Software Freedom Conservancy

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Hacker and Software Liberator

by Deb Nicholson on December 17, 2019

This week we are interviewing Mark Wielaard, one of the excellent people who is supporting our annual fundraiser by putting up matching funds. This year's match is our biggest yet! We've been challenged to match a total of $113,093. Donations help us support and protect free software alternatives and grow a bold software freedom movement where everyone is welcome.

Mark Wielaard addressing a group in front of a chalkboard

Photo at GNU Tools Cauldron 2017, courtesy of Mark Wielaard.

Mark Wielaard has a been a free software developer and advocate for a long time! He started out helping liberate Java as GNU Classpath maintainer and over the past twenty years, he has spoken publicly about his work to improve the experience of using critical free software tools including GCC and glibc and the DWARF debugging tools, elfutils and Valgrind. He's a senior principal software engineer at Red Hat working in the Engineering Tools group. Mark is passionate about building a software freedom movement that is inclusive and as bug-free as possible. He is not a huge fan of interviews, but generously agreed to answer a few questions for us anyway. Thanks, Mark!

1. What do you think is the biggest threat to software freedom today?

Centralized, non-open-standards based, communication and collaboration platforms. Personally I am perfectly happy using just email and irc. For all my personal needs I can now use my personal computer using free software. I have used a Firefox OS based phone in the past, but don't generally use a "smartphone". If you restrict yourself like that then it totally looks like we have won. There is this happy little community that has total control over their own computing. But it is a bubble. And it is getting harder and harder to get out. There are so many people who depend on communicating (and collaborating) with each other through these large centralized systems which only have proprietary (javascript) clients. It feels like it is getting harder and harder to bridge the gap.

2. What do you think free software projects should be paying more attention to over the next few years?

Besides figuring out what to do about those centralized communication/collaboration platforms I think Reproducible Builds (a Conservancy project) is really important. Even if you use only free software, you are still vulnerable to software supply chain attacks -- unless you audit and build all the software yourself. But everybody ultimately uses some binary builds produced by someone else. Reproducible Builds allow users to collaboratively "challenge" the provider of their binaries -- to trust, but verify.

3. Which Conservancy projects do you use?

As a hacker my current workflow is largely based around Git, Qemu, and Buildbot. But all Conservancy projects are useful (or just plain fun) in various situations. People really should check out the member list. If you used one of the projects and it was useful, consider hitting the Donate button.

4. Do you talk to family and friends about free software? If so, where do you usually start?

They will probably tell you I talk too much about it. These days it is easier because people very much realize they are no longer in control of their own computing devices. Sadly, software and computing have become synonymous with tracking and spyware. For their desktop or laptop I can mostly provide some free software solution. But not having much experience with mobile devices I often struggle to suggest good free software solutions there, except to suggest to avoid them if possible. Most people have become too dependent on their mobile devices to just not use them anymore.

5. Finally, what caused you to step up as a matcher for Conservancy this year?

Conservancy supports many software freedom causes and projects to which I could never productively contribute directly myself. Giving money is my indirect way to contribute. I believe it is important that Conservancy is supported by as many individuals as possible, so they can stay independent. Hopefully, the matching program inspires even more people to join, so that Conservancy can provide community projects a home where they can produce even more Software Freedom for all of us.

Participate in the match and have your donation doubled through the generosity of folks like Mark, today!

Tags: conservancy, Reproducible Builds, QEMU, software freedom for everyone

Copyleft Conf Tickets On Sale Now!

by Deb Nicholson on December 16, 2019

Tickets are now on sale for the Second Annual Copyleft Conf! Last year's event was so successful that we are doing it again. Please join us on February 3rd (right after FOSDEM) from 9:30am - 4:30pm.

Get your tickets now!

Where's it happening? La Tricoterie, it's just 18 minutes southwest of Grande Place by tram. Folks who like to start the day with walk can get there in 30 minutes under their own power. By car, it's 13 minutes from Grande Place.

Who should attend? Developers, strategists, enforcement organizations, scholars, activists and critics — will be welcomed for an in-depth, high bandwidth, and expert-level discussion about the day-to-day details of using copyleft licensing, obstacles facing copyleft and the future of copyleft as a strategy to advance and defend software freedom for users and developers around the world.

