My August

I’ve got a pretty packed August.

I just wrapped the Open and User Innovation Conference at MIT — the academic conference on user and open innovation connected to my research. I organized the program and was MC for the 120+(!) talks and research updates on the program so it’s a huge relief to see it come off successfully.

On Thursday, August 5th (at 14:30 UTC) I’ll be giving a talk on antifeatures at DebConf (the Annual Debian conference). It was accidentally listed as "Revealing Errors" until a few minutes ago — sorry about that! It will be streamed live (details on the DC site) for those outside of New York City who might want to follow it.

As soon as DebConf is done on August 8th, I’m going to head to KorĨula in Croatia to relax, read, and hopefully get a bit of research done, before I head off to Outlaws and Inlaws in Split on the 19th, a sort of piracy and (vs?) free software summit put on by mi2 connected to the recurring Nothing Will Happen where, from what I hear, quite a lot does.

I’m going to have to leave Nothing Will Happen a little early to head to FrOSCon on the 21st where I’ll be doing an antifeatures keynote again on the 22nd. I tend not to like to do the same talk too many times, or for more than a year, so this might be one of the last times I present on antifeatures in this form.

After that, I’m going to head to Italy where I’ll be between the 23rd and the 3rd of September. I’ll fly and in and out of Rome and plan to spend some time in Rome, Tuscany, and Florence, but don’t have a lot of set plans and might travel to Bologna or elsewhere.

My schedule is pretty open. As always, I’m interested in meeting up for coffee or a drink with like-minded hackers, Wikipedians, researchers, activists, etc. If folks are interested in organizing talks or presentations, that sounds fun too. I’m keeping a brief description of my schedule updated alongside a bunch of ways to get in touch with me on my contact page. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line!

Antifeatures Talk

The recordings for Linux Conf Australia 2010, held this year in Wellington, are finally online. The recordings include a video of my keynote on Antifeatures.

I was deeply honored to be invited to give a keynote at LCA and, as a result, felt more pressure than usual to put together something that was novel, relevant and entertaining and that spoke to core issues and problems facing free software.

Although it’s always hard for me to watch myself speaking, I’ve made it through the video and am reasonably happy with the result. Although perhaps it’s a minor distinction, I think this lecture is probably the best talk I’ve given given to date! I hope to give the talk again so, as always, I welcome comments and feedback.

If you’d like to watch it, the talk is available in a number of free and non-free formats:

Annual Free Software Foundation Membership Drive Appeal

I wrote this for the FSF’s annual membership drive where it was originally published. I am reposting it here.

At its core, I think of free software as about the ability of computer users to take control of their technology. Insofar as our software defines our experience of the world and each other, software freedom is an important part of what allows us to determine the way we live, work, and communicate.

Free software is not really about software in this fundamental sense; it’s about bringing freedom to users through software.

In free software’s incredible success over the last two decades, many people have lost sight of this simple fact. We have created an incredible array of applications, libraries, and tools. We have created vibrant development and support communities. We have created new development methodologies, powerful copyleft licenses, and massive collaborative projects. But these are all how we give users freedom. They are not freedom itself. They are not what we were trying to achieve. They are our instruments, not our goal.

This distinction becomes central in a world where technology is in flux. Indeed, we live in such a world. We can see signs of this in how, as most users’ primary computers become mobile phones and new types of network services make up most of many users’ interactions with computers, the free software movement’s old applications, communities, development methodologies, and licenses can become ill-suited to, or ineffective at, protecting user freedoms.

And indeed, in the next few years, bringing freedom to computer users will need to involve new software and new forms of advocacy. It will need to involve new licenses and new techniques for their enforcement. It will need to involve new forms of collaboration and organization. If the free software movement is to succeed, it must stay focused on computer users’ freedom — on the question of why we do what we do — and then work creatively on how to best respect and protect the freedom we are working toward. If we are overly focused on how we’ve done things in the past, we may lose sight of the most fundamental goal of supporting users’ control over their technology in general.

There are many organizations that support the how of today’s free software in various ways — they are law firms and companies and nonprofit organizations supporting various free software projects.

The Free Software Foundation is, by far, the most important organization focused on why — on the underlying principle of software freedom. As such, it plays an essential role in keeping our broader community focused on the key issues, threats, and challenges that will affect the success of every free software project, and every computer user, in the present and in the future. In this period of rapid change in computer technology, its role is more vital than ever. The consequence of any failure is more dire.

