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 Bernd Wurst

Bernd Wurst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Schools should share much more knowledge than they do”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fellowship Interview with Guido Günther

Guido Günther

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CW: How is that going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fellowship Interview with Heiki Ojasild

Heiki Ojasild

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CW: What are you working on at the moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HO: Absolutely.

CW: How well known is Free Software in Estonia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fellowship Interview with Paul Boddie

Paul Boddie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CW: Was your involvement the result of technical needs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pragmatism should encompass notions of sustainability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CW: But do these conferences find that audience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CW: What about BitCoin?

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

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

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

Fellowship interview with Mirko Boehm

Mirko Boehm

Mirko Boehm has been involved with KDE since 1997 and was a board member of KDE e.V. from 1999 to 2006. He joined KDAB in 2005 as a Qt software developer, becoming managing director there before he left in June this year. He is currently a researcher at the Technical University of Berlin, on the subject of Free Software and “intellectual property”. He is also the owner of Agile Workers Software, a consultancy that gives advice to businesses on how to collaborate with Free Software communities, and make the transition to it. He is married, has two children and lives in Berlin, Germany.

Chris Woolfrey: In your role at KDAB, you’ve seen how Free Software can fit into a “corporate” framework. How easily does it fit?

Mirko Boehm: From what I see, it is a very natural fit. There are companies who only use Free Software, and others who actively contribute to it. It would be a tough task to find any company today that does not use Free Software to some extent. But especially in software development companies, Free Software has become a staple, whether they’re producing Free or proprietary software. So while for most, Free Software is an extension of the arsenal of IT to get the job done, in the software industry itself it is innovating on a process level, and therefore has an enormous influence on the future of the industry. Think about how Git, for example, has changed the way software is developed by large teams.

Free Software has arrived in the corporate world, even though it is mostly consumed or used by the majority of companies. An important next step is to get companies to fully embrace the ideals of it as well; use it, adapt it, change it as they like, and contribute to the projects. Helping in this learning process is one of the central roles of FSFE. This includes bridging between the myriad of Free Software communities and the corporate world.

“It is quite natural that such conflicts exist. I don’t think it can be avoided completely”

CW: Have you found tensions between the corporations and grassroots movements, where many Free Software projects start?

MB: Yes, there are controversies and tensions between communities and companies. Just recently, there was the Banshee vs. Canonical case, for example. There are also repeated arguments over companies commercializing Free Software products and breaking up the communities; maybe Hudson vs. Jenkins is a good example of that.

What is important to understand is that it is quite natural that such conflicts exist. I don’t think it can be avoided completely. The wider Free Software communities are very diverse groups, with very different backgrounds, from students to working professionals. Dealing with and resolving such conflicts is, and will probably continue to be, a central task for the various Free Software communities and their leaders, and again for organizations like FSFE.

CW: Proprietary software doesn’t really have the same conflict, does it?

MB: Well, there could be internal conflicts. For example, if an employee is developing a proprietary solution at work, and contributes to a competing Free Software project as a hobby. But those are individual cases that need to be resolved between the person and the employer. Companies investing in Free Software like Canonical or Nokia are of course under more intense scrutiny. Their work is out in the open for everybody to see. But similar conflicts exist in other places as well, as gpl-violations.org proves on a regular basis. These cases are just less visible and harder to find out about.

The most audible argument between grassroots movements and companies at the moment is the “please adhere to the GPL” argument. It is a rather drastic one. That such cases exist is a sign that we (the Free Software communities and the companies using Free Software) still have a lot of work to do in building that relationship. I wrote on this recently.

Another repeated argument is the one about “playing nice” with the community. To me, there is one important point here: companies are part of the community. Free Software communities are inclusive, everybody who is willing to contribute in some way is (or should be) welcome to join as a peer among equals. If we keep this in mind, we should be able to resolve most of the conflicts, or even avoid them before they come up.

KDE is a good example; every individual developer can become a member of KDE e.V., and companies can become supporting members. The structure is explicitly and purposefully set up to integrate both individuals and companies, while at the same time making ensuring the independence of the community in deciding the future of KDE.

