Freedom for Users, Not for Software

I finally published a short essay I wrote about a year ago: Freedom for Users, Not for Software.

Anybody who has hung around the free software community for a while will be familiar with the confusion created by the ambiguity between "free as in price" versus "free as freedom." In the essay I argue that there is a less appreciated semantic ambiguity that arises when we begin to think that what matters is that software is free. Software doesn’t need freedom, of course; Users of software need freedom. My essay looks at how the focus on free software, as opposed to on free users, has created challenges and divisions in the free software movement.

The essay was recently published in Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State, a book edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich and published by Levellers Press. The book includes essays by 73 authors that include some other folks from the free software and free culture communities along with a ton of people working on very different types of commons.

My essay is short and has two parts: The first is basically a short introduction to free software movement. The second lays out what I see as major challenges for free software. I will point out that these are some of the areas that I am working most closely with the FSF — who are having their annual fundraiser at the moment — to support and build advocacy programs around.

Open Brands

In late July, the Awesome Foundations invited me to participate in an interesting conversation about open brands at their conference. Awesome is a young collection of organizations struggling with the idea of if, and how, they want to try to control who gets call themselves Awesome. I was asked to talk about how the free software community approaches the issue.

Guidance from free software is surprisingly unclear. I have watched and participated in struggles over issues of branding in every successful free software project I’ve worked in. Many years ago, Greg Pomerantz and I wrote a draft trademark policy for the Debian distribution over a couple beers. Over the last year, I’ve been working with Debian Project Leader Stefano Zacchiroli and lawyers at the Software Freedom Law Center to help draft a trademark policy for the Debian project.

Through that process, I’ve come up with three principles which I think lead to more clear discussion about whether a free culture or free software should register a trademark and, if they do, how they should think about licensing it. I’ve listed those principles below in order of importance.

1. We want people to use our brands. Conversation about trademarks seem to turn into an exercise in imagining all the horrible ways in which a brand might be misused. This is silly and wrong. It is worth being extremely clear on this point: Our problem is not that people will misuse our brands. Our problem is that not enough people will use them at all. The most important goal of a trademark policy should be to make legitimate use possible and easy.

We want people to make t-shirts with our logos. We want people to write books about our products. We want people to create user groups and hold conferences. We want people to use, talk about, and promote our projects both commercially and non-commercially.

Trademarks will limit the diffusion of our brand and, in that way, will hurt our projects. Sometimes, after carefully considering these drawbacks, we think the trade-off is worth making. And sometimes it is. However, projects are generally overly risk averse and, as a result, almost always err on the side of too much control. I am confident that free software and free culture projects’ desire to control their brands has done more damage than all brand misuse put together.

2. We want our projects to be able to evolve. The creation of a trademark puts legal power to control a brand in the hands of an individual, firm, or a non-profit. Although it might not seem like such a big deal, this power is, fundamentally, the ability to determine what a project is and is not. By doing this, it creates a single point of failure and a new position of authority and, in that process, limits projects’ ability to shift and grow organically over time.

I’ve heard that in US politics, there is no trademark for the terms Republican or Democrat and that you do not need permission to create an organization that claims to be part of either party. And that does not mean that everybody is confused. Through social and organizational structures, it is clear who is in, who is out, and who is on the fringes.

More importantly, this structure allows for new branches and groups outside of the orthodoxy to grow and develop on the margins. Both parties have been around since the nineteenth century, have swapped places on the political spectrum on a large number of issues, and have played host to major internal ideological disagreements. Almost any organization should aspire to such longevity, internal debate, and flexibility.

3. We should not confuse our communities. Although they are often abused, trademarks are fundamentally pro-consumer. The point of legally protected brands is to help consumers from being confused as the source of a product or service. Users might love software from the Debian project, or might hate it, but it’s nice for them to be able to know that they’re getting "Debian Quality" when they download a distribution.

