Emacsen's Blog

Free Software Call To Action

This last year has been a very difficult one for civil liberties and personal freedoms.

Donald Trump, the president-elect of the United States, has promised to round up and deport illegal immigrants as well as removing legal immigrants from the US. In addition, and more importantly, he's discussed creating a "Muslim Registry" and his cabinet has likened to the US Japanese Internment Camps of WW2, and supports mass surveillance. Pence, the vice-presidential nominee, supports rolling back protections for gays, lesbians and transgender people.

With these views espoused by the political leadership, it should be no surprise that hate crimes are on the rise, with the Southern Povery Law Center documenting over 700 hate crimes in just the week after the election.

Brexit symbolized a change for the United Kingdom, signaling a change from inclusion and connection with Europe to isolationism. Racist and xenophobic statements were part of the campaign to disconnect the UK from the European Union, drawing on ideas that in the past, the United Kingdom was strong, and could be again. In the last month, the UK has passed a law that gives the government not only the ability to track its citizens, but access to all their past activities online, including browser history, emails and other communications.

Aside from the US, right wing parties are on the rise in Europe, with the rising popularity of Frauke Petry's AfD party in Germany, Norbert Hofer's Austria Freedom party in Austria as well as Marie Le Pen's National Front in France. All of these political movements signal a move away from inclusion and social acceptance and towards isolationism, "traditional values" and the persecution of vulnerable populations such as refugees, immigrants, gays and lesbians, transgender people, people of color, Jews, Muslims, the physically handicapped or the neuro-divergent. If you aren't personally mentioned in this group, it's likely that you know someone who is- and believe me, they, I, am scared.

We're scared that our lives will be destroyed, that the work we've done to make our lives better will be undone, that marriages will be dissolved, that employment protections will be rolled back and we'll be fired, or worse, that we'll be forcibly taken from our homes, physically attacked or killed.

With these established facts, what practical steps do we take from here? I outline four practical steps that we Free Software people need to take.

  1. Establish and promote alternative communication platforms

The first step the Free Software community needs to take is to recognize for ourselves that we need free methods of communication. Freedom is not free unless we can communicate with one another, whether that be messaging, audio/visual communication, or the distribution of static content.

Because of the enormity of this task, I've broken it down further into smaller sub-tasks.

A. Promote "small step" improvements in communication security.

We in the Free Software community have a tendency towards absolutism. There are understandable and justifiable reasons for that, but when the stakes are so high, we must not become so entrenched in [TK!] that we lose the opportunity to help others through smaller steps that they could take right now, without making a major change in their lives.

Asking all your friends to use OpenPGP and plain text communication might be asking too much, but sending people to Signal and encouraging them to use it is a good first step. Similarly, encouraging the use of technologies like TOR, and pointing them to the EFF's Secure Messaging Scorecard are great ways to make small improvements, which is our first step in making the kinds of progress that we need in ensuring our rights to communicate and congregate freely online.

B. Test, use and promote more comprehensive communication improvements

When a new communication platform launches and it respects your privacy, use it, and encourage others to use it. It may be difficult or impossible to get people to add something onto their existing communication platform, but with new platforms come "new rules" and it may be easier to encourage them to switch to a new system than retrofit their old one. You can help test these platforms and encourage their use by example.

C. Use and Promote Self-Hosted Communication Platforms

A big problem right now is the use of third party hosted platforms for our communication. Google and Facebook and others are very convenient, but result in a loss of privacy and control. Instead, self-hosted platforms (even on a commercial platform such as a VPS) are better as they decentralize your data.

If you are in a decision making capacity at your job, neighborhood association or other organization, encourage and support the use of self-hosted tools.

If you're a developer, consider the ease of use of deploying and maintaining the service for very small groups of 2-20 people. Use defaults that work well for small groups and consider small libraries such as SQLite instead of requiring a standalone database. If you can, provide a containerized version of your application for easy installation.

If you're a system administrator, consider helping provide helpful tutorials and scripts to make the deployment of software easier.

D. Offer support to alternative platforms

In the 90s, the community had social gatherings called Installfests where people came together to offer technical support and assistence in helping bring new people to Free Software. If we have entirely new operating systems or hardware, we may need to bring these Installfests back, not just for their role in technical assistance but also as an opportunity to make one on one, personal contact and build a local community. It's important for people to feel connected and part of something larger than themselves, and offering physical meetings can play an important role in realizing that goal.

  1. Recognize and support community diversity

More than product developers, the Free Software community is built on top of a shared experience and shared culture. Part of that culture is acceptance and welcoming of people who are different from you. We need to stand by our community members, no matter where they're from, their religious background, their gender identity or sexual orientation. We are stronger together.

While these are nice sentiments, they must also be backed up with action, especially in regards to our most vulnerable populations. In some cases, that may mean codifying these principles into a community statement or code of conduct, but in all cases, it means that if you see something wrong, you need to stand up to it. We need to ensure that the feeling of camaraderie, familiarity and safety that most of us feel within the community is something shared with everyone.

  1. Communicate openly and loudly about the moral, legal and ethical threats to our liberties

Free Software has always been about more than code, it's been part of a larger moral and ethical framework for understanding the world. We understand the role of Free Software in a larger [TK!] of personal liberties and freedoms. Free Software is a requirement for free communication in the online world. We need to know that our devices are doing what we want them to (and not what someone else might want them to do do). Once dismissed as paranoia, we know for a fact that modern "cloud enabled" devices transmit personal details about us, including our location, our interests and even record us.

If we value our freedom, we need to be able to establish boundaries around the encroachment on our civil liberties. In this time, when encroachment of civil liberties has become a norm, it is even more important to demonstrate the importance of this issue to other groups, and to build these principles into their mission statements and guidelines. To be clear, this is not about "Run Linux everywhere!", this is about codifying the principles of freedom and liberty in the framework of other organizations and by demonstrating the important of Free Software in carrying out that mission.

  1. Get involved in politics

National politics is difficult and often inaccessible, but local politics is often easy to get involved in. Even small towns have many elected positions, and small changes even on a town or city level can make a difference, if only by bringing awareness to an issue. We must get involved in out political process, not by trying to change the minds of politicians from the outside but by being involved in the political process from the inside and using our influence.

This can be at every level. There are many articles online about getting involved in local politics, so I won't replicate their efforts here.

We must take a comprehensive approach to taking back our society. We owe it to ourselves and others to get involved not only to make our voices heard, but to protect ourselves and our loved ones.

We, the Free Software community, are a community of shared values and goals and now, more than ever, we need to turn those ideals into action.