CW: Is Free Software the ultimate example of compassionate capitalism in that regard?

MB: That’s a tough question. Free Software fosters collaborative innovation; it partly enables everybody – individuals and companies – in the first place, to work together on fundamental technologies that are influencing our everyday lives. Corporations have cooperated with each other and universities in areas of basic research in the past as well. I think that Free Software has taken such cooperation to a new level, involving individuals and embracing a meritocracy. Free Software also makes markets work better by providing strong competition where one or a few proprietary vendors previously locked in users to their disadvantage. So yes, Free Software is making capitalism a better place and helps align individual and common interests.

“Free Software is making capitalism a better place”

CW: Having worked in consultancy, do you think it’s good that Free Software has widened it’s appeal so that non-technical people now make up a large section of its user-base?

MB: While the majority of end-users still use proprietary operating systems for their daily work, I think Free Software applications are much more present to regular users today then a couple of years ago. This is a wonderful development. In the end, we are making Free Software because we are passionate about it, and seeing it used is about the biggest reward the creator of a program can get.

I think that especially through the front-page campaign of Mozilla (“Know your rights”) and through the Wikipedia community work, we have reached a very broad spectrum of users, introducing them to the idea of freedom and self-determination in computing. We have to be aware though that most Free Software first-timers are trying out and using Free Software on non-free platforms. This is not ideal, but a good way nevertheless to create awareness and end-user demand for Free Software.

Generally, our desktop, tools and applications benefit a lot from getting feedback from a less and less technical audience. The times when Free Software was made by programmers for programmers are hopefully over to a large extent. Again, we need to emphasize that those users who want to provide feedback are a welcome part of our communities.

CW: A growing non-technical audience is a sign of improvement?

MB: Sure! And it is a sign of success. This is what we made this software for.

I am involved in KDE. The Plasma desktop is an environment full of eye candy and features focused on getting computing work done more efficiently. It was made for geeks and end-users alike. It would be quite sad if it would only be used by a small group of coders. Free Software enables users to use their computers in a self-determined way, so reaching a broad end-user audience is of course part of the goal.

CW: Do you believe that users of Free Software should be encouraged develop a technical understanding, or do you see it as a good thing that many people do not progress beyond being ‘users’?

MB: Enabling users to fully understand what their computers are doing and how they operate is a very central function of Free Software. Not everybody might want to, but those who do will be able to learn their way from being a user to becoming a pro-coder. So there is an education side, and when it comes to teaching students basics about their computers or later computer science, there is a very strong argument for relying on Free Software for that. So while in my personal opinion I am lenient with people using Free Software applications but not operating systems, our demand to education systems should be that we only teach Free Software. For proprietary software, a new user is a future customer. For Free Software, a new user is a future black belt.

“For Free Software, a new user is a future black belt”

CW: To what extent do you see Free Software as a political issue?

MB: It is both apolitical, and very political at the same time. Some Free Software developers have political motives, but most of them do not. Most contributors are motivated by peer recognition, and by user feedback. In that regard, Free Software is individual, non-political; a very rewarding hobby. We should be aware that this positive energy of creating something is just as important as the flip-side of the coin, the high level political arguments.

Free Software is very political in that it influences society. It influences individuals, businesses, municipalities and whole economies in various areas like education, public procurement, IT strategy, and protection of civil liberties like privacy, etc.. Policy makers need to develop an understanding of what beneficial effects Free Software and the whole wider idea of openness (like in Open Data) will have on society, and then apply that knowledge to protect Free Software. This involves the dispute around software patents as well; do the benefits of Free Software outweigh assumed positive effects of patenting? I think they do by a huge margin, but it is an important role of Free Software advocates to provide well-researched information to politicians and assist them. We have to be our own lobby group, one of the few that actually have the common good in mind.

CW: Do you have a political aim for your research at the academy?

MB: Yes, I do, if only indirectly. The discussion around software patents so far has mostly been led between industry lobby groups and policy makers. But patents are only a means provided by the legal system to foster innovation, aimed at raising the standard of living through increased efficiency of production. Whether patents make sense for software remains to be seen.

