Fellowship interview with Johannes (Hanno) Böck

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

Johannes (Hanno) Böck is a Fellowship member who concerns himself with a wide range of issues, from privacy and media activism to GNU/Linux and the environment. With a bit of preparation help from Ciarán O’Riordan I sat down for an interview session with Hanno, asking him about his work and how it all relates to Free Software.

Stian Rødven Eide: One Free Software project you’ve been involved with is the Gentoo distribution of GNU/Linux. Can you tell us about what you do in that project?

Hanno Böck
Hanno Böck

Hanno Böck: I’m maintaining a couple of packages, including GIMP, Scribus and partly Compiz. My most visible activity was probably that I provided the first Gentoo packages for the fancy new composite effects and Compiz.

SRE: What is your experience of Gentoo’s policy regarding non-free software and binary blobs, and how do you see that evolving in the near future?

Hanno Böck: There’s a new feature in recent portage versions (portage is the package management system in Gentoo) called ACCEPT_LICENSE. It adds the possibility to have a "Free Software only" system. It’s not ready for usage yet though, as we need to provide some pre-defined licence groups.

SRE: With CAcert, are you involved in the technical aspects of security, or the organisational aspects?

Hanno Böck: I’m mainly only a "normal" CAcert assurer, though a quite active one, sometimes helping on public booths and alike.

SRE: For users of Free Software, what work still has to be done to make CAcert and Free Software work together?

Hanno Böck: The CAcert codebase itself has been relicensed under GPL a while back, which is a very big step forward. The former, non-free code licence kept many people away from cacert.org in the past. The main thing that would need to be done is obviously inclusion of the root certificate in Free Software browsers, especially Firefox. From what I have heard recently, this may happen soon.

SRE: Are other Free browsers like Konqueror and Epiphany better at including the root certificate?

Hanno Böck: No, Konqueror devs say "we’ll do it when Firefox does". I think Epiphany doesn’t change the certificates, but I’m not sure about that.

SRE: You’ve done organisational work for OpenStreetMap and even got interviewed about it on TV. That’s a project that has taken care to work with Free Software. Can you confirm this or give us more info about the status of Free Software within OpenStreetMap?

Hanno Böck: Most things used on OpenStreetMap are Free Software, so I can confirm this, at least the base infrastructure is Free. There have been some sub-projects with non-released source (OpenStreetBugs and OpenRouteService for example), which I am quite sceptical about. But anyway, a lot of Free Software has been produced inside OpenStreetMap.

SRE: Are there many Free Software tools available for users wanting to contribute to OpenStreetMap?

Hanno Böck: Yes, the common editing tools are all Free. There are mainly three at the moment, one Java-based client app (JOSM), one C++ based (Merkaartor) and a Flash-based one (Potlatch). Java luckily is Free these days and the Flash editor runs in Gnash, so, as I said above, the base tools for OSM are Free and run on Free Software.

SRE: For some people and organisations, privacy – and thus data security – is a strong motivation for using Free Software. It’s something that only Free Software can guarantee, but many people don’t see this as important. How have you found this argument, and what improvements do you see coming at the technical level to GNU/Linux in terms of simple privacy?

Hanno Böck: I find this a very strong argument for Free Software. I’m active in the privacy movement and try to promote this. If you have technical systems that you can’t investigate, you never know what they do with your data. What could be done more is making Free Software applications more privacy aware by default. For instance, web applications could try to omit IP-saving of visitors/commenters in their default settings and things like that. If they don’t want to make it the default, they should at least provide an easy to activate option.

SRE: How about OTR messaging and GPG inclusion by default?

Hanno Böck: Yeah, sure. Enabling encryption features in Free Software is generally a good idea.

SRE: The Free Software movement always needs more political activism. What campaigns and activities do you see as being effective right now and worth expanding?

Hanno Böck: I think software patents are still a big issue. Many mainstream distributions don’t dare to include media codecs for mainstream formats, which is a big problem. Besides, one has to carefully look at regulations on copyright, in which way they can endanger Free Software. We still today have the weird situation that we are not allowed to create Free Software players for DVD’s, due to laws like the DMCA or the European Copyright Directive.

SRE: You are an active blogger and have been writing for Indymedia. Do you feel that Free Software plays an important role in the democratisation of communication infrastructure?

Hanno Böck: Yes. We have the comfortable situation today that much of the professional software that runs the Internet is Free, the most popular example probably being Apache. This is a huge advantage for small and alternative media projects. There are still things to do though, I recently had a discussion with a person from an alternative video project who said the only reason he’s keeping Windows is Adobe Premiere.