Here are some of the ways that I will be encouraging the FSF to serve the free software movement in the coming year:

Mobile Phones

In a short essay I wrote earlier this year, I pointed out that there are now billions of mobile phones and that, although these phones are increasingly powerful computers, they represent one of the most locked-down, proprietary, and “unfree” technologies in wide use. The implications of this fact for users’ control over their technology are dire. Although some widely used phones make extensive use of free software, most “free” phones are locked down and Tivoized and their users remain fettered, divided, and helpless.

We must raise awareness of free software issues among users of phones, communicate to users that phones are powerful general purpose computers, and explain that control over these devices has critical implications for individual autonomy in the future. Toward this end, the FSF staff will launch an advocacy campaign around mobile phones and software freedom in the coming year.

Network Services

As network services — like those built by Facebook, Google, and others — have continued to grow both in scope and penetration over the last year, the importance of a meaningful free software responses grows as well. The launch of products like Google’s network-centric ChromeOS offers one glimpse of what a future computing platform may look like. The implications for user freedom, and for the effectiveness of traditional free software approaches, are frightening. The fact that many network services are built using free software does not make the effect of these services on users’ autonomy and freedom any less catastrophic.

In the next year, the FSF is planning to release the first of what I hope will be several statements on software freedom and network services. Building off the work of the FSF-supported group Autonomous, the Foundation will help provide guidelines for those implementing network services, for users deciding whether to use services, and for developers trying to build services that go further to respect their users’ freedom.

Reaching beyond our traditional communities

Successfully fighting for user freedom is going to mean successfully reaching out to users outside the FSF’s historical “base”. The FSF continues to do so with its Defective By Design anti-DRM campaign and its End Software Patents work. In the last year, the FSF has also reached out to younger users through its “GNU Generation” campaign run by and for high school students. Additionally, the FSF convened a summit this year on women in free software. The FSF plans to build on these successes in the coming year and to expand similar outreach projects.

Of course, fighting for and promoting software freedom is more work than today’s FSF has the resources to accomplish. Each of my three points above represents an ambitious undertaking, and yet just a portion of the items on the plate of the FSF’s small but dedicated staff. Even just continuing its existing projects will require that the FSF adds hundreds of new members by the end of this period. Your membership and donations help make goals like this possible.

A strong free software movement focused on the principled issues of software freedom — and a strong FSF in particular — will determine what freedoms the next generation of computer users will enjoy. At stake is no less than that next generation’s autonomy.

I know that this is not the first fundraising appeal you’ve read this season and I know that the weakened economy makes giving difficult for many. I understand that the cost of a membership or donation may be less easy to afford this year. But we also cannot afford a weakened FSF at this important point of technological transition.

If you are not an FSF associate member, now is the time to become one. If you’ve read my appeal the last two years and decided to wait, now is the time to take the plunge. Membership is $120 per year ($60 for students) and payable monthly. If you are already a member, please join me in giving generously through a tax-deductible donation, or encourage a friend to sign up. The FSF is a small, humble organization of passionate individuals working tirelessly for our software freedom. I’ve seen firsthand that even small gifts
make a difference.

Join now with a $10 monthly donation

What’s in a name?

Over the summer, there was a bit of a tussle at the highest level of Ubuntu governance over whether or not Canonical Ltd., the company that funds the majority of work done directly in Ubuntu, should name its file syncing and backup service Ubuntu One.

Canonical’s service involved a freely licensed client included in the Ubuntu distribution but, as a network service running on Canonical servers, it was not clearly a part of Ubuntu (the GNU/Linux distribution) or Ubuntu (the community) in the way the term was usually used within the community. Although the network service itself was not Franklin Street Statement free, this was not the most important issue for everyone who objected to the name. The major issue for many seemed to boil down to the fact that, free or not, Ubuntu One is a service run entirely by Canonical outside the reaches of the Ubuntu governance structures.

Decisions were made and not everybody — and maybe not anybody — was absolutely happy with the outcome. My goal is not try to revive old arguments here. As far as I’m concerned, the issues are settled and the service is called Ubuntu One. That said, the questions raised during the episode are fundamental to Ubuntu and to other firm-sponsored FLOSS projects. Now that the dust has settled, they are worth reflecting on.