A few interesting questions come to mind. One is if software patents are really fostering innovation, or if their negative effects outweigh their utility. For example, in the software world we increasingly see patents being used offensively, to prevent competitors from developing or introducing new products; to prevent innovation, not foster it. Why does this happen especially in the software industry? I will be researching this and related topics and hope to be able to develop theoretical answers.

“We have to be our own lobby group, one of the few that actually have the common good in mind”

But since I am an active Free Software advocate, just theorizing will not suffice. The political aim is to deliver these answers as a part of the dispute around Free Software and software patents, helping to base it on facts. Today, it seems to mostly be based on FUD. That is why I am a fellow of FSFE.

CW: As a researcher, have you found that higher education institutions are ignorant of Free Software?

MB: Absolutely not. After all, publishing your findings openly for your peer scientists to extend review are concepts the Free Software communities derived from academia. I would go so far as to say that Free Software as we know it today is largely based on the results of scientific computing of the old days. Look at who wrote BSD, or X11.

While in the past most contributors were computer scientists, other disciplines seem to be picking up interest as well. For example, where I work, lectures on Free Software are being presented as part of a course for economists about “intellectual property” management. These are future corporate managers and directors, and they are being introduced to the ideals of Free Software now. This is great!

Photo by Gaurav Chaturvedi, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.

Fellowship Interview with Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas

Stefan Kangas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fellowship interview with Richard Shipman

Richard Shipman

Richard Shipman

Richard Shipman, Teaching Fellow at the Computer Science department of Aberystwyth University, has extensive experience of working with Free Software and discussing its strengths and weaknesses with others. In this month’s interview he shares his thoughts on the importance of promoting it alongside alternatives, of the extension of Free Software at school level, and what role the computer sciences can play in relating the messages of Free Software to other institutions and disciplines.

Chris Woolfrey: When did you first get involved with Free Software? Was it through your studies?

Richard Shipman: I first used Free Software many years ago; I think I was using FreeBSD or NetBSD on my Amiga in the ‘90s. It was purely through an interest in different operating systems: I’d used a reasonable number of different mainframe operating systems and been a Vax sys admin, and was looking for something that was more like that to play with on my home machine.

CW: So it was the practical rather than the political benefits that sparked your interest?

RS: Absolutely. I wasn’t very aware of the political movement at the time – it was the early to mid ‘90s, when we used Gopher rather than HTTP on the internet. But it was the history of Free Software at Aberystwyth that got me really involved, and trying to build on the reputation that some of the alumni have developed in the community: Alan Cox (formerly maintainer of the 2.2 Linux kernel, and a major influence on the Linux kernel since 1991) started his degree here, and has become a friend through one thing and another. AberMUD, which is named after Aberystwyth, was the first multiuser game that I played many years ago. And I shouldn’t overlook Alun “Da Penguin” Jones, who might have had some influence on Tux. The town and university are pretty small, but there is a community of Linux users that meet up informally at the moment.

I suppose that I’m quite vocal about the political side now, and I’ve been getting involved with the advocacy side a lot more in the past few years. I’m mainly a pragmatist and attempt to use the best tools for the job, and most of the time I find that Free Software is the best tool, even for novice users. It’s just that we don’t have the advertising budget that the competitors have.

“most of the time Free Software is the best tool, even for novice users”

CW: Has a culture of using Free Software at Aberystwyth contributed to its reputation for producing great programmers and developers?

RS: At Aberystwyth, we attempt to produce good software engineers. We provide an environment in which students can learn and experience different aspects of the computing industry. We provide Free Software for our departmental students as well as the “corporate standard” provided by the Information Systems department so the students get to experience both environments and make a free choice as to what they prefer. In my honest opinion, the students will gravitate towards the best tools and a lot of the time that will be Free Software.

Even on the Microsoft platform, we encourage students to use Eclipse and Netbeans as their development environment, for example. Then they are also able to use the same tools on OpenSolaris desktops or on their own Linux desktops.

There is also quite an active IRC culture, leading to people getting an informal training on how communication works in Free Software projects. And then there’s also the general environment where researchers have to make something work with very few resources, and that is generally done with Free Software rather than a proprietary system.

