditional webmail client – being more a personal mail client that happens to be delivered through a Web interface – continues to be developed at a steady pace by some very committed developers. And long-established solutions like SquirrelMail and Horde IMP still keep doing good service in many places.

Attitude Adjustment

In his article, Bradley points out that as people forsake Free Software solutions for their e-mail needs, whether deciding to use an opaque and proprietary webmail service for personal mail, or whether deciding that their organisation’s mail can entirely be delegated to a service provider, it becomes more difficult to make the case for Free Software. It may be convenient to “just get a Gmail account” and if your budget (of time and/or money) doesn’t stretch to using a provider that may be friendlier towards things like freedom and interoperability, you cannot really be blamed for taking the easiest path. But otherwise, people should be wary of what they are feeding with their reliance on such services.

And those advocating such services for others should be aware that the damage they are causing extends far beyond the impact on competing solutions. Even when everybody was told that there is a systematic programme of spying on individuals, that industrial and competitive espionage is being performed to benefit the industries of certain nations, and that sensitive data could end up on a foreign server being mined by random governmental and corporate agencies, decision-makers will gladly exhibit symptoms of denial dressed up in a theatrical display of level-headedness: making a point of showing that they are not at all bothered by such stories, which they doubt are true anyway, and will with proud ignorance more or less say so. At risk are the details of other people’s lives.

Indicating that privacy, control and sustainability are crucial to any organisation will, in the face of such fact-denial, indeed invite notions that anyone bringing such topics up is one of the “random crazy people” for doing so. And by establishing such a climate of denial and marginalisation, the forces that would control our communications are able to control the debate about such matters, belittling concerns and appealing to the myth of the benign corporation that wants nothing in return for its “free” or “great value” products and who would never do anything to hurt its customers.

We cannot at a stroke solve such matters of ignorance, but we can make it easier for people to do the right thing, and to make it more obvious and blatant when people have chosen to do the wrong thing in the face of more conveniently and appropriately doing the right thing. We can evolve our own attitudes more easily, making Free Software easier to deploy and use, and in the case of e-mail not perpetuate the myth that nothing more needs to be done.

We will always have work to do to keep our communications free and unimpeded, but the investment we need to make is insignificant in comparison to the value to society of the result.

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