Displaying posts by Bradley M. Kuhn
Software Freedom Can Avoid the Looming Dystopia
byon February 14, 2017
I encourage all of you to either listen to or read the transcript of Terry Gross' Fresh Air interview with Joseph Turow about his discussion of his book “The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, And Define Your Power”.
Now, most of you who read my blog know the difference between proprietary and Free Software, and the difference between a network service and software that runs on your own device. I want all of you have a good understanding of that to do a simple thought experiment:
How many of the horrible things that Turow talks about can happen if there is no proprietary software on your IoT or mobile devices?
AFAICT, other than the facial recognition in the store itself that he talked about in Russia, everything he talks about would be mitigated or eliminated completely as a thread if users could modify the software on their devices.
Yes, universal software freedom will not solve all the worlds' problems. But it does solve a lot of them, at least with regard to the bad things the powerful want to do to us via technology.
Supporting Conservancy Makes a Difference
byon February 13, 2017
There are a lot of problems in our society, and particularly in the USA, right now, and plenty of charities who need our support. The reason I continue to focus my work on software freedom is simply because there are so few focused on the moral and ethical issues of computing. Open Source has reached its pinnacle as an industry fad, and with it, a watered-down message: “having some of the source code for some of your systems some of the time is so great, why would you need anything more?”. Universal software freedom is however further from reality than it was even a few years ago. At least a few of us, in my view, must focus on that cause.
I did not post many blog posts about this in 2016. There was a reason for that — more than any other year, work demands at Conservancy have been constant and unrelenting. I enjoy my work, so I don't mind, but blogging becomes low priority when there is a constant backlog of urgent work to support Conservancy's mission and our member projects. It's not just Conservancy's mission, of course, it's my personal one as well.
For our 2016 fundraiser, I wrote last year a blog post entitled “Do You Like What I Do For a Living?”. Last year, so many of you responded, that it not only made it possible for me to continue that work for one more year, but we were able to add our colleague Brett Smith to our staff, which brought Conservancy to four full-time staff for the first time. We added a few member projects (and are moving that queue to add more in 2017), and sure enough — the new work plus the backlog of work waiting for another staffer filled Brett's queue just like my, Karen's and Tony's was already filled.
The challenge now is sustaining this staffing level. Many of you came to our aid last year because we were on the brink of needing to reduce our efforts (and staffing) at Conservancy. Thanks to your overwhelming response, we not only endured, but we were able to add one additional person. As expected, though, needs of our projects increased throughout the year, and we again — all four of us full-time staff — must work to our limits to meet the needs of our projects.
Charitable donations are a voluntary activity, and as such they have a special place in our society and culture. I've talked a lot about how Conservancy's Supporters give us a mandate to carry out our work. Those of you that chose to renew your Supporter donations or become new Supporters enable us to focus our full-time efforts on the work of Conservancy.
On the signup and renewal page, you can read about some of our accomplishments in the last year (including my recent keynote at FOSDEM, an excerpt of which is included here). Our work does not follow fads, and it's not particularly glamorous, so only dedicated Supporters like you understand its value. We don't expect to get large grants to meet the unique needs of each of our member projects, and we certainly don't expect large companies to provide very much funding unless we cede control of the organization to their requests (as trade associations do). Even our most popular program, Outreachy, is attacked by a small group of people who don't want to see the status quo of privileged male domination of Open Source and Free Software disrupted.
Supporter contributions are what make Conservancy possible. A year ago, you helped us build Conservancy as a donor-funded organization and stabilize our funding base. I now must ask that you make an annual commitment to renewal — either by renewing your contribution now or becoming a monthly supporter, or, if you're just learning about my work at Conservancy from this blog post, reading up on us and becoming a new Supporter.
Years ago, when I was still only a part-time volunteer at Conservancy, someone who disliked our work told me that I had “invented a job of running Conservancy”. He meant it as an insult, but I take it as a compliment with pride. In fact, between me and my colleague (and our Executive Director) Karen Sandler, we've “invented” a total of four full-time jobs and one part-time one to advance software freedom. You helped us do that with your donations. If you donate again today, your donation will be matched to make the funds go further.