We depend on the reputation of our students and alumni who do a fantastic job of spreading the word that Aberystwyth is a great place to be and to get involved with Free Software. Having 20 students in Aberystwyth hoodies running around at FOSDEM, for example, gets people asking questions like “Why are Aberystwyth here in such large numbers, what are they doing?”

Just last weekend at OggCamp, I met 4 graduate alumni who are all doing interesting things in the Free Software community.

CW: Does the Computer Sciences department at Aberystwyth promote Free Software over proprietary solutions?

RS: We have a very mixed culture here, but we do try to offer a balanced view. I do find myself and colleagues promoting Free Software as an alternative pretty heavily in order to counter the proprietary message coming from other parts of the university.

I did build a freedom toaster a few years ago and that sits in the foyer of the department so that students can burn CDs and DVDs of up to date distributions – especially useful if they live in private accommodation with ADSL lines and usage caps.

We find that we tend to spend a larger amount of time covering Linux and other Free Software than proprietary simply because the students are generally familiar with Windows when they come to us, as the school system has taught them about a Microsoft monoculture.

“the school system has taught students the Microsoft monoculture”

CW: So, it’s with the aim of balancing students’ understanding of computing in general that you might promote Free Software?

RS: Absolutely – the last thing that we ought to be doing in university is telling the students that Free Software is the only correct way. They should be exposed to alternatives and be able to come to that conclusion on their own.

Of course, they sometime make other choices, but as long as that’s their own informed choice, they’ve at least experienced a set of options and made up their minds.

CW: The reason for that, presumably, is that the university can’t be seen to favour one system over another?

RS: As a department or institution it would be wrong of us to dictate that one way or the other is the only way to work. Students should be attending university to learn rather than to be taught; I’m afraid that I’m a little bit old fashioned in my opinions and expectations of students. We provide a safe environment in which they can explore options and make up their own minds. After being spoon fed in schools with “the answers” for so many years, it can take a while for them to learn that there is not one answer but many, and they will have to decide which suits them best.

As for favouring one style over another – we offer a BSc Open Source Computing, but don’t offer one in closed or proprietary computing. I take groups of students to Free Software conferences, but not to Microsoft or Apple conferences; students compete and take part in Google Summer of Code, but also in the Microsoft Imagine Cup.

I think that we could be seen to favour one style, but a monoculture can breed complacency and stagnation, so having a number of opinions is useful, if only to see how not to do it. Overall I believe that the department generally promotes Free Software if only to make up for the disproportionate marketing force of the alternatives.

CW: So the department has a duty to promote Free Software because of its unnatural disadvantage? And does that apply to education at a lower level, like secondary school?

RS: To your first question: yes I believe that we do, in the same way that society will positively discriminate for a minority; although that is not too good an analogy as it makes the Free Software community sound like the poor relation.

“Government directives about looking at Free Software alternatives seem like lip service”

I was angered by the recent Bristol City Council decision to adopt Microsoft over Free Software and the Computacenter gag on them to even discuss the way in which the decision was made. It was looking so hopeful for a while. The government directives about always looking at a Free Software alternative seem a little too much like lip service at the moment, but hopefully they will provide a platform from which campaigning can take place and stop companies from this kind of anti-competitive practice.

As for secondary schools, if we can get Free Software into schools then it will hopefully start to mitigate the “retaining costs” that are always quoted when switching from Windows to Free Software desktops.

I’ve been getting a little involved with schools through the Computing in Schools project run by the Royal Society and we’re working in Wales with that and with the Technocamps project to simply get more computing taught in schools rather than ICT. Showing the kids that there’s more to computing than just Excel and Powerpoint is vital.

Computing itself isn’t being taught at very many schools, but ICT is. It’s the old analogy that ICT is like driving the car, but computing is about how to build a car, maintain it and design a better one.

CW: It’s about promoting computing as an aid to thinking rather than a method of working?

RS: Yes. Computing doesn’t necessarily need a computer: it’s an analytical way of looking at problems. Promoting a computing way of thinking is a way of looking at problems, promoting analytical thinking and supporting the scientific method. It is about allowing you to be creative rather than being limited to a script of known solutions.