Of course, legally protected trademarks aren’t the only way to ensure this. Domains names, internal policies, and laws against fraud and misrepresentation all serve this purpose as well. The Open Source Initiative applied for a trademark on the term open source and had their application rejected. The lack of a registered trademark has not kept folks from policing use of the term. Folks try to call their stuff "open source" when it is not and are kept in line by a community of folks who know better.

And since lawyers are rarely involved, it is hardly clear that a registered trademark would help in the vast majority of these these situations. It is also the case that most free software/culture organizations lack the money, lawyers, or time, to enforce trademarks in any case. Keeping your communities of users and developers clear on what is, and what isn’t, your product and your project is deeply important. But how we choose to do this is something we should never take for granted.

A Model of Free Software Success

Last week I helped organize the Open and User Innovation Conference at Harvard Business School. One of many interesting papers presented there was an essay on Institutional Change and Information Production by Fabio Landini from the University of Siena.

At the core of the paper is an economic model of the relationship between rights protection and technologies that affects the way that cognitive labor can be divided and aggregated. Although that may sound very abstract (and it is in the paper), it is basically a theory that tries to explain the growth of free software.

The old story about free software and free culture (at least among economists and many other academics) is that the movements surged to prominence over the last decade because improvements in communication technology made new forms of mass-collaboration — like GNU/Linux and Wikipedia — possible. "Possible", for these types of models, usually means profit-maximizing for rational, profit-seeking, actors like capitalist firms. You can basically think of these attempts as trying to explain why open source claims that free licensing leads to "better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost" are correct: new technology makes possible an open development process which leads to collaboration which leads to higher quality work which leads to profit.

Landini suggests there are problems with this story. One problem is that it treats technology as being taken for granted and technological changes as effectively being dropped in from outside (i.e., exogenous). Landini points out that software businesses build an enormous amount of technology to help organize their work and to help themselves succeed in what they see as their ideal property rights regime. The key feature of Landini’s alternate model is that it considers this possibility. What comes out the other end of the model is a prediction for a multiple equilibrium system — a situation where there are several strategies that can be stable and profitable. This can help explain why, although free software has succeeded in some areas, its success has hardly been total and usually has not led to change within existing proprietary software firms. After all, there are still plenty of companies selling proprietary software. In Landini’s model, free is just one of several winning options.

But Landini’s model raises what might be an even bigger question. If free software can be as efficient as proprietary software, how would anybody ever find out? If all the successful software companies out there are doing proprietary software, which greedy capitalist is going to take the risk of seeing if they could also be successful by throwing exclusive rights out the window? In the early days, new paths are always unclear, unsure, and unproven.

Landini suggests that ethically motivated free software hackers provide what he calls a "cultural subsidy." Essentially, a few hackers are motivated enough by the ethical principles behind free software that they are willing to contribute to it even when it isn’t clearly better than proprietary alternatives. And in fact, historically speaking, many free software hackers were willing to contribute to free software even when they thought it was likely less profitable than the proprietary alternative models. As Landini suggests, this group was able to build technological platforms and find new social and business arrangements where the free model actually is competitive.

I think that the idea of an "cultural subsidy" is a nice way to think about the important role that ethical arguments play in movements like free software and free culture. "Open source" style efficiency arguments persuade a lot of people. Especially when they are true. But those arguments are only ever true because a group of ethically motivated people fought to find a way to make them true. Free software didn’t start out as competitive with proprietary software. It became so only because a bunch of ethically motivated hackers were willing to "subsidize" the movement with their failed, and successful, attempts at free software and free culture projects and businesses.

Of course, the folks attracted by "open source" style superiority arguments can find the ethical motivated folks shrill, off-putting, and annoying. The ethically motivated folks often think the "efficiency" group is shortsighted and mercenary. But as awkward as this marriage might be, it has some huge upsides. In Landini’s model, the ethical folks can build their better world without convincing everyone else that they are right and by relying, at least in part, on the self-interest of others who don’t share their principles. Just as the free software movement has done.