Many have told me this year that they are driven to give to other excellent charities that fight racism, work for civil and immigration rights, and other causes that seem particularly urgent right now. As long as there is racism, sexism, murder, starvation, and governmental oppression in the world, I cannot argue that software freedom should be made a priority above all of those issues. However, even if everyone in our society focused on a single, solitary cause that we agreed was the top priority, it's unlikely we could make quicker progress. Meanwhile, if we all single-mindedly ignore less urgent issues, they will, in time, become so urgent they'll be insurmountable by the time we focus on them.
Industrialized nations have moved almost fully to computer automation for most every daily task. If you question this fact, try to do your job for a day without using any software at all, or anyone using software on your behalf, and you'll probably find it impossible. Then, try to do your job using only Free Software for a day, and you'll find, as I have, that tasks that should take only a few minutes take hours when you avoid proprietary software, and some are just impossible. There are very few organizations that are considering the long-term implications of this slowly growing problem and making plans to build the foundations of a society that doesn't have that problem. Conservancy is one of those few, so I hope you'll realize that long-term value of our lifelong work to defend and expand software freedom and donate.
Update from On-Site at linux.conf.au 2017
byon January 19, 2017
Our Executive Director, Karen Sander, and I are both lucky to be here this week in Hobart, Tasmania at LCA (linux.conf.au) 2017. I wrote a blog post last year about how wonderful LCA 2016 was, and how important LCA is generally. LCA 2017 has not disappointed as it continues this excellent 18 year tradition.
LCA is among the few conferences that remain completely community-centric. Unlike many other Linux events, speakers at LCA are chosen by the volunteer organizers based on merit of talk proposals; talks are not for sale at any sponsorship price. The conference is assisted by the fiscal sponsorship of Linux Australia, who provide a non-profit organization that allows the volunteers to put together a truly community event.
As a result, here at LCA, I see upstream open source and free software developers sitting right next to the downstream users who use and maintain deployments of the systems those developers release. There is a friendly and collaborative conversation not just among paid employees of companies that adopt free software, but also individuals who cooperated as hobbyists, and those who aspire to be professionals in the field by attending to learn from others. The power of discussion in such an open and egalitarian environment is palpable and exhilarating. It shows that users and developers harmoniously work together in our community.
Karen and I both have been invited (and kindly funded by Linux Australia!) to speak here many years. This year, I have already participated in a MiniConf co-organized by Conservancy's Evaluation Committee Member Deb Nicholson, and (thanks to the great and efficient on-site AV team) that talk, called “A Beautiful Build: Releasing Linux Source Correctly” can already be viewed online, and so can Karen's main track talk entitled “Surviving the Next 30 Years of Free Software”. In fact, almost all the LCA talks are coming online within about 48 hours and there's a live stream of every room!, and they use free software to do it (of course).
So, if you missed the live stream of my and Karen's tutorial on copyleft earlier today, you'll be able to see it online soon.
We know that for many in the free software community, Australia is a long trip, and many of you can't be here on site for the hallway discussions, but the great content here is made available by the organizers on the Internet. Such hard work is essential to the global education about free software, and we all really appreciate it. (Karen is so excited about what's going on here that she's been giving back to this great conference by volunteering to be a track chair and mic runner for two other talks.)
Finally, I'd like to thank the conference organizers for getting excited about Conservancy's Outreachy project, as the on-site raffle this year is to raise money for LCA to fund an Outreachy intern to help with next year's conference. So, please donate to that if you can. Even if you are not at the conference, you can signup (noting you're not present in the signup comments) and still donate to the campaign (— even though you can't actually win a prize that way, you can use that method to donate to help LCA sponsor an Outreach intern).
I'll be headed back to the USA in just a few days, but I'll be anxiously awaiting for the CFP for linux.conf.au 2018 to open.
Conservancy's First GPL Enforcement Feedback Session
byon October 27, 2016
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I had the privilege of attending Embedded Linux Conference Europe (ELC EU) and the OpenWrt Summit in Berlin, Germany earlier this month. I gave a talk (for which the video is available below) at the OpenWrt Summit. I also had the opportunity to host the first of many conference sessions seeking feedback and input from the Linux developer community about Conservancy's GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers.
ELC EU has no “BoF Board” where you can post informal sessions. So, we scheduled the session by word of mouth over a lunch hour. We nevertheless got an good turnout (given that our session's main competition was eating food :) of about 15 people.