“Showing the kids that there’s more to computing than just Excel and Powerpoint is vital”

CW: Does your department encourage other disciplines within the University, such as English Literature, to take the same creative approach? And does FSFE play a role in enabling this kind of dialogue?

RS: I’m not sure how much we would be able to promote things to the English department, but we certainly work with the Arts and Drama departments. We have a certain amount of interaction with them already and are able to provide Free Software solutions to problems. The development of Arduino has meant that we get requests for assistance every so often, and being able to offer that sort of Free Software solution is helpful as a way of breaking the ice with the whole Free Software discussion. I was incredibly impressed by Chris Gutteridge, from Southampton OpenData Project, at OggCamp, and what he was tying to achieve: to try to get all disciplines involved in opening up all their data sources.

Personally I think that the earlier that we can get more rational thought back into schools, the better. Computing is a very good way of introducing kids to cause and effect and scientific thinking. If they’ve been introduced in schools then there are less remedial actions that have to be taken in university to help the students with whatever their choice of study is.

If the data curators can be persuaded to use Open Standards then the flexibility of data becomes enormous. If FSFE can help to highlight the fact that so little data is open these days, and that it’s to the advantage of everyone that we use Open Standards, then I think that would be a very worthwhile cause. Of course there are “open” standards and Open Standards and we have to be very careful about the corruption of words by interested parties.

Fellowship interview with Bernhard Reiter

Bernhard Reiter

Bernhard is founder and Executive Director of Intevation GmbH, a company with exclusively Free Software products and services since 1999. He played a crucial role in the establishment of FSFE as one of its founders, and architect of the original German team. Beside that he participated in setting up three important Free Software organisations: FreeGIS.org, FFII, and FossGIS.

Chris Woolfrey: You were a co-founder of FSFE in 2001. In your view, has the organisation been achieving its aim? It’s still largely unknown to the public.

Bernhard Reiter: When setting out to change the world, you can’t expect it to jump right away. And I believe FSFE is becoming increasingly known. When setting up FSFE, we did not know precisely what we would be able to achieve, we just tried our best. Could we have reached more? Did we dream about being larger, more influential, having more Free Software everywhere? Yes of course! Still, I believe FSFE can be proud of what it has achieved. And we stayed within the original goals.

Most of FSFE’s successes stand for themselves. We wanted to be a reliable organisation, which would be able to motivate people to stay within FSFE for a long period of time, and to be able to do a lot with just a little budget, but a lot of dedication.

My friend Georg Greve (founding president of FSFE) is a great example of that. He was seminal in FSFE’s success. He’d just finished his university degree and we managed to convince him to work for FSFE full-time – letting go a career as a physicist – and he worked without getting the promised pay for a long while, building up personal debt until we found our first visionary sponsor. We knew that for FSFE to be successful we would need to have an anchor person and Georg agreed to be that person. He did it well. People who worked against the organisation thought that they would only have to handle this single person, but he had the full power of ten thinkers and many more volunteers behind him. When FSFE decided to support a particular argument or political position, Georg presented it with personal passion.

Of course, funds have always been important too; finding the first visionary sponsors was very hard. One of the first was Daniel Riek, who saw the potential and gave us a one time donation to cover some set-up costs. Then there was Reinhard Wiesemann from the Linuxhotel, and you have to know that Reinhard is a self-made entrepreneur and critical thinker: he was more into doing something practical for helping Free Software like writing another document format converter, and there I was trying to get some money from him to do “political work”, which sounded like it meant “just talking”. Here was me and a bunch of guys with a new organisation that only a very limited track record. In the end I managed to convince Reinhard, and then we were able to pay Georg a little bit.

I am really grateful for all that support during the early days; FSFE would not have taken off otherwise.

“I believe FSFE is becoming increasingly known”

CW: Would you say that plurality – people from all walks of life becoming involved with FSFE – is one of the organisation’s real strengths?

