Talking to the Church about Free Software

Telling lots of different kinds of people about Free Software is one of the parts I like best about my work with FSFE. Recently I was invited to deliver a keynote at the European Christian Internet Conference. It’s a small event that has been running for a long time. A core group of ca. 50 people from (mostly protestant) churches from around Europe meets to discuss Internet-related aspects of their work. Maybe a third of the participants are priests; others are laypersons working with their local congregations.

I broke my talk down into two parts. The first one was a general introduction to Free Software: The idea, its history, what Free Software is doing today, and how the licenses work. With the second part, I focused on power, technology and surveillance, and the role that churches might play in righting the wrongs that governments are perpetrating against their people.

What stuck out with this group was the strong focus on ethical questions. I highlighted that Free Software and the ideas which the Church espouses go together very well: Sharing, helping each other out, and making sure that everyone can participate in society. If churches can agree that they should only buy Fair Trade coffee that respects the integrity of the producers, then they should also be able to agree to use only Free Software, which respects the integrity of its users. (If you read German, have a look at LuKi’s pages.)

The issue of surveillance resonated strongly with the participants. Priests often discuss highly intimate matters with people in their congregation, and these days, they find themselves doing so by electronic means. How is this confidentiality supposed to work if the priest knows that one or more governments are recording the conversation? And on a larger scale, how can we have a just society if those in power help themselves to near-total insight into the lives of everyone else?

The most useful role I can see for the church in this debate is to leverage its position as a moral institution. Church leaders need to step up and speak out against mass surveillance, again and again, until we have ended the practice.