SRE: You seem to be very much involved in environmental activism as well. That Free Software can contribute to a better environment is evident for some, but not everyone would consider it obvious. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Hanno Böck: Hmm, that’s an interesting question. I think that in the long term, the spirit of Free Software can provide environmental advantages. Let me explain this with an example. Today, some people have an X-Box, a Wii and a Playstation at home. They want to play different games on them. But just one of them would be able to, and have the computing power to, run all games the person wants. It’s the structure of proprietary products to keep them closed that often forces people to buy new hardware when their already existing one would already fit – if they only would be allowed to change the software on it.

SRE: Besides all this volunteer work, you also have your own Free Software web hosting company, schokokeks.org. Do you find that this focus helps attract customers? And do you find that it helps you to raise awareness of Free Software among the non-aware customers that choose your company?

Hanno Böck: Yes to both. I think we have a quite large number of customers that like our "image". Beside, we’re trying to suggest Free Software to our customers where we can.

SRE: Do you feel that it is easy to explain the advantages of Free Software to your customers?

Hanno Böck: No, if they don’t already know about them, they often don’t understand. But I usually don’t try to do that. Instead, if a customer asks "can you suggest me a software for xy", I’m trying to find a Free Software product I can suggest to him, as still the best argument for Free Software is to have Free Software that does its job good.


Many thanks to Hanno for giving us this interview. You can follow his blog at hboeck.de.

Fellowship interview with Rolf Camps

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

This month we’ve interviewed Rolf Camps about translating, volunteering, and awareness of Free Software in Belgium. Translations are utterly crucial for a European organisation, and it’s a lot of work that doesn’t get much visible credit, so I wanted to ask Rolf about motivations and what’s involved. This is the second in our series of Fellowship interviews – "the smallest unit of freedom".

Ciarán O’Riordan: Rolf, you’ve been volunteering for FSFE for a few years now. How much time would you say your work takes per week?

Rolf Camps: Sometimes too much, if you ask some people around here 🙂

Seán Daly
Rolf Camps

Last weekend I had to learn to write Makefiles, which took 8 hours. I don’t know if that’s 8 hours of volunteer work, but it was 8 hours of time. In general, translating webpages and news to Dutch takes about 6 hours per week.

The work is easing off because most of the site is now translated to Dutch.

COR: And is this what you usually do for your day job?

Rolf Camps: Not at all. My job isn’t even computer related, I’m helping to keep the copper telephone lines in good shape.

COR: So why did you choose Free Software as cause to support with your free time?

Rolf Camps: Well, I never liked using Windows. Or Apple. I heard about "Linux" in 2000 and started to use it. Most people around me knew I was using it because I was never complaining about viruses or BSOD’s. When one day a family member asked if I knew Richard Stallman, and I had to answer no, I started reading some of his writings. That’s the day I began to use "GNU/Linux". The family member was studying law in the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Stallman was discussed as part of their course.

Looking for more information I visited fsfeurope.org, and saw the banners across the top of the pages saying that there was currently no Dutch translation and giving the URL for the translators mailing list.

I signed up and started translating the pages. It wasn’t that difficult to get involved. The site uses XML, but that’s simple. The repository uses CVS, but it wasn’t even necessary to know that at the start since I could email the translations to the mailing list and someone else would commit them to the repository. Jeroen Dekkers had already been translating some pages to Dutch and gave me some advice.

COR: Did you have experience in translation work before?

Rolf Camps: None, but it’s fairly straightforward. When I’m wondering about what sense or meaning of a word is intended, I can usually read the French or German translations to see how they translated it. I sometimes even follow their discussions on the list. Translating does get more accurate with experience though. Now that I’ve read the articles of FSFE and the transcripts of Stallman, I sometimes review my early translations to ensure that I captured the right meaning.

COR: Besides the mini FSFE translation dictionary, how are page styles and vocabulary kept consistent?

Rolf Camps: For Dutch this is easy since I do all the translations 🙂 There are a few words that vary. Here in Flanders, the word for "patents" is translated as "patenten", but in the Netherlands they would translate it as "octrooien". But FSFE’s Dutch translations are consistent because I do them all 🙂

For languages like French, German, Italian, and Spanish, there are multiple translators and they can all discuss the issues for their languages. That would be useful for Dutch too, but we’re still looking for Dutch speakers to join the translation list.

COR: You’ve recently been doing more work on the website. Why is that?