Individual tickets are for students, or folks who are unemployed, under-employed, self-employed or working at a small charity. The ticket prices also cover coffee breaks and lunch. If $20 is a barrier, please get in touch. We could definitely use a few volunteers for the day and will waive the entrance fee in exchange for a bit of help onsite.

We want everyone to feel welcome at Copyleft Conf! We have a robust Code of Conduct that covers the behavior of our staff, board members and volunteers. The venue is wheelchair accessible, there will be a gender neutral bathroom available and food will be provided including options for gluten-free and for vegan diets. If there is anything that we can do to make attending Copyleft Conf more comfortable for you, please write to us.

Tags: events, licensing, Copyleft Conf

Friends of Outreachy, UX and the GPL

by Deb Nicholson on December 13, 2019

David Turner and Danielle Sucher are just two of the excellent people who are supporting our annual fundraiser by putting up matching funds. This year's match is our biggest yet! We've been challenged to match a total of $113,093. Donations help us support and protect free software alternatives and grow a bold software freedom movement where everyone is welcome.

David Turner has been working on free software for nearly 20 years. He's been a GPL Compliance Engineer at the Free Software Foundation, worked on Open Trip Planner (a Conservancy member project) and is a Senior Software Engineer at Two Sigma. Danielle Sucher is a polyglot who primarily works with OCaml these days. They are partners who live together in New York City, along with the best cats.

Two lovely cats lounging on a sofa

Picture is available under a CC.BY license and was taken by Danielle Sucher.

David and Danielle were gracious enough to participate in an interview -- thanks!

1. What do you think is the most exciting thing that happened in free software over the past year?

David: As a user of free software, I think the renewed focus on UX has been valuable. Two examples: Git has added some new subcommands like "switch" and "restore" and that put the emphasis on the task the user is trying to accomplish rather than on what happens internally. And Blender has a whole new UI, just in time for me to start playing around with it.

2. How does software freedom fit in with the other causes you support?

I think the notion that it's possible to cooperate with folks with whom one might not have very much in common seems increasingly rare these days. I think of freedom of speech as a sort of treaty: I won't try to censor you, and you won't try to censor me. Free software is very much the same: you're doing your thing with the software, and I'm doing mine. Because freedom of speech is threatened, we support the ACLU.

3. Danielle, you went from being a lawyer to being a developer when most people in this field go the other way if they're going to switch! What was the most unexpected thing about that change?

Danielle: I thought I would like front-end stuff because I love art, but in fact, I hate it and am very happy doing backend development and distributed systems.

4. Do you ever dream of writing a software license? Why or why not?

David: I do sometimes dream of writing a constitution. But I don't really feel the need to write a license, because I think the GPL does a fine job.

5. What do you hope to see Conservancy accomplish in the next five years?

We continue to enjoy seeing new folks joining the movement through Outreachy. And I'm sure that whatever else you do will be great too.

Participate in the match and have your donation doubled through the generosity of folks like David and Danielle, today!

Tags: Outreachy

Adventures with Proprietary Software in Disneyland

by Karen Sandler on December 2, 2019

I'm not a big fan of Disney - I don't like the impact the company has had on copyright or the social messages that they have insinuated over the years. But I have little kids and when I was in the Los Angeles area I knew I had to take them to Disneyland. I have happy childhood memories myself of a visit there. Like my mother did when I was young, I researched everything I could about how to make the trip the most enjoyable for my kids. I planned out a route to get to the rides, what we would likely eat, even what my kids would wear. I noticed that the tickets that I got came with the ability to skip some of the lines. In order to use that part of the tickets, you had to download the Disneyland app.

If you're reading this, you probably know that I avoid as much proprietary software as I can. I have a heart condition and a technical background, so that when doctors prescribed a pacemaker/defibrillator, I was appalled not to have any ability to look at the software that was to be sewn into my body and attached to my heart. I didn't have much choice but to get the device but I have been passionate ever since about making sure our software is safe and ethical. At first I was concerned with the transparency of the software and making sure it could be reviewed. Then as I lived with my device I encountered times where I realized that my device wasn't designed exactly for me. Through no ill will of my device manufacturer, I was getting unnecessary and unwanted treatment, and the only way to deal with it was to take drugs to slow my heart rate down. I realized that this was a spot-on just a really good example of how well-intentioned manufacturers could simply not anticipate all of the use cases for their product. These experiences have made me passionate about software freedom and our ability of us -- as the public technology users and consumers -- to have fundamental control of our technology in a practical and meaningful way.