I think that Landini’s paper is a good description of the critically important role that the free software movement, and the FSF in particular, can play. The influence and importance of individuals motivated by principles can go far beyond the groups of people who take an ethical stand. They can make involvement possible for large groups of people who do not think that taking a stand on a particular ethical issue is even a good idea.

Wiki Conferencing

I am in Berlin for the Wikipedia Academy, a very cool hybrid free culture community plus refereed academic conference organized, in part, by Wikimedia Deutschland. On Friday, I was very excited to have been invited to give the conference’s opening keynote based on my own hybrid take on learning from failures in peer production and incorporating a bunch of my own research. Today, I was on a panel at the conference about free culture and sharing practices. I’ll post talks materials and videos when the conference puts them online.

I will be in Berlin for the next week or so before I head to directly to Washington, DC for Wikimania between the 11th and 15th. I’ll be giving three talks there:

Between then and now, I’m taking the next week in Berlin to catch up on work, and with friends. If you’re in either place and want to meet up, please get in touch and lets try to arrange something.

My Setup

The Setup is an awesome blog that posts of interviews with nerdy people that ask the same four questions:

  1. Who are you, and what do you do?
  2. What hardware are you using?
  3. And what software?
  4. What would be your dream setup?

I really care about my setup so I am excited, and honored, that they just posted an interview with me!

I answer questions about my setup often so I tried to be comprehensive with the hope that I will be able to point people to it in the future.

Update: I wrote this several years ago. If you’re interested, I’ve been keeping a ChangeLog of things I’ve added, changed, or removed from my setup.

Unhappy Birthday Hall of Shame


I roll my eyes a little when I think that Unhappy Birthday is the document I have written that has been read by the most people. The page — basically a website encouraging people to rat on their friends for copyright violation for singing Happy Birthday in public — has received millions of page views and has generated tons of its own media (including a rather memorable interview of CBC’s WireTap). At the bottom of the page I am listed, by name and email, as the “copyrighteous spokesman” for the initiative.

And since the page has been online, I have received hate mail about it. Constantly.

Since the email only goes to me, I thought it might be fun to share some of these publicly. All these messages are quoted verbatim but I have not included the senders’ names. Be warned: the language is often salty.

This email is years old now but it is probably still my favorite:

Atrocity and strife run rampant in this world.

Babies are abandoned in dumpsters. Teachers molest students. Impoverished Indonesians make sneakers for pennies while the spoiled jackhole in the 30-second commercial makes millions for sinking a three-pointer and smirking at the camera. Forms of religion are interpreted as to compel people to strap explosives to their chest and board buses full of innocents. Boss Tweeds embezzle and get severance pay while John Q. Workingman gets put out on the street when the corporation goes belly up.

Out of all these indignities and countless others I haven’t the time to mention, why do you make it your personal crusade to assist in the flagrant persecution of family restaurants for partaking in the time-honored tradition of singing “Happy Birthday”? God forbid these foul brigands bend copyright law in order to bring a smile to somebody’s face.

Food for thought…without the accompanying song.

Many others strike a defiant, if less poetic, tone:

Good luck! There are millions of us who refuse to accept the ridiculous “copyright” on Happy Birthday. If Time Warner were an ethical company rather than a greedy megacorp they would do something truly special and release it into the public domain.

There are some things in this world more important than money.

Quite a few people notice that my last name is Hill and suspect that I must be related to the Hill sisters who originally penned the song. I’m not, to my knowledge, although since Time Warner bought the rights, it’s not clear it would matter:

I am writing to just let you know how disappointed I am that a large corporation and others (like the HILL family) are making $2 million plus for a song that was created over 100 years ago with noone knowing who created the lyrics! None of us at our place of employment could believe this and we certainly won’t encourage people to send money to ASCAP. It is a shame that ASCAP license fees aren’t used to pay more to up-and-coming artists who I’m sure need this money alot more than Time Warner.