Rolf Camps: This started because the last two blocks in the left-hand menu were always left in English. I had searched and searched for the file to translate these parts, but in the end I found that they were hard-coded and couldn’t be translated. So then I decided to fix that. This meant having to learn the fsfeurope.org build scripts, and they’re in Perl, so I had to learn some Perl too. It was a lot of work to find out I only had to change an xsl stylesheet, another technology I didn’t master.

The move to web work was also partly because, as the translation of the site gets more and more complete, it’s taking me fewer hours each week. There are about 30 pages left to be translated, but some of those are transcripts. They can take a month to do!

Automated services exist, but the quality’s terrible. It would take more time to correct them than it would to do the work from scratch.

COR: Translating isn’t something that people do for fame. What do you think motivates translators?

Rolf Camps: I wanted to do something to help Free Software, and I’m not a programmer. So you can be an advocate or a translator, and translating is closer to what I like doing. Everybody can help with his or her own talents or experiences.

COR: I see the homepage is in 25 languages, but most of the rest of the pages are in 5 or 10. So how can we get more translators involved?

Rolf Camps: The visible banner is good. That’s how I got the idea to volunteer. But one problem is that after I translate a page, the banner disappears. We’re still looking for Dutch translators, but the more work I do, the less chance we have to find new translators. There’s a mention in the left-hand menu, but maybe we can think of more ways to publicise this need.

COR: From your use of Free Software, what do you think is the biggest thing holding it back?

Rolf Camps: In this house (I have three kids), it’s lack of a fully functional Flash player. Other members of the family want it for games and for browsing websites. I’ve tried Gnash, and for me it’s good enough, but not for everyone. Videos work, but complex scripts often have problems.

Secret file formats are also a problem. I can use ODF, but for people who have to collaborate with others, incompatibility can be a big problem. .doc files mostly work, but .docx support is bad. The file contents are displayed messed up. I was using OpenOffice.org 2.4. Maybe OpenOffice.org 3.0 improves this.

COR: I’ve seen various groups advocating the use of open standards within the Belgian government. Do you know if these are making progress?

Rolf Camps: In one of the offices of the federal government, 50% of the computers are using GNU/Linux. I’m not sure who it was that convinced the ministry to do this.

The Belgian ID cards also work with GNU/Linux. Using the same card reader that the CryptoCard uses, you can authenticate yourself for declaring taxes online (Tax-on-web) and request official documents etc. The government put manuals online for GNU/Linux, just as it does for Windows and Apple.

In 2006 the Belgian government took the decision that by end 2008 ODF had to be used for all documents used in and between federal offices. But they left the door open for OOXML. So now two years later Microsoft has built an innovation centre in Bergen and somehow managed to get OOXML approved by ISO so …?

COR: How visible would you say Free Software is then to Belgians?

Rolf Camps: It’s not consistently visible, but there are times, like two years ago when the teachers of secondary schools in Flanders received a CD of GNU/Linux and a CD of Free Software for Windows. But in the the school where my wife works, they got no explanation and it was never used. The CD was payed for by the Flemish government, coordinated by Jan De Craemers.

So there are people doing things, but there’s a lack of coordination or a lack of awareness of who’s doing these things.

Thanks to Rolf Camps for giving us the time for this interview. Until next month!

Fellowship interview with Sean Daly

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

Welcome to the first in our series of monthly interviews with a Fellow of FSFE – "the smallest unit of freedom". We’re starting off by turning the tables on Seán "The Interviewer" Daly to ask him about his chosen way to contribute to the Free Software movement.

Ciarán O’Riordan: Hi Seán. Thanks for agreeing to this interview. You’ve done a lot for FSFE and for other projects such as Groklaw, by recording events, writing articles, and above all, interviewing others. That’s not something many people do as a hobby, so how did you end up contributing in this way?

Seán Daly
Seán with a banner he
donated for FSFE’s booths

Seán Daly: Greetings Ciarán. Well, I make a good living working in IT and a few years ago I started to feel that I should contribute in some way and not just further my own interests. The free software movement places a high value on coding, and although I can write a decent bash or awk script, I’m not at a level to be able to contribute code. So I took an inventory of things I *can* do, and as a former tech journalist and audio engineer with some knowledge of digital and Web video encoding, I had the idea of recording speeches and conducting interviews. Back when I was a fulltime journalist, I enjoyed interviewing since it is usually an opportunity to go beyond official documents and statements and get a feel for the people involved in change. That’s still the case.

Arranging audio and video recordings can be an expensive proposition for an NGO, I remember asking you what was planned for the GPLv3 Barcelona conference and when you mentioned that no budget was available, I decided then and there to volunteer. You know, any one of us can make a difference in some way; I had wondered for some time in what way I could contribute and I’ve been pleased to have had the opportunity to make basic decent quality recordings available of those historic events.

