Software Freedom Conservancy

The Online Conference Has Been Liberated

by Bradley M. Kuhn on February 8, 2021

Something unique happened this weekend. Hardly anyone knew about it, in the grand scheme of the entire world population. But, in the FOSS community, it's not uncommon that we see what's coming that can change the world — if only we embrace it and fight for its adoption. We did this with Linux, and below I describe another FOSS solution that needs promotion and that same “accept nothing less” devotion that made Linux succeed.

This weekend, the largest international FOSS conference in the world, FOSDEM, attempted, and succeeded, to achieve what we all thought was not yet possible: They ran a massive online conference event with 100% FOSS0. This conference had more than 25 simultaneous talks at times, with accompanying interactive text-based chat rooms, live Q&A with the speakers on video, and “hallway track” breakout rooms after each talk where speakers and attendees could join video chat together and discuss the talk.

Still image from the online Organizers Panel at the FOSDEM Legal and Policy DevRoom in 2021

Organizers' Panel from Legal & Policy DevRoom 2021
Photo © by Bradley M. Kuhn, licensed CC BY-SA

In the Legal & Policy DevRoom (the FOSDEM name for what most events would call a “conference track”) that I co-organized this year (with Max Mehl, Richard Fontana, Alexander Sander and Karen Sandler), we had peaked at at least 225 attendees, and most talks had dozens of people interacting and discussing. According to the main FOSDEM organizers, they had a peak of 33,600 attendees and about 22,000 still participating on the second day of the two day event. There were no technical problems in our DevRoom, and I've heard very little about any technical problems in any of the rooms.

Of course, we'd have all rather gone in person to FOSDEM like every other year. But, necessity is the mother of invention, and what the FOSDEM team has done proved that there is absolutely no reason that any online conference should require proprietary software. There is no reason going forward that we should accept excuses; those who claim to be helping Open Source by running proprietary-software-based FOSS-related conferences are now on notice: you are actively thwarting the adoption of proven and working FOSS solutions by any insistence of continuing with proprietary platforms for conferences, developer meetings, and interactive online collaboration.

As always, FOSS is not necessarily free-as-in-price, nor should it be. Bandwidth and computing costs do exist for this. There was much integration effort of the various FOSS technologies such as Matrix, Element.io, and Jitsi to make them work together. But FOSDEM did this work transparently and documented it publicly, and any organization seeking to run a conference can either hire their own people to follow FOSDEM's recipe, or simply hire some of the folks who organized FOSDEM to deploy the technology for you.

We have at least another eight months of remote-only events. Those running events later this year, begin your transition to FOSS now. Our community will not accept a backslide to Zoom or any of the many other proprietary solutions. Proprietary software is what FOSS was made to fight against. Let's start fighting Zoom now.


0 And, regular readers of our blog know me. I checked at every step that what was being loaded was 100% FOSS. The only spot where proprietary software was involved was that the main element.io chat site for FOSDEM — to create your account — loaded proprietary “captcha” Javascript. However, I'm told that this was an option that the FOSDEM organizers had not meant to turn on in element.io, and also if I'd planned far enough ahead to set up my own Matrix server, which I plan to do eventually, I could have just used my existing Matrix account on my own server to authenticate to the element.io software (which is based on Matrix).

Tags: conservancy, conferences

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