Fellowship interview with Johannes (Hanno) Böck

The smallest unit of freedom: a Fellow

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

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

Hanno Böck
Hanno Böck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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