COR: The first time we made contact was about the EU vs. Microsoft antitrust case. That’s quite a bureaucratic project, so what made you think it was where you wanted to get involved?

Seán Daly: I’ve been watching Microsoft for a long time, as an end user, as a journalist, and as a corporate buyer. What motivated me finally was when I saw coverage of the EU Commission antitrust case. In Europe, Microsoft’s foot-dragging in complying with the 2004 Monti Decision concerned me, and I saw that with very few exceptions, the mainstream and tech media seemed not to cover fully all that was going on, in particular the important role of the intervenors like Samba and the FSFE. I felt that since traditional journalists were missing a vital part of the story, perhaps it was time for a nontraditional journalist to step up and report on that part. And as it turned out, they were the single most important part of the story, since they did not back down.

Others like Novell, RealNetworks, Sun and even the CCIA that originally were the complainants against Microsoft ended up settling and withdrawing from the fight, and in some cases taking some of the vital evidence with them, and it left FSFE and the Samba Team and ECIS standing on the field holding the ball, so to speak, all alone, but they kept going to the successful ruling on appeal a year ago. I will never forget the tension in that Luxembourg courtroom as the thirteen judges filed out to announce the ruling and then the satisfaction of Carlo, Jeremy, Volker, and Georg afterwards. It was a privilege to interview them that afternoon, and Thomas Vinje two days later; that coverage was, I think, a missing part of the puzzle for anyone wanting to understand what was happening.

COR: Since this is the first in a series of Fellowship interviews, I have to ask your advice: What makes a good interview? Is it about getting someone to pin down their positions, or about drawing out unexpected insights? What should an interviewer keep in mind when designing questions?

Seán Daly: I think it’s important to set aside one’s personal feelings on a subject, keeping in mind the goal of understanding more thoroughly the issues. I mean, I personally am disappointed with Microsoft, but next time I am interviewing someone from Microsoft, I want to be fair, so we can understand better. Clearly, every person, every situation is different, and an interview which should have gone smoothly sometimes doesn’t. Other times, an important bit of news comes out, and it’s important to stay on the ball and follow up right away.

That said, I think it is absolutely essential to prepare as much as possible. That means knowing as much about the subject matter as the previous statements of the interviewee which of course provide clues as to their positions and interests. Some interviewees are talkative and relish the opportunity to get their message out. Others are concerned about making a mistake and are more guarded. There’s certainly an element of risk involved for them, so it’s important to make people feel at ease; the best way to do that is to let them know they will have a fair shake. Preparing questions takes time and reviewing questions with another person beforehand helps. I’ve been very fortunate with PJ, she’s a clear-minded editor.

COR: You’ve worked with high-profile people and legally sensitive topics. When a reader sees your interview, they’ve no idea what hoops you might’ve had to jump through to get it done. Is there a lot of bureaucracy, regulations, and agreements behind interviewing certain people?

Seán Daly: Yes, I could fill a boring book on that topic! Sometimes I hit a bump getting accreditation, other times an agreement mysteriously evaporates or changes. It’s the result that counts, nobody really wants to know if I could only park half a mile from the courtroom and had to jog in or how many faxes I needed to send. In adverse conditions, politeness and fairness are your friend, along with unswerving determination to get the story. To make things simple for myself, I use very high quality recording equipment and carry extra everything since Murphy’s law applies!

COR: Your interviews often cover topics that are broader or tangential to Free Software, such as fair use of copyrighted work (Copiepresse) and preserving competition in the software market (such as interviews with proprietary software companies who are supporting FSFE’s antitrust case against MS).

Seán Daly: We are living in a critical period in history where traditional law for copyrights, patents, trademarks, trade secrets, is struggling to keep pace, a sea change is underway with the increasing importance of free software and open standards, the efficiency of search engines offers fantastic access to information while threatening privacy and disrupting existing business models. At the same time, web-published information is ephemeral, fragile; future historians may encounter difficulties locating primary sources of information. PJ takes the opportunity to cover issues in depth which have been passed over by the traditional media and has encouraged me when I have suggestions.

COR: I have to ask about terminology. In almost all your interviews, the interviewees talk about "Free Software" and "GNU/Linux", instead of using other terms. I know that you politely suggest this to interviewees beforehand. How have reactions been? Do people have strong feelings about this?

Seán Daly: It’s funny you say that, I’m not sure I’ve done that often. It’s true though that I prefer the term "free software" to "open source". In fact, I prefer the French "logiciel libre" to "free software" because of the ambiguity of the English word "free". And I’m uncomfortable not saying GNU with Linux since I use GNU tools every day — bash and gawk and so on.