We all plan to sing Happy Birthday MORE now in public places and if anyone asks if it is copyrighted we will say “of course not”. Maybe this way the song will not die out completely as more and more other “birthday” songs are being sung. It would also be nice if your website cited whose opinion is writing the piece and your obvious conflict of interest.

Or another:

Is it a coincidence that your last name is the same as the last name of the authors of the song “Happy Birthday?” You seem to have a personal monetary motive for your work with the “grassroots project” you call Unhappy Birthday, and if you do not, your concern is misplaced all the same. Whom do you imagine your campaign serves? And do you realize whom it harms?

I do not question the illegality of performing the copyrighted song publicly. And you are correct that most of the public is not even aware that the song is under copyright. I think the harm done to Time Warner and its associates by such public performances is far outweighed by the joy created when the much-loved happy tune is shared.

I urge you to ask yourself why you think the immortal Hill sisters wrote the song in the first place. It was not to put more money Time Warner’s pocket. It was, I would argue, for the sake of the song itself and the happiness it brings when performed (publicly or otherwise). Please consider siding with the children and the artists; let the lawsuits alone.

Some people suspect the site may be satire, but include insults and and attacks just in case it isn’t:

I’m trying to figure out if your Unhappy Birthday site is meant to be in jest. If so Rofl, and congrats on a hilarious site. If you’re actually serious, then fuck you Nazi cunts and your corporate butt buddies. Thank you for your time.

Or these two alternatives (each were separate emails):

If this is a joke then it’s rather funny. However if this website is serious then you’re a fucking idiot. Get a life!!!!

if it is a form of protest, then THANK YOU! if it is not, then screw you all!

One memorable piece of mail was from someone who knew of me from my activities in the free software and free culture communities and had a hard time reconciling my work there with the high protectionist website:

I was quiet surprised to see your name and email address at the bottom of the home page of the site Unhappy Birthday. The site claims that you are their spokesman.

Is this correct? I do not understand… You have all this Open Source/ Free Software background and then this site that defends one of the most controversial copyright issues???

Do you really mean this? Do you want to help Time Warner?

I’ve also received probably half a dozen mails that offer some sort of support! For example, this person liked the website — and even wanted to buy one of our t-shirts — but objected to our logo:

I was going to buy one of your products from your Unhappy Birthday Shop at CafePress but there’s a problem.

I hate emblems that uses human skulls in them.

Being a member of ASCAP I really do support your cause but I can’t buy a product that I would never wear.

And many people are simply confused asking something like this one:

So I saw the unhappy birthday site and I’m just a little confused. Is this a joke or a serious thing?

I usually reply and explain that I have tried to ensure that the site describes the legal situation around Happy Birthday honestly and correctly.

That said, the vast majority of messages I receive are unequivocal. Like this email that I received last week addressed to “you anti-free speech fascists”:

        /  \
        |  |
        |  |
        |  |
 __  __ |  | __
/  \/  \|  |/  \
|               \
|                |
|                /
|                \
|                 /
\                /
 |              |
 |              |

Half an hour later, the author followed up with a English version of the same message, set to the tune of happy birthday.

You might think that getting insulted and flipped off by confused people on the Internet might
get me down. It doesn’t! I made Unhappy Birthday because I thought that the fact that something as important to our culture as Happy Birthday could be owned was outrageous. Every piece of hate mail means that somebody else — almost always somebody who isn’t a “copyfighter” or a free culture geek — is now upset about the current state of copyright too.

Sure, Unhappy Birthday makes me a tiny bit sad about people’s ability to recognize satire. But it makes me really happy about people’s ability to get very annoyed at what they think is the outrageous control of our culture through copyright. When more people are as mad as the the people I’ve quoted above, we will be able to change copyright into something less outrageous to all of us.