BR: I’d say the opposite: that we are still, as a group, too homogeneous. Most of FSFE’s members have very strong technical IT knowledge, and are young and male. Compared to most other Free Software related initiatives, though, I believe we are doing fairly well, because we do have a significant number of non-programmers, and females, and people more interested in the non-technical parts, as part of our organisation.

We wanted to bring Free Software into the mainstream, and so FSFE has had to be very approachable from the point of view of “society”, general journalists, companies and politicians. When you are technically trained it is easy to become arrogant towards less computer savvy people! We tried hard to avoid this, so that we could relate to and relay how non-computer people might think and feel.

CW: Ten years later has FSFE succeeded in being approachable? Do you think ‘ordinary people’ are aware of issues of digital freedom?

BR: Yes! Over the last 10 years FSFE has been approached often, and we’ve given many interviews and talks, and explained the importance of Free Software for society to many, from the local community party table, to companies and public administrations of all sizes, plus the military and the United Nations.

Topics like electronic data processing, software and its relationship with the economy, democracy and society, and the power of all these tools, has increasingly gone public. More people care about them now. Many regular daily newspapers mention Free Software or FSFE. There is almost nobody that hasn’t heard about GNU systems, Iceweasel, Libreoffice or Free Software – often by other names, but still.

Personally I am convinced that there are no ‘ordinary’ people or ‘regular’ users. Humans are much more diverse and should not be treated like a big group. Most people do care about their freedom. If they do not understand why their use of computers and software is related to this, then it’s because nobody has explained it to them properly.

“if people do not understand why their computing is related to their freedom, it’s because nobody explained them properly”

Free speech and the ability to read and write are considered very important. Software is in the same category, but this is not yet taught in school, so we don’t have the great literature on the subject. Yet.

CW: After ten years you’re stepping down from your post. Why?

BR: I have been a volunteer for FSFE since shortly before it was officially born. More than 10 years; it is a long time. Some of the administrative work started to get boring. The work with volunteers stayed fun.

You start to realise that you can’t do this forever anyway, so you start thinking “where is the next person”? The big break was two years ago, when our first anchor person stepped down and we basically got the second generation taking over the full leadership of FSFE. It was important then to not stand in the way when people like Karsten Gerloff (current FSFE president) and Matthias Kirschner (Fellowship Coordinator and German Coordinator) came in and had to find their own style for leading FSFE.

They were the future. I was staying in duty as Matthias’ Deputy, mainly to help him. Matthias is doing great, and he’s now surpassed me in many respects. This year, with Torsten Grote (Deputy German Coordinator) we’ve found a great new Deputy.

Beside my voluntary work for FSFE, I’ve been running my own company, Intevation, which also grew, demanding more time. We are currently about 25 full-time staff. I owe them a big thank you. My co-owners Jan-Oliver Wagner, Frank Koormann, and all the employees allowed me to help FSFE in my work time, to have Intevation cover travel costs and to become a patron of FSFE. Intevation also holds shares in two daughter companies: Greenbone Networks, which sells a product for security compliance based on OpenVAS, and Kolab Systems AG, which provides the well known groupware Kolab. Georg is co-owner and CEO of Kolab Systems. All three companies are respected Free-Software-only businesses.

I am staying with FSFE, but not on constant duty. Now I can pursue more long term issues within FSFE. I’m seeking new ways to get all the interesting brains that make up FSFE together. In the beginning when our group was small, we could have long conversations on our internal mailinglists but now that FSFE has grown, this mode doesn’t work.

I want to investigate how we can finance Free Software, especially boring maintenance work and larger innovate steps. There are a number of issues people would like me to write articles about: cloud computing, and the future of web applications, are raising a number of questions. Maybe I’ll start blogging.

CW: Given the good work of the people you’ve mentioned, should FSFE be increasing its number of professional staff?

BR: Our long term goal is that FSFE is not necessary any more; in a world where our message is mainstream. But I’m sure we’ll have to grow over decades for that to happen, both in terms of professionals and volunteers: we must have them both. Some goals can only be reached when you are organised, systematic, resourceful, and to the point – this includes a lot of boring work and structure – and other problems are better solved by a large number of people contributing a little. Sometimes just their ideas or opinions.