I think that in most conversations and particularly in interviews, an effort is made on both sides to find common words and phrases. Many interviewees understand that some words are weighted and take the trouble to understand why. I’d just as soon avoid taboos, but some commonly used words are just silly — I mean, calling illicit copying "piracy" is so ridiculous considering what has been happening recently off Somalia.

COR: There’s wildly mixed analysis of the music industry’s attempts to control people’s computers by making DRM ubiquitous. In the same week, we can see claims that DRM is doomed, and claims that it’s inevitable. From talking to some of the active groups on this, and from reading the reactions to your own interviews, how do you gauge the levels of public awareness and the optimism among the experts?

Seán Daly: At this point, my impression is that the public thinks that Digital Restrictions Management is just a fancy way of ripping them off, making them pay over and over for music or films they have already purchased in a heavy-handed effort to maintain dying business models. With music, it seems doomed. But with other works, I think it’s still to be determined. At some point, after everyone realizes DRM isn’t a good way to properly compensate content creators, hopefully a better method will be found. Initiatives such as Bandstocks show that new business models are just waiting to be developed.

COR: You’ve lived in Europe and the USA, and in Europe you’ve talked to politically active organisations and companies. Do you see differences in how campaigning, lobbying, and raising awareness is done in Europe and the USA?

Seán Daly: I daresay there are differences in style, but I think it’s mostly the Internet which has radically changed (although not eliminated) the old lobbyist power lunch.

COR: Let’s talk about audio and video file formats. I know you prefer free formats. How do you go about editing and transcoding?

Seán Daly: I always keep the original rushes and raw audio files and work on copies when editing audio or video. I interview in stereo with my voice on one side and the interviewee’s on the other. I usually normalize each channel individually; sometimes a phone interview track requires a bit of EQ though. I adore Audacity for audio editing, it’s powerful and intuitive and has lots of plugin filters available. Video is trickier, it’s more time-consuming and I haven’t found suitable free software for that yet. Transcoding is actually the easy part, because there are a number of excellent commandline tools (transcode, ffmpeg, mplayer, oggenc, ffmpeg2theora, …) and all you have to do is run a command adjusting the parameters with trial and error to hit the sweet spot of acceptable quality at low bandwidth. I always try to populate metadata fields, the Ogg container is well-suited for that. Even if search engines (Internet and local) don’t crawl that metadata today, they will someday, and it’s always a good idea to indicate copyright information, CC licence, date and place and of course the names of the people – open up any of my Ogg files with VLC and you will see that information. I’m very interested in the BBC’s free Dirac codec which apparently can offer H.264/MPEG-4 AVC quality and scalability without the patent encumbrances.

I’m disappointed that popular sites such as YouTube discourage the use of free formats. The day Flash video can encapsulate the Xiph codecs or Dirac alongside Sorenson, On2VP6 and H.264, these formats will gain wider acceptance.

COR: I’m a big fan of transcripts, and from helping you a little on some of yours, I know you like to publish complete transcripts. This contrasts with many journalists who paraphrase answers. Can you give your reasons for doing this work?

Seán Daly: Indeed you have and PJ and I are most grateful for that assistance, you and I have worked an all-nighter more than once! I feel transcriptions are extremely important because that’s how today’s search engines index — text. I have often listened to fascinating interviews on podcasts or audio files for which no text was available; what was said disappears immediately without a transcription — you can’t find it, you can’t absorb what was said. To give an example, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes answers questions from journalists at each press conference concerning the Microsoft case, and often, her responses are very interesting. The wire services paraphrase what she says but sometimes miss a key point. I have several times transcribed Commissioner Kroes’ Q&A sessions from the EbS feed (About the MS-EU settlement, Oct 2007 and About the MS fine, Feb 2008). Of course, these are not official; the original EbS audio recording is there for that. But these transcriptions are the only source on the Net of these historic events. Web-published transcriptions can be as long as the interview, there’s no space constraint as in a newspaper or magazine.

COR: And we have to close with the crystal ball question. You’re always looking for a scoop. What projects or bodies are you keeping an eye on right now? Where do you see that someone’s going to make a move on something you’ll want to report on?

Seán Daly: You mean, show all of my cards? I can say that I monitor a certain number of subjects covered by a certain number of news sources, from press releases to wire reports to blogs. I am also subscribed to several mailing lists of interest. Alas, we have to choose our battles due to limited resources. But we will always prefer completeness and getting it right over speed and scooping others. There are two or three untold stories on the back burner which you will be sure to see some day 🙂