From a legal perspective, there never was any ambiguity. Canonical "owns" the Ubuntu trademark. In this important sense, "Ubuntu" means whatever Canonical says it means. This is hardly new. As just one example, the Official Ubuntu Book (of which I am an author) was written by community members but became official because Canonical blessed it. But despite the fact that they don’t need to, Canonical has often consulted with the community and its governance structures about trademark licensing policy.

This was also not a case of Canonical not listening to the community. Canonical employees approached the Ubuntu Community Council (Ubuntu’s highest governance board of which I am a member), listened carefully to concerns, and responded thoughtfully.

The question was not even about a clash between what Canonical and the CC thought about the issue. An unambiguous majority of the board, including all the Canonical employees and several of the community members, supported the idea of Canonical using the trademark.

The question was one about who gets to make the decisions about the Ubuntu name and about what role the community and Canonical would each play. Despite the fact that a majority of the Ubuntu community council was likely to support the proposed name, the CC was told by Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth that a vote was irrelevant. Canonical made it clear that decisions about the Ubuntu trademark were simply not in the CC’s purview. The decision on how the name was to be used was something that Canonical was not willing to delegate to an "outside" (the firm) governance body. Few businesses would. And although I don’t agree with the decision as a community representative, I might have even made the same call from Canonical’s shoes.

In traditional firms, it’s usually pretty clear where the organization’s boundary lies. In FLOSS projects — and especially in FLOSS project like Ubuntu who are sponsored in very large part by a single for-profit company — boundaries are fuzzier. The conversation about "Ubuntu One" can be seen as a fight over what "Ubuntu" refers to, and, more importantly, who gets to answer that question. In deciding whether to call a service "Ubuntu", a decision is made on what Ubuntu is. Names are powerful.

Is Ubuntu just a Canonical project? Are Ubuntu’s contributors really just Canonical contributors by proxy? I think the answer to both questions is "no" but the boundary issues involved are complicated and under constant negotiation. Every time Canonical uses the Ubuntu name itself or grants others the ability to do so, these boundary issues are negotiated, one way or another.

This boundary setting work reveals an important tension that firms releasing FLOSS must all struggle with. To what extent and in what ways do communities get to decide what a FLOSS project is and to what extent do sponsoring firms get to do so? How should projects and firms do this most effectively? What should we even be optimizing for?

I think that any resulting balance has a huge effect on whether a FLOSS project is, on one hand, released under a free license but run like any old corporate project or, on the other, a true "bazaar" style project where no single firm dominates — or where they fall on that spectrum. Names and trademarks are one way that projects define their own identities and act as an important frontier in this balancing act. As every firm/project negotiates their own answers to questions of names and boundaries, there are important implications for the project’s ability to attract volunteers, solicit contributions from other firms, and more. The confusion around conversations about Ubuntu One shows that we still have a lot to learn.


Very often, folks want to refer to both the free and open source software communities in a way that is inclusive of and respectful of groups who identify with either term. Saying "free and open source software" is a mouthful. That said, there was no been consensus on what we should do instead.

The Wikipedia article on alternative terms for free software suggests that FOSS, F/OSS, FLOSS, and "software libre" are contenders. I’ve heard all. Of course, the choice of 4+ competing alternative terms is probably worse than the problem we were seeking to solve.

In academic circles, the big debate seems to be between FOSS and FLOSS. I was always a FOSS partisan. But I’ve seen increased momentum on the FLOSS side and I’m ready to declare that FLOSS has won.

I know it makes you think of dental hygiene and I agree that it is unfortunate. It wasn’t my first choice either. But I can see where things are going. FLOSS Manuals and the folks at the FLOSS Research Group at Syracuse who launched the FLOSSHub and the associated FLOSS Papers deserve some of the credit.

If we can get over the irony of having spent so much time arguing over what was intended to be compromise terminology in the first place, lets see if we actually start talking to each other.

Principles, Social Science, and Free Software

Earlier this summer, I wrote a blog post on taking a principled position on software freedom where I argued that advocates of free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) should take a principled position because the pragmatic benefits associated with open source — "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility [and] lower cost" in OSI’s words — are simply not always present. More often than not, FLOSS projects fail. When they survive, they are often not as good as their proprietary competitors.