Slouching Toward Autonomy

I care a lot about free network services. Recently, I have been given lots of reasons to be happy with the progress the free software community has made in developing services that live up to my standards. I have personally switched from a few proprietary network services to alternative systems that respect my autonomy and have been very happy both with the freedom I have gained and with the no-longer-rudimentary feature sets that the free tools offer.

Although there is plenty left to do, here are four tools I’m using now instead of the proprietary tools that many people use, or that I used to use myself:

  • StatusNet/ for microblogging (instead of Twitter): I have had my account since the almost the very beginning and am very happy with the improvements in the recent 1.0 rollout.
  • Diaspora for social networking (instead of Facebook): Diaspora has made important strides forward recently and has become both quite usable and quite useful. Not having used Facebook, I’ve not managed to totally figure out where the system fits into my life, but I do periodically post updates that are more personal and less polished than the ones on my blog. I still have not set up my own pod but look forward to work that the Diaspora team is putting into making that process easier.
  • NewsBlur for feed reading/sharing (instead of Google Reader): NewsBlur can be thought of as a replacement for Google Reader and is, in my opinion, much better even before one considers issues of autonomy. You can install the code yourself or pay the author a small amount to host it for you (he will do it for free if you are following under 64 feeds).
  • Scuttle for social bookmarking (instead of Delicious): In the wake of Yahoo’s sale and shutdown of Delicious, there is a renewed interest in free tools for social bookmarking. Scuttle, a rather mature project, seems to have been one of several beneficiaries. My Scuttle installation is at

In trying to switch away from proprietary services, I have found that there still a lack of good information comparing the different systems out there and giving folks advice on who might be able to help with things like setup or hosting. I really value hearing from other people about what they use and what they find useful but finding this information online still seems to be a struggle.

The wiki seems like the natural place to host or summarize this discussion and to collect and share information useful for those of us slouching (or running) toward autonomy in our use of network services. I invite folks to get involved in improving that already useful resource.

For example, this week, I spent a few hours researching free social bookmarking tools and produced a major update to the (already useful) social bookmarking page on the wiki. Of course, I can imagine lots of ways to improve that page and to collect similar information on other classes of network services. Please join me in that effort!

Another Summer European Tour

I’ve been in Europe for the last couple weeks but pretty occupied with things like attending my brother wedding and a series of outdoor excursions in Spain.

Today Mika and I arrived in Berlin where I am going to attending and giving a talk at the Open Knowledge Conference on When Free Software Isn’t Better. I’ll also participate in a session on Wikipedia research facilitated by Mayo Fuster Morrell.

On July 2nd, I’ll be taking an overnight train to Vienna where I’ll be attending the Open and User Innovation Workshop — an academic conference where I’ll presenting some of my research. From there I’ll be hitching a ride to Munich with Marcell Mars on July 6th and, after that, a flight back to Boston with a weekend long layover in Reykjavik.

Details on the trip are on page on my wiki and I encourage anyone to contact me if you’re in Berlin, Vienna, Munich, or Reykjavik and want to meet up for a drink or a chat.

Editor-to-Reader Ratios on Wikipedia

It’s been reported for some time now that the number of active editors on Wikipedia (usually defined as people who have edited at least 5 times in a given month) peaked in 2007 and has been mostly stable since then. A graph of the total number of active editors in every month since Wikipedia’s founding is shown below. The graph shows the aggregate numbers for all language Wikipedias. English Wikipedia is the largest component of this and is generally more variable. That said, very similar patterns exist for most larger languages.


Felipe Ortega, who has provided many of these statistics, has warned against fatalist claims. Although there seems to be a decrease in the total number of active editors over the last two years, the situation seems to have somewhat stabilized in most languages. New editors in Wikipedia are replacing folks at almost the rate that they are leaving. It is also widely known that the number of readers of Wikipedia has been increasing during this period. According to the report cards released by the foundation using comScore data, the number of unique visitors to Wikipedia each month has increased by 61 million people in the last year — over 17%.