Early on it became clear that for the coordination and for anchoring within politics, FSFE would need to have professionals. But it is about paid staff and volunteers together.

A paycheck allows someone to have more time to dedicate to what they like to do and would do, anyway, as a volunteer. More volunteers, donors and Fellows allow us to pay more people, who in turn help to spread the message to find more help.

“Our long term goal is that FSFE is not necessary any more; in a world where our message is mainstream”

CW: Proportionate growth, then. But how do we go about financing Free Software projects, particularly when they require less interesting work to be done that may not suit a volunteer?

BR: Once you’ve understood why it is important to have a financial-chain of Free Software “makers”, you can start paying for the Free Software that you are using. This is what I’ve been doing with Intevation for a while: instead of asking others to pay for Free Software, just start paying for Free Software yourself.

For organisations, especially companies, I recommend they pay 10% of what a proprietary license for a comparable product would have cost them. Remember, you would have had to buy that product for 100% and your business would still have to work. Give 1% of the revenue (not profit) back to the Free Software components that you have used to create the IT-solution for each project.

We should be experimenting with App Stores so we can see if people are willing to pay for Free Software a bit this way. Making voluntary payments is still way too hard. Maybe your GNU operating system distributor could offer the service to forward some of the money for you. I’d really like to buy more services for my GNU systems, but currently I lack attractive offers. If we could make it the social norm to voluntarily pay for Free Software, that would be a real success.

Photo by Torsten Grote, license CC-BY-SA.

Fellowship interview with Guido Arnold

Guido Arnold

Guido Arnold

Guido Arnold is Deputy Coordinator of FSFE’s Education Team, as well as a member of the German team, and a translator of fsfe.org and gnu.org.

Chris Woolfrey: What has FSFE’s education team been up to lately?

Guido Arnold: The main task throughout the last few months has been the development of the team’s mission statement. The Education Team was dormant for quite a while, and even after its reactivation, it didn’t get momentum right away. I thought that one reason for this might be that nobody really knows what we are supposed to do. The mission statement shall fix that.

We also discussed possible future tasks for the Education Team, and before we started with the mission statement we were working on leaflets explaining the benefits of Free Software in education. I spent a lot of time collecting news on this subject, and put them together in blog posts.

The thing with Free Software in education is that there are already many, many groups throughout Europe working in this field. Many of them are inactive however, because there are only a few people who are active and the rest stay silent. It would be great to get all those people who are active to work together, and that’s part of our aim.

I spent some time introducing new members to the Education Team. And we’ve had to deal with issues internally: we were asked if we knew of any “free” material for teaching kids the concepts of Free Software; at first I thought this would be easy, but I was mistaken. So, I spent some time researching and asking around.

I met with another Education Team member from France who studies marketing and sales, and we discussed how we could find out about our “target groups”. We had two Fellowship jabber meetings to get input from other FSFE Fellows. We are in contact with the education people from gnu.org and OFSET, and contributed to the UK Team’s letter to The Guardian relating to the newspaper’s educational resources. We also organised ‘Freedroidz’ workshops in Bonn and Berlin where we taught young people about the four freedoms of Free Software by programming Lego robots.

Besides working on our mission statement, we’ve tried to strengthen our network in the Free Software education community.

CW: In your reaching out to other organisations, who has been the most receptive?

“There are already many groups throughout Europe working on improving Free Software in education”

GA: Well, that’s hard to tell. When I contacted groups and individuals it was usually about a specific question or project, and I mentioned the Education Team alongside. A few people got interested and asked how they could help, and some groups contacted us directly. We were actually the ones being receptive, so to speak. Mostly though, we’re talking about other organisations that are promoting Free Software in education, like OFSET, gnu.org, and FSuB e.V.

We have also been contacted by political parties; or to be more precise, FSFE got contacted in regards to some educational questions and we were able to deal with them.

CW: What are the political parties who’ve contacted you interested in?

GA: They’re interested in our view on how things should go in education, what should change, and more. They’re looking to us to tell them what a political party can do to make that change happen, and what they should demand to make us happy.