Most notably and excitingly, Harald Welte, well-known Netfilter developer and leader of gpl-violations.org, was able to attend. Harald talked about his work with gpl-violations.org enforcing his own copyrights in Linux, and explained why this was important work for users of the violating devices. He also pointed out that some of the companies that were sued during his most active period of gpl-violations.org are now regular upstream contributors.
Two people who work in the for-profit license compliance industry attended
as well. Some of the discussion focused on usual debates that charities
involved in compliance commonly have with the for-profit compliance
industry. Specifically, one of them asked
how much compliance is
enough, by percentage? I responded to his question on two axes.
First, I addressed the axis of
how many enforcement matters does the GPL
Compliance Program for Linux Developers do, by percentage of products
violating the GPL? There are, at any given time, hundreds of
documented GPL violating products, and our coalition works on only a tiny
percentage of those per year. It's a sad fact that only that tiny
percentage of the products that violate Linux are actually pursued to
On the other axis, I discussed the percentage on a per-product basis.
From that point of view, the question is really:
Is there a ‘close
enough to compliance’ that we can as a community accept and forget
about the remainder? From my point of view, we frequently compromise
anyway, since the GPL doesn't require someone to prepare code properly for
upstream contribution. Thus, we all often accept compliance once someone
completes the bare minimum of obligations literally written in the GPL, but
give us a source release that cannot easily be converted to an upstream
contribution. So, from that point of view, we're often accepting a
less-than-optimal outcome. The GPL by itself does not inspire upstreaming;
the other collaboration techniques that are enabled in our community
because of the GPL work to finish that job, and adherence to
the Principles assures
that process can work. Having many people who work with companies in
different ways assures that as a larger community, we try all the different
strategies to encourage participation, and inspire today's violators to
become tomorrow upstream contributors — as Harald mention has already
That same axis does include on rare but important compliance problem: when a violator is particularly savvy, and refuses to release very specific parts of their Linux code (as VMware did), even though the license requires it. In those cases, we certainly cannot and should not accept anything less than required compliance — lest companies begin holding back all the most interesting parts of the code that GPL requires them to produce. If that happened, the GPL would cease to function correctly for Linux.
After that part of the discussion, we turned to considerations of corporate contributors, and how they responded to enforcement. Wolfram Sang, one of the developers in Conservancy's coalition, spoke up on this point. He expressed that the focus on for-profit company contributions, and the achievements of those companies, seemed unduly prioritized by some in the community. As an independent contractor and individual developer, Wolfram believes that contributions from people like him are essential to a diverse developer base, that their opinions should be taken into account, and their achievements respected.
I found Wolfram's points particularly salient. My view is that Free Software development, including for Linux, succeeds because both powerful and wealthy entities and individuals contribute and collaborate together on equal footing. While companies have typically only enforce the GPL on their own copyrights for business reasons (e.g., there is at least one example of a major Linux-contributing company using GPL enforcement merely as a counter-punch in a patent lawsuit), individual developers who join Conservancy's coalition follow community principles and enforce to defend the rights of their users.
At the end of the session, I asked two developers who hadn't spoken during
the session, and who aren't members of Conservancy's coalition, their
opinion on how enforcement was historically carried out by
gpl-violations.org, and how it is currently carried out by Conservancy's
GPL Compliance Program for Linux Developers. Both responded with a simple
it seems like a good thing to do; keep doing
I finished up the session by inviting everyone to the join the principles-discuss list, where public discussion about GPL enforcement under the Principles has already begun. (Note: discussion about this specific feedback session can be found on the thread on the list that starts hereI also invited everyone to attend my talk, that took place an hour later at the OpenWrt Summit, which was co-located with ELC EU.
In that talk, I spoke about a specific example of community success in GPL enforcement. As explained on the OpenWrt history page, OpenWrt was initially made possible thanks to GPL enforcement done by BusyBox and Linux contributors in a coalition together. (Those who want to hear more about the connection between GPL enforcement and OpenWrt can view my talk.)
Since there weren't opportunities to promote impromptu sessions on-site, this event was a low-key (but still quite nice) start to Conservancy's planned year-long effort seeking feedback about GPL compliance and enforcement. Our next session is an official BoF session at Linux Plumbers Conference, scheduled for next Thursday 3 November at 18:00. It will be led by my colleagues Karen Sandler and Brett Smith.