Free Software: changing the world while toiling in obscurity

Originally published in Open Media Boston by Tate Williams (Staff), Mar-26-13

Cambridge, Mass. - The free software movement—based on the idea that computer programs should be available for anyone to use or modify—is in some ways at the top of its game, and in others facing its most difficult challenges.

For example, free programs like Firefox and mostly free Android are highly popular. And collaborative software projects are tackling serious, global issues like improving health care in developing countries. But activists are still struggling to gain broad support, and to stay relevant in the face of increasingly proprietary devices.

These advances and obstacles were the subject of LibrePlanet 2013, an annual conference put on by theFree Software Foundation, a leading organization working to protect the freedom of computer users. About 150 activists, developers and interested parties gathered at the Harvard Science Center over the weekend to discuss the state of the movement, with a particular focus on bringing together more diverse voices.

The free software movement approaches computer programming from a social justice standpoint, based on the idea that when software doesn’t allow users to change it, replicate it, or share it, it’s not just a pain—it’s a threat to a free society. The idea is that, given the vast influence software now has on our lives, the people who make that software hold a huge amount of power.

The movement started in 1983, and today lives at the sometimes-tricky intersection of political activism, programming, and day-to-day computer use. All three realms came up during LibrePlanet 2013, which included a mix of sessions on technical collaboration, strategy, and just plain fiery idealism.

“You shouldn’t use an iThing,” said movement founder Richard Stallman, at his keynote talk Saturday night. “It’s an attack on your freedom. But if you’re going to use it, at least get it out of jail.”

He also frequently referred to the Apple’s App Store as the “Crap Store,” and declared that all DRM (technology built into digital content to restrict use) should be illegal, to rousing applause.

Aside from firing up the base, the conference highlighted some of the impressive developments in the community. For example, the Foundation presented awards to two projects, iPython and OpenMRS. The latter, in particular, is an example of the unique strength of open source software projects (note that free software activists generally don’t like the term “open source,” believing that it takes the emphasis away from the ideals).

OpenMRS is a collaborative project started in 2004 as a way to deliver better health care records in developing countries and improve care for HIV patients in Africa. For HIV treatment in particular, consistent record keeping is extremely important. The software is now used around the world, and likely would not have worked as an expensive proprietary program, particularly since the needs vary greatly based on the facility using it. Programmers are able to add on and alter based on specific needs and constraints.

“Free software is great, it’s wonderful. The movement for user freedom is great. But there’s something even bigger that we don’t often think about,” said Michael Downey, community manager for the program, referencing the improved condition of one HIV patient OpenMRS has helped.

“Giving doctors free software tools to help improve what they’re doing has a direct impact on lives like the fellow you see here.”

Another panel recapped the progress being made in open government data, citing a similar strength in numbers and flexibility as organizations like and the Sunlight Foundation crunch the sea of numbers behind the activity of elected officials. As more programmers are able to use that code and data, even more analysis can be done to “paint the entire political backstory,” said Remy DeCausemaker, from the Rochester Institute of Technology Lab for Technological Literacy.

But the conference wasn’t all celebratory. Attendees also addressed some weighty problems facing their work.

Not the least of which is the industry dominance of companies that use proprietary software, like Apple, public enemy number one for free software activists. They face a trend of hardware itself becoming less accessible to change. In the early days of free software, it was simply a matter of showing people they can swap out free options on their computers. Now, especially with mobile devices, they are increasingly locked down.

There’s also the movement’s historic difficulty drawing diverse voices and broader political allies, a problem directly addressed by LibrePlanet 2013’s organizers.

“We want to increase diversity in the free software movement, because we think it’s important in and of itself, and also because we think it’s important to free software,” said FSF Campaigns Manager Zak Rogoff. “This is one of the things we’ve struggled with in the past, having a relatively narrow set of perspectives and backgrounds.”

This year, around half of the presenters were women, a fact celebrated by keynote speaker Karen Sandler, executive director of the GNOME Foundation.

And in the panel “Expanding the Tent,” Deb Nicholson discussed her efforts to get more women involved in programming—both when she worked with FSF and in her current role with Open Hatch—but also the need to engage other groups of people working in social justice.

“The history of political organizing is littered with all kinds of horrible mistakes where people have made assumptions about a group of people that’s not them, and then have wondered why won’t they come to our movement,” she said.

A recurring point of discussion at the conference was how the movement can get more people sold on free alternatives, but also how to get them sold on the principles of freedom in software. One criticism of the free software movement is the fact that there is such a sharp emphasis on the morality of using or not using proprietary software. Many people are simply not willing to draw that line in the sand.

However, as the fight to stop online copyright bills SOPA and PIPA in 2012 showed, people are increasingly connecting their own use of technology to their principles. As Wendy Seltzer, policy counsel for W3C said in her panel on copyright:

“It’s not just a bunch of people looking at funny cat pictures on Reddit, but actually going out and taking action and getting involved in politics.”