CW: Do you think these parties can deliver what’s needed to improve the use and understanding of Free Software amongst young people?

GA: I don’t know. But I am quite confident that in Baden Wurttemberg (one of the German federal states) some things can change for the better. The Green Party has been mentioning Free Software in their program for a while, but was always the smaller coalition partner. Now, for the first time, they actually lead a federal state, and as such they have much more say over decisions affecting education. Fortunately their coalition partner is not against Free Software either. We’re keeping a close eye on developments here.

We’ve had to deliver our responses to political groups quickly in order to make our voice heard before elections, and express rather generic demands, which was better than expressing no demands in time. But to articulate political demands more specifically is still on our to-do list.

The thing is, once you start thinking about it, a task like this isn’t as easy as it may seem. It’s easy to demand “stop product oriented education in ICT”, or “teach children computer skills, not software brands”. But suggesting how this should actually be done, in a particular German federal state which has its own rules and regulations for example, is actually quite complex. You need to know a great deal about these rules and regulations in order to make a qualified suggestion to politicians.

I once saw a website offering training for teachers. This was in a state where teachers have to collect a certain amount of “training points” per year. And on this website they offered a course called “SQL databases in Windows (5 points)” alongside a course called “SQL databases in Linux (0 points)”. The motivation to pick the GNU/Linux course will drop in every Free Software friendly teacher if she sees that she’ll be penalised in ways such as this for doing so.

“You need to know about rules and regulations in order to make a qualified suggestion to politicians”

It’s often said that the educational institutions can pick whatever software they like, but if you have a closer look, you often find out that there are obstacles preventing them form choosing Free Software. For example, in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, every school is able to use Free Software if they like, but the software to submit statistical data to the state is mandated; with that they have no choice. Unfortunately this software is proprietary and runs on Microsoft Windows only.

I heard that some very ambitious teachers got it to work with WINE. But still, it’s a hindrance. And the development of that proprietary statistics software was paid for with taxes. I asked them why they don’t release it under a Free Software license, and they said that they can’t.

If you want people to act upon something, you need something to pinpoint the problem. I’m grateful for for every email we receive which points us to good examples which we can use to illustrate to politicians that there is something wrong with the way Free Software is currently used in education.

CW: In your experience, is there a relationship between political orientation and support for Free Software? Are certain types of political parties more likely than others to push for more Free Software in schools?

GA: There are parties who are more Free-Software-friendly than others, but generally I think there’s scope for anybody who favours freedom to support Free Software at a political level. I don’t see why particular parties should oppose Free Software, except perhaps because their political enemy is supporting it. I just think the argumentation can be different depending on which party you talk with. Example arguments being that support and development of Free Software solutions can strengthen the local economy, or that lower hardware requirements are better for the environment. Both these arguments are popular. I don’t like this partisan approach that much, because the most important point for me is that the children learn about Free Software. But I guess, you’ll have to start with arguments like these which are strong appeal to particular groups in order to get ‘a foot in the door’ and initiate further negotiations.

“You have to start with popular arguments in order to get ‘a foot in the door’”

Politicians aren’t any different than your neighbour in this respect. They just don’t know about Free Software either.

CW: It sounds like you’re putting a lot of your time into working with the Education Team; how do you find the time to balance working life and doing all this voluntarily?

GA: Finding the time for it is not that hard! The difficult part is to decide what you drop instead. When my interest in Free Software started to grow, I cut the amount of TV I watched. As I learned more about it and realized how important the mere existence of Free Software is, I cut down on other things, too. Imagine how proprietary software corporations would be acting today if Free Software didn’t exist! The positive impact that Free Software has on the world is worth making time for.

If you compare the amount of time with a random couch potato, or people who play video games all night, you’ll see that I don’t actually spend that much time on these things. My estimate is about seven to ten hours per week. What helps is to track your time. It makes you more aware of the “preciousness” of the time. On bad days, I might spend 4 hours doing “FSFE stuff”, but have to admit at the end of the day, that I didn’t achieve very much. Tracking time together with the result helps me to make a better use of it.

And I’m lucky to have a very tolerant wife who allows me to spend all that time!