This discrepancy between rising readership and stable or sinking editorship should raise major concern. After all, the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission is two part: (1) to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content and (2) to disseminate it effectively and globally. Although the Foundation report cards include measures of raw levels of editorship, a better metric of engagement and empowerment might be the proportion of readers who engage in editing.

I could not find reliable data on the number of unique readers reached each month for more than a few months in the last year. What is available, however, is wonderful data on page views each month going back to 2008. Analysis of the data from available report cards show that, at least during the last year, there is a very stable ratio of 35 page views per unique visitor, as estimated by comScore. Using that measure, we can do a back of the envelope estimation on the proportion of users that are editors for the period where page view data is available, dating back from February 2008 ( marked with the grey dashed lined above).

The graphs below show the very different results you get when you consider the change in the number of Wikipedia editors and the change in the editor-to-reader ratio. Once again, these data are combined data for all language Wikipedias although graphs look very similar for most larger languages. The results are striking. Although there has been a 12% decrease between February 2008 and December 2010 in the number of active editors, there is a 42% decrease in the proportion of readers who edit at least five times a month. We can see that fulfilling the first half of the Wikimedia mission remains a struggle.


Although the graphs above do not say anything directly about the most active core contributors to Wikipedia, the fact that Wikipedia is being maintained by a tiny — and shrinking — proportion of its readership does mean that the idea behind Wikipedia is under threat.

Although none are as big as Wikipedia, there are lots of good encyclopedias out there. The reason Wikipedia is different, interesting, and important is because — unlike all those others — Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit. Wikipedia is powerful because it allow its users to transcend their role as consumers of the information they use to understand the world. Wikipedia allows users to define the reference works that define their understanding of the their environment and each other. But 99.98% of the time, readers do not transcend that role. I think that’s a problem. Worse, that the number is growing.

The Wikimedia Foundation recently ran a major successful effort to attract donations in its annual fundraiser. Jimmy Wales’ smiling mug is apparently enough in the way of motivation to get something like 1% of its readers to donate money to support the project. I think that’s very good news. If the Wikimedia community can entice even half of those people to contribute through an increased involvement in the projects themselves, they might do more than ensure Wikipedia’s continued growth. They would help take a step toward the empowerment and engagement of those users in sharing their own knowledge, and the continued fulfillment of a critically important mission.

Annual Free Software Foundation Fundraiser

The Free Software Foundation is in the last week of its annual fundraiser and has still has a bit of ground to make up. The FSF needs members and donations to merely sustain its basic activity protecting free software and engaging in minimal outreach. So as I’ve done in the last couple years, I’ve written a fundraising appeal for the organization. That why today my face is plastered, Jimmy Wales style, all over the FSF website. (For the record, the last bit was not my idea and I find it a little embarrassing.)

My appeal this year begins with my feeling that as our lives become increasingly mediated by technology, the question of who controls technology becomes another way of asking "Who controls us?" Read the appeal for more.

That statement, like much of the FSF’s work, is not going to get very far with most users today. Most people don’t think of technology as the source of control, power, or autonomy. They don’t understand why software should be free or even what that might mean. Making this argument widely is something the FSF works hard to do. But supporting this work is a bit of a chicken-egg problem. The users we most need to reach have never heard our message and it can take some time to turn even the most receptive into supporters.

For those of us that do care about technology and the power it has over its users, it’s hugely important that we take action to support software freedom and organizations like the FSF that play a key place in this struggle. If we don’t, nobody else will. The pool of people who might support the FSF today is small — there are currently about 3,000 members — but the stakes are huge: A choice between a world of DRM, locked down mobile phones, and non-free network services on one hand, and the possibility of a world where there are free alternatives on the other. The FSF won’t win this fight alone, but it plays a critical role in it.