Now because of all of this, I'm all about using only free and open source software whenever I can. I'm as "pure" as one can be about avoiding proprietary software while still getting things done for myself in the world - I have to use proprietary java script when to book a flight or interface with my bank, for example but otherwise I simply avoid it. So when I was getting ready for Disneyland, I was disappointed to see the app referenced but I figured I'd just complain at the park but have my husband use his phone to down load the app so that I'd make the point but also make an exception for this special occasion and one-time use (I believe getting someone else to use proprietary software or do anything else you'd morally avoid specifically for your benefit is basically the same as using it yourself.

Arriving at the park was so magical for my kids. We got there right when the park opened and the line was minimal to get in. There were many Disney characters for them to take pictures with. And then, when we started to embark on our planned out day of rides and adventures, we realized: my husband's phone was too old to download the app. The lines on some of the rides were already starting to form and it began to set in that even though we theoretically had the ability to skip some of those lines, we were going to be unable to do it. I cannot describe to you the sinking feeling I had when I realized that I had spent a ton of money to make my little kids stand in long lines doing nothing for a large part of what was supposed to be such a special day, all because of my desire to avoid proprietary software. I had let them down. After spending so much time making sure I was prepared to maximize the day, I was so embarrassed and upset. My face literally went red.

Now, I'm a lawyer and a software freedom advocate. I'm an Executive Director! I pulled myself together and marched over to the customer service people. If you watch the Good Place, these women looked and acted an awful lot like Janet. I explained to them what had happened - that we'd purchased the tickets that we learned had line skipping ability, that I don't use proprietary software and my husband's phone was too old for the app. We had no way to access this feature. The Janets were nice but puzzled. They had not had anyone complain about this before and had never considered that this could happen. But ultimately they understood my problem.

Disneyland is a huge expense. It's a lot of money to get in, and there are tons of additional things you can buy presenting themselves attractively to your children at all corners. While the staff is really nice about not upselling you, it's hard not to feel very self conscious about money while you are there. The less money you have the more dear it is to you to make the most of this special splurge. And it's embarrassing to admit that your phone is so old that you can't even download a "free" app.

The Janets were lovely and were able to attach a few special passes on our tickets that allowed us to skip certain lines in a different way and then gave us advice on where we should use them to best maximize our time in the park, so my story had a happily ever after that day. But the implications of that experience were haunting.

While surely Disney wants visitors to Disneyland to spend as much money as possible, it was clear to me they'd taken care to make sure that there were ways for people on a budget to have a good experience - you can plan to bring your own food into the park, if you try to buy something without specifying you want a larger size or special version they assume you want the basic option without asking, and the workers will take pictures of you with your own phone so that you don't have to purchase their professional photos. But the technology wasn't designed with that care. Poor people with old phones would have to walk up to customer service and confess in front of their children and anyone else around that they couldn't afford a more modern phone to find out whether or not there was another option to skip the lines. I don't think most people would do that. They would just spend a large part of the day waiting miserably in lines that more well off people would easily skip.

While there's hopefully nothing life or death about going to Disneyland, it was a profound example about how our technology is being created with inequity baked into its very design. I wanted my children to have a good time that day so badly, and I had spent so much money to even get there, that it was an emotional experience even for a skeptic like me to feel like the experience we had looked forward to was being yanked away. When companies incorporate proprietary software into their basic products, services and experiences it becomes much more likely that this will be the effect. Richer people using new proprietary software never even realize this as they used technology they considered available to all.

We must be more thoughtful and resist incorporating technology carelessly into more and more aspect of our lives. We must embrace the fact that the creators of any technology cannot anticipate every possible customer or use. We must insist that when we do require the use of software that we provide fundamental control for it to be changed by those users who haven't been anticipated (or by someone working to help those users down the road). The only way to be sure that there is no ultimate inequity is by making sure there are easy "analog" alternatives to technological solutions for every day activities, and to make sure that software is free software as often as possible so that software can be adjusted when people need it to be, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Tags: software freedom for everyone

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