Over the last year, I’ve been back at MIT taking classes, reading extensively, and otherwise learning how to act like a social scientist. My research goals, which I’m now beginning to focus on, are to help build a stronger understanding of the social dynamics in free software and free culture communities.

With a slightly skeptical view toward my involvement with groups like the FSF and my work in the FLOSS community, at least one academic tried to suggest that taking a principled position in favor of software freedom might compromise the positivist social science research program in which I am engaged. "An advocate is too biased," they said. After many months of thinking seriously about this warning, I believe that this criticism can be addressed.

After all, a principled position in favor of software freedom is a statement of how things should be, not a description of how they are. OSI will argue that open source leads to inherently better software. This statement, of course, is one that can be empirically tested and, in fact, there seems to be plenty of evidence that it is often wrong. On the other hand, the FSF’s position that software should be free is ethical in nature. One can disagree with it, just like one can disagree with any other ethical position, but it can not be proved either right or wrong — only convincing or unconvincing, logical or illogical in the context a certain set of other values that others might or might not share.

Research has shown that the vast majority of FLOSS projects fizzle. A advocate who argues that FLOSS is inherently better is left trying to explain this fact and make excuses. As a result, OSI-style beliefs can certainly be a source of problematic bias in a social scientist. However, a person who believes that software should be free is welcome to recognize that it both fails and succeeds and to ask why. A principled idealist can argue in favor of behaviors that may be disruptive, difficult, or inefficient. Indeed, Stallman has never suggested that free software will be easier or better. Indeed, he routinely asks people to sacrifice their convenience for freedom.

My goal, as a social scientist, is to understand why some FLOSS and free culture projects succeed and why many fail. I never take FLOSS’s success for granted and, in fact, believe that proprietary software may often leads to better software in OSI’s terms. Unlike an advocate who tows the OSI line, embracing evidence of the effectiveness of proprietary software is no way in conflict with my belief that software should be free. In fact, my desire to see software freedom grow becomes the driving force between trying to understand FLOSS’s shortcomings!

I am no more biased — which is not to say completely unbiased — than the person who both thinks that crime is wrong and who wants to study criminal behavior. In an analogous sense, starting out with the belief that all people are naturally law-abiding may be a problem in a way that beginning with the belief that people should be law-abiding is not. Starting from the fomer assumption, one has to explain away evidence to the contrary. Starting from the latter assumption, one can build an understanding of what drives people to obey or violate laws which, in turn, can help build a stronger society.

To me, the question is not why FLOSS will succeed. Indeed, I believe its success is an empirical matter that remains very much up in the air. For me, the question is how it might. Embracing a principled position lets us face the facts and puts advocates and practitioners in a position to devise laws, social structures, and technologies to insure that it does.

A. Dehqan, man of inquiry

Due entirely to the efforts of one inquisitive and indefatigable A. Dehqan, a web search for the phrase "In The Name Of God The compassionate merciful" now almost exclusively turns up hits to a wide variety of free software mailing lists, forums, and IRC channels with questions on everything from what is a kernel (in a minimum of half a line, no less), to how to send a FAX, to the intersection between Islam and copyright and much more! I’ve now run across him in five distinct projects. Maybe you have too!

The Computer (Still) in My Pocket

The Computer in My Pocket — which I intended mostly as a one-off blog-post — ended up having some legs. First, Carolina Flores Hine translated the essay into Spanish. More recently the FSF published a slightly patched-up version in the Fall 2009 bulletin, sent to all members, along with a bunch of more interesting writing by other free software folks. Certainly, there is growing recognition in our communities that phones are a critical battleground in the fight for software freedom.

More exciting for me though, my post elicited a bunch of comments from folks pointing to promising projects (Replicant was just one often cited example) making real progress toward freedom for all the computers in our pockets. I knew about most of them, but growing knowledge and excitement about problems and potential solutions was striking. There is an enormous amount to do, but there are reasons to believe that all is not lost.

