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Talking To Friends and Family About Software Freedom

by Deb Nicholson on December 23, 2019

Many folks are heading home to family or getting ready to spend some time with their families of choice. At Conservancy, we believe that software freedom should be for everyone so that got us thinking about how we can help others gain control over their computing environment. We asked a few software freedom enthusiasts about whether or not they talk to family and friends about free and open source software. Luckily, they were willing to share their advice and encouragement. Perhaps, you'll find some ideas in here for talking to loved ones about software freedom too!

Adam Monsen is a SeaGL co-founder, a Seattleite and the Senior Director of Engineering at C-SATS R&D. His thoughts: "Free and open source software is critical in the context of medical devices. In 10 years we'll be able to install a 'perfect sleep', 'perfect focus' or 'no pain' implant. We need free and open source software implants for full control of our data for our privacy, our autonomy, and, ultimately, our freedom."

Alice Monsen is ten. She recently gave her first free software talk at SeaGL on using Krita to build RPG characters. Her advice: "Yes, we should always talk about free software. If it doesn't work how you want, you can change it!"

Mako Hill is a free software activist and an Assistant Professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Communication. He says: "Although most free software folk are technologists who came for the software and stayed for the freedom, our family and friends usually care much less about software than we do. Conversations about freedom that are a hard sell with techno-phile crowds often resonate more easily with folks who are already skeptical about technology. Most of all, meet people where they are! Building a critical capacity to think about issues of technology, power, and autonomy is both a more effective strategy and a more important goal that trying to lead someone to any specific state of free software nirvana."

Abigail Cabunoc Mayes works for the Mozilla Foundation as Lead Developer of Open Source Engagement. She recommends, "Stories are the best way to connect with friends and family on a topic you care about. When it comes to free and open source software, I share my own experience writing software at a cancer research institute or the story of a group of rebels joining forces to break up a monopoly. Both stories show how our society is most innovative when we can publish and share this information for others to build on. These stories are why I want openness to be the norm in research and innovation."

Eric Schultz is the founder of Houdini a fund-raising platform that helps hundreds of non-profits and is a Conservancy member. Eric emphasizes respect: "I do talk to family about FOSS. My general advice is to be respectful of people's time and boundaries. Not everyone has an immediate need to have access to the source code of their technology but everyone has a need for the fundamental principles of digital autonomy and safety that underlie the FOSS ethos. Illustrating our commitment to FOSS ideals with empathy brings more user freedom and justice than tiring down any single person through persistent haranguing."

Conservancy donations get doubled through January 15th, so please consider donating today, or signing up a couple of friends. New donors get their donation tripled and anyone who signs up three friends gets a limited edition prize!

Tags: software freedom for everyone

Share Our Mission with Three Friends (and get a prize!)

by Deb Nicholson on December 18, 2019

We know that our Supporters are our biggest advocates, spreading the word about the work we're doing and helping us to reach our match goal. We want to thank you for doing this and inspire you to help a little more! Now if you sign up three friends as new Conservancy Supporters, you get a surprise prize!

ASCII art of snow falling on the Conservancy tree

The most exciting thing you could do for us during this giving season, is tell your friends about our work. Get three of them to become Conservancy Supporters and you will receive a small special edition gift designed by the lovely Chris Lemmer-Webber and/or we will thank you publicly on our website (but only if you are into that.) Plus, new Supporters will have their donations tripled by our generous matching donors.

WHY: Many nonprofits have staff members whose job it is to just write and talk about the work the organization is doing. As a small scrappy org, we do our best to squeeze this work in along with all of our normal jobs of actually doing all of the work to support software freedom. We have no professional marketers or fundraisers. And of course, Conservancy doesn't buy lists, or track folks who come to our page so we can follow them all over the internet with ads. That means that we grow our membership base a little more slowly than the organizations that do choose those methods. It also means that we need your help.

Nobody likes being followed around the internet.

We are largely a remote org that attends events throughout the year, but still the number of in-person conversations we can have about our work is finite. Even at a busy booth, we can only talk with so many new people. Plus there are loads of lovely folks who support software freedom who just don't attend in-person events, folks we'll never meet because we don't choose to spend a lot of money on advertising. We've noticed that most of our Supporters are folks that are really "in the know" - you're people who are leaders, speakers and the ones who will shape the future of software freedom. You know about our work because you are on the front lines of advocating for software freedom and you understand the critical role Conservancy plays.

WHO: All of this means that we rely on YOU to share our message with your friends and colleagues. We rely on you to share our story with the other folks that you collaborate with on free and open source software projects. We count on you to praise us to your fellow activists who are unhappy about how helpless we are in relation to the pervasive surveillance, one-size-fits-none solutions that many of us find it harder and harder to not use. We can't expand our work to support and protect free software solutions and grow the software freedom movement without you -- and your friends.

Once you've gotten three friends to sign up, just email us to let us know. Give us your address and you will receive a small special edition gift designed by the lovely Chris Lemmer-Webber and/or we will thank you publicly on our website (or just let us know if you prefer to remain anonymous or have your listing be in honor of someone or something.)

Tags: conservancy, FOSS Sustainability, software freedom for everyone

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

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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