The FSF is a small, humble, and responsible non-profit and a little money can have a big impact. If you are not an FSF associate member, now would be a great time to join. Membership is $120 per year ($60 for students) and payable monthly. In preparing this appeal, I realized that my membership had lapsed a couple months ago and that my partner Mika was still donating at the reduced student price. We’ve personally fixed both these things and made an additional donation. If you are a member, you can check your status or make a donation. If you are not yet, Please consider joining us.

Contribute to AcaWiki

In the process of studying for my PhD general examinations this year, I ended up writing summaries about 200 academic books and articles.

AcaWiki is a wiki designed to host summaries of academic articles so it seemed like a great place to host these things. Over the last few months, I’ve uploaded all these summaries. Since I’ve finished, I’ve continued to add summaries of other articles as I read them.

My summaries tend to be rough. I write them, run them through a spellchecker, and then post them. I don’t even reread them before publishing. I hope to improve them as I reread them over time. Of course, because I’ve uploaded them to wiki, I hope others will add to and improve the summaries as well.

AcaWiki uses Semantic Mediawiki and provides nice platform for publishing, editing, and collaboration. Although there are still ways in which the platform can be better, what is needed now is, quite simply, more contributors. I am sad to see that my summaries make up a big chunk of all summaries on the site.

So if you are a student, an academic, or anyone else who writes or has written summaries of articles or books or if you might want to do so, you should consider contributing your summaries, in whatever form, to AcaWiki. I’ve done a little work to help integrate AcaWiki and Zotero which might make things easier.

Doctoral students reading for qualifying or general examinations in particular should should consider taking notes and studying with AcaWiki. From the student’s perspective, writing summaries can be one of the best way to reflect on and learn a literature. In the process, one can create a great resource for the rest of the world. If a single doctoral student from each of twenty diverse fields of study published summaries of the 200 key articles in their area, AcaWiki would have the critical core of what is most relevant in academia. Help us build it!

Italian Travel Update

Due to a variety of people and places we want to see, Mika and I have regrouped around a more ambitious travel schedule in Italy for the next week or so. Our new plan is:

  • August 23-27: Florence
  • August 27-29: Verona
  • August 29-31: Bologna
  • August 31-September 1: Siena
  • September 1-3: Rome

I know we’ll have an organized LUG meeting in Siena. The rest of the period is a little more open. As always, if other free software, wikimedian, or like-minded folks are around and would like to meet up in any of those places, don’t hesitate to get in contact.

In related news, inspired by Florence and by Mika’s domo-kun purse, I made a duomo-kun today.


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 Korčula 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!

Wikimedia Scholarship 2009-2010

Folks at last year’s Wikimania may remember the presentation I gave there. It was essentially a literature review of Wikipedia and Wikimedia scholarship from the previous year. The idea was to give a bird’s-eye-view as well a series of highlights — all aimed at Wikimedians.

Apparently somebody found it useful because I’ve been asked to do it again! I’m going to be paired up in a longer session with Felipe Ortega — whose excellent dissertation I summarized as part of my talk last year — and Mayo Fuster Morell has also agreed to help out. Felipe is program chair for WikiSym this year and will be focusing on providing folks with a summary of the papers published at that conference. It will be held immediately before Wikimania in Gdansk. For my part, I’m going to be focusing more broadly and talking about papers published, well, anywhere else.

And this is where you come in!

With search engines and all, I’ve got a pretty good idea of breadth of the work that’s out there. I also "just know" stuff from my own areas of interest and study. That said, I don’t have as strong of an idea of what’s good and what’s relevant beyond what I can grok from citation counts. And after one year (or less!), that’s clearly not very much information.

As a result, I’m looking for suggestions or recommendations from anybody on interesting, useful, important, or otherwise noteworthy scholarly papers on or about Wikipedia or other Wikimedia projects published in the last year. Feel free to leave a comment, email, or edit this page.

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