Updating the Ubuntu Code of Conduct

The Ubuntu Code of Conduct is one of the most surprisingly successful projects I’ve ever had the privilege of working on. On my first day working for the company that would become Canonical, I talked with Mark Shuttleworth about some ideas for community governance. Partially in reaction to some harsh behavior in other free software projects we’d worked on, Mark and I agreed that some sort of explicit standard for behavior in Ubuntu would be a good thing. Over lunch of what was my literally first day working on Ubuntu, I wrote a draft of code of conduct that was essentially the version that Ubuntu has used until today. Shuttleworth made a series of modification to my draft but I don’t think either of us took it too seriously. We figured it would be easy to update it later.

Over time, that code has become a central piece of the Ubuntu community. Every new Ubuntu member cryptographically signs the code. When conversation in any Ubuntu forums, channels, or lists becomes disrespectful, users almost instinctively remind each other of the code. Through this process, the code has become a sort of constitution of our community and a widely enforced standard. People treat the code as a reflection of what "ubuntu" — both the concept and our project — stands for.

Over time, the original code has spawned a Leadership Code of Conduct (which I also worked to draft), and has been modified and employed by scores of free software projects and by many projects that have nothing to do with free software at all. This is all wonderful, but a side effect has been that updating the code has become a more a difficult process that we originally imagined.

Despite it success, the code remains a text written in an afternoon in Mark’s flat. At times, this fact shows. For example, the code contains some off-hand humor that now seems a little akward and the text was a bit too developer centric at points. And there was a lot that, quite simply, we would have done better if we had realized that the code would be so important. So this summer, Daniel Holbach and I spent another afternoon in Berlin discussing and crafting a new version of the code along with a detailed rationale document that describes all the things we’d changed and why.

We believe that what we’ve created is fully in the spirit of the original code. We’ve made efforts to minimize the delta in terms of text as possible. Daniel and I realize that changing the code out from under our community is a dangerous game, and we’ve make exceptional efforts to make sure that the new code doesn’t say anything substantively different than the old code — but that it does say it better.

So I’m thrilled that, after being posted since early June and after incorporating a series of revisions with members of the Ubuntu Community Council, the new draft was approved at a council meeting earlier today.

Of course, we are continuing to think about how we might improve the text going forward. One important goal we’ve thrown around, for example, is the creation of a code that is no longer Ubuntu specific and that can be employed by a wide range of different groups and different free and open source software projects.

The Computer in My Pocket

An updated version of this article was published in the FSF‘s Fall 2009 members’ bulletin. Additionally, the article was translated into Spanish by Carolina Flores Hine.

If we’ve kept up with projections, by the end of this year, the world will be home to 3 billion mobile phones. That’s nearly one phone for every other living human being. Although these phones open up a world of important new opportunities in communication, creativity, and cooperation — and it’s important not to understate this fact — they also represent a step toward a sort of technological dystopia not unlike Stallman’s Right To Read. Phones represent one of the most locked-down, proprietary, and generally unfree technologies in wide distribution. The implications for software freedom and technological empowerment are dire.

But despite the fact that mobile phones represent what may be the greatest threat to software freedom today, the free software community has — with a number of notable exceptions that I want to both thank and draw increased attention to — been mostly silent on the issue.

I know passionate advocates of software freedom who work tirelessly to rid themselves and the world of a handful of binary blobs in the Linux kernel — important work that we all benefit from. And yet, even some of these "hardliners" don’t seem to hold their phones to their same standards as their laptops. Ubuntu’s decision to ship a new binary driver remains more controversial than the fact that the vast majority of the world’s computer using population knows nothing other than phone-based computers that remain almost unthinkably unfree and which remain almost entirely unfreeable when compared to personal computers. For most of the world’s computer users’, there is no option of, and essentially no hope for, freedom on their current devices.

It shocks me that anyone, especially free software advocates, would happily put up with such non-free computers.[1] I think part of the reason lies in the fact that most users of mobile phones, and even most phone users that care about software freedom and technological autonomy, don’t think of their phones as computers. Thinking that our phones as computers will not solve any of the problems I’ve alluded to. But doing so remains an essential first step toward any solution. Although we must still work to build viable, widely accessible, and compelling free phones, we must first convince both users and developers that this is an important goal. Reminding people that our phones, both free and non-free, are powerful general-purpose computers remains an important and still largely unfufilled part of this process.

