Brussels / 1 & 2 February 2020


AMENDMENT Open Source Won, but Software Freedom Hasn't Yet

A Guide & Commiseration Session for FOSS activists

Karen and Bradley, building on the substantial feedback from last year's keynote, follow up their 2019 FOSDEM keynote with real-world suggestions, ideas, and discussion about how we, as software freedom activists, can live in a world with so much proprietary software. Software freedom is hard to find, but we can find it together, and we can support each other when we must face the proprietary software world and make hard decisions. Let's figure it out together and support each other!

History never unfolds as we would expect. It's surprising and jarring that we've achieved both so much and so little. Every day, there is more Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) in the world than ever in history, but it's also a little bit harder each day to live a life that avoids proprietary software. Today's world of software technology is a ridiculous paradox.

Most software that we depend on every day is under someone's else control. Whether it's the cloud service run by a big company, the medical devices that keep us alive, or the Javascript application for everything from our banking to our social media, the code that handles our most sensitive data and life-essential computing tasks is usually proprietary. Even Linux-based devices, which are ubiquitous, rarely comply with the GPL and therefore are more-or-less almost as proprietary as any other device. Linux is everywhere, yet early FOSS adopters have never had less software freedom than we do today.

Once upon a time, it was viable for someone living in the industrialized world to function in daily society in pure software freedom. In those days, being a software freedom activist was akin to being a vegan or vegetarian: activists could (relatively conveniently) live a lifestyle that reflected our values and proved our sociopolitical point in mundane, daily terms.

Leading by example is not so easy anymore. The strongest supporters of software freedom among us, if they chose to remain living in the industrialized world, make compromises. Our political opponents tell us that our cause is misguided since these compromises "aren't so bad". Meanwhile, our would-be political allies question our commitment to the cause because we carry devices with some proprietary firmwares. Navigating this complex climate may well be the hardest challenge we face.

Cooptation is a commonplace for social justice movements, and the cooption process can be ongoing for decades. The software freedom movement is a few years into this cooption: this is precisely why we see major leaders stand up and shout "Open Source is the default; Open Source has won!" while presenting slides from a Macbook. The most difficult days don't lie behind us; they lie ahead.

This talk is about surviving the personal struggle of software freedom activism in this current climate. Many of us want a world with only FOSS and no proprietary software, but we won't get there in our lifetimes. How do we live our lives to maximal effect to carry forward the torch of software freedom both in this generation and onto the next? How do we weather the inevitable failures and seemingly insurmountable challenges as we watch what was once FOSS slowly become proprietary again, or see new technologies exist only as proprietary, or, even worse, exist as a warped version of FOSS that "seems open" but fails to give most software freedoms to most users? Let's learn and explore together how to survive as activists now that the going got tough.

Please note that this replaces the talk originally scheduled to be given by Amanda Brock on "United Nations Technology and Innovation Labs".


Photo of Bradley M. Kuhn Bradley M. Kuhn
Photo of Karen Sandler Karen Sandler