We must find ways to remind ourselves and others of the fact that modern phones are powerful computers with powerful interfaces that are useful for a unimaginable variety of arbitrary applications. We must focus on the fact that these computers have microphones, sensors, and other sensors and that we trust them with our closest secrets and most sensitive data. We must not forget that, in almost all cases, these computers remain controlled, completely and ultimately, by companies that very few of us trust at all.

I’m not sure how we will accomplish this task. But more of us need to think long, hard, and creatively about this problem. I’ll be calling my phone "my computer" as a first, very personal, step. I have done this over the last week and it has led to some conversations with slightly confused acquaintances. Of course, this doesn’t make my phone any less free. But it does mean I’m talking more about the non-freeness most of us have put up with too silently. At this stage, that seems like progress.

[1] Like many free software advocates, my phone is also a computer running a combination of free and non-free software. I use it unhappily and am doing what I can to change this.

Ubuntu Books


As I am attempting to focus on writing projects that are more scholarly and academic on the one hand (i.e., work for my day job at MIT) and more geared toward communicating free software principles toward wider audiences on the other (e.g., Revealing Errors), I have little choice but to back away from technical writing.

However, this last month has seen the culmination of a bunch of work that I’ve done previously: two book projects that have been ongoing for the last couple years or more have finally hit the shelves!

The first is the fourth edition (!) of the bestselling Official Ubuntu Book. Much to my happiness, the book continues to do extremely well and continues to receive solid reviews. This edition brings the book up to date for Jaunty/9.04 and adds a few pieces here and there. Although I was less active in this update than I have been in the past, Corey Burger continued his great work and Matthew Helmke of Ubuntu Forums fame stepped up to take a leading role. As I plan to retreat into a more purely advisory role for the next edition of this book, I’m thrilled to know that the project will remain in such capable hands. I’m also thrilled that this edition of the book, like all previous editions, is released as a free cultural work under CC BY-SA

For years, I have heard people say that although they like the Official Ubuntu Book, it was a little too focused on desktops and on beginners for their tastes. The newly released Official Ubuntu Server Book is designed to address those concerns by providing an expanded guide to more "advanced" topics and is targeted at system administrators trying to get to know Ubuntu. Kyle Rankin planned and produced most of this book but I was thrilled to help poke it in places, chime in during the planning process, and to contribute a few chapters. Kyle is a knowledgeable sysadmin and has done wonderful job with the book. I only wish I could take more credit. The publisher has promised me that, at the very least, my chapters will be distributed under CC BY-SA.

Many barriers to the adoption of free software are technical and a good book can, and often does, make a big difference. I enjoy being able to help address that problem. I also truly enjoy technical writing. I find it satisfying to share something I know well with others and it is great to know that I’ve helped someone with their problems. I’ll assure I’ll be able to do things here and there, I’ll miss technical writing as I attempt "cut back."

Election Season

Two organizations I care deeply about are having elections this month. The first is the Wikimedia Foundation who is electing three community representatives to their board of directors. The second is Ubuntu who will soon be electing a new Community Council.

The Wikimedia Foundation is perhaps the most important organization working on issues related to free culture. Wikimedia elections are currently ongoing and will close on August 10th. Editors who have more than 600 edits to their name across all Wikimedia wikis and 50 edits in 2009 made before July 1st are eligible to vote. The vast majority of eligible contributors to Wikimedia projects have not voted in previous elections.

Ubuntu will be electing all members in a new — larger — Community Council. I have been a member of the council since it was created and I will be standing for election once again — the last time I plan to do so. Work in setting up the election is being finalized and all Ubuntu Members will be able to vote in the election.

Both Wikimedia and Ubuntu are struggling to find the right relationship between the communities who produce most of the value at the heart of their projects and the organizations and leadership structures that try to support and, from time to time, direct it. Ubuntu and Wikimedia are very different. What’s at state at these elections is different too. But both elections are are extremely important and at pivotal times in their communities’ growth. Both elections will have an important impact on the process of creating new organizational forms.

My message in regards to both elections is also the same: If you are eligible to vote, please do. No governance system I’ve seen has as healthy and close relationship to the community it serves as it should. Wikimedia and Ubuntu are not exceptions. The result is a strange, and unhealthy, relationship between governance systems and the organizations at the heart of our community-driven projects and the communities themselves. We can all do better. There are not enough opportunities for community members to help push this balance in a better direction. These elections are one. I urge everyone who can to vote and to become involved.