Help everybody love Free Standards and Free Software!
You will never convince ENOUGH people with the GNU Manifesto.
IMPORTANT: This piece was originally written in September 2007 for the UK Unix User Group (UKUUG), and was published on their newsletter. In early 2023, I noticed that that website had gone offline. Much of what I described in the second part happened in other ways, and still continues in this blog and my Substack newsletter, that of course you are alll invited to join. But the first part is still very relevant, in my opinion, so I republished the whole piece here, with an approximate date.
Part 1: Free Software Advocacy has reached a communication plateau
Free as in Freedom file formats, computer protocols and software are an excellent idea at many levels: ethical, moral, educational, economical and so on. I am convinced of this. Whenever I can, I only use Free Software and write articles explaining how to use and customize it. I also believe that mainstream usage of such technologies is an essential component of a Free and advanced society.
At the same time, however, I am worried every year more that the traditional way to explain, justify and advocate Free as in Freedom software has reached a communication plateau or, if you will, some built-in limit.
There is nothing wrong in the Gnu Manifesto or in almost all practical proposals of Richard Stallman, and of the Free Software Foundation, both of whom I greatly respect. I find, however, that their language and arguments are as intrinsically right as not applicable nor relevant to the great majority of computer users of today.
Aren’t Free Digital standards and software a matter of ethics, civil rights and equal opportunities? Sure. Nevertheless, talking of how beautiful it is to study, improve and share source code was enough when almost every computer user was an ICT student or professional.
Today 95 out of 100 computer users do little more than play games, file holiday pictures or (because they are forced to do so) write office or school reports. There are very little things that these people find more boring than programming or having source code available, and there is nothing changeable, or wrong, in this.
Everybody who could be convinced with just the GNU Manifesto has already read it. This, however, is an age where we also need as soon as possible the votes (in the booth or as consumers) of all those other people to make Free, open standards and software a basic, mainstream part of a more free society. But we’ll never convince them by assuming that they, too, should program, file bug reports or write documentation.
These thoughts are what led me to write pieces like “The seven things we’re tired of hearing from software hackers” or “A Free Software Manifesto for all of us”. Those were just starting points, of course. The solution I suggest, and the main subject of this article, is another.
Part 2: The Family Guide to Digital Freedom
I consider the recent campaign of the Free Software Foundation to reach out social activists as a proof that they share these concerns of mine and, generally, a very worthy initiative. I see two limits in it, however.
One is that software, Free or not, is just one of the many components, closely linked in ways still ignored by the general public, of a better world. Mandating the usage of Gnu/Linux in schools, for example, would do nothing to fix the current abuses of the copyright system. Making OpenDocument-compatible applications the only ones acceptable for Public Administrations is essential, but if certain documents aren’t published online, how can citizens effectively control if everything is right?
The other limit of the FSF campaign is the definition of “social activists”: from what I’ve seen so far, it seems limited to “the ICT staff or maybe also the employees, of formally organized groups, big enough to have their own full time ICT infrastructure”. Again, nothing wrong with this, and the FSF can do it much better than me: still, this definition leaves out what is the largest and most ubiquitous category of social activists of all times, everywhere: parents.
This is why, in the last year, I have published a book and started a website to complement the current efforts. The Family Guide to Digital Freedom is not another Linux Guide for beginners, but something pretty different: it is a book that gives all parents (and teachers) the real reasons why they should start to care about Linux and many other things which I call the Digital Dangers: from copyright to biometrics, e-voting, software induced pollution, RFID, Net Neutrality, DRM, online activism and much more!
In the Guide, things like source code, licenses and similar are deliberately mentioned almost by accident. The book, which counts just above 200 pages, is divided in 50 very short chapters, which prove, through very practical examples, how all the issues above are interrelated and how ignoring them directly hurts the budget, civil rights, education opportunities and entertainment possibilities of every family.
The problem that we FOSS activists have today is not to teach how to use Gnu/Linux: is how to make people understand why they should ever bother to listen to such talks in the first place. This is why I have written the Guide and why, by the way, it is possible to order copies with a custom back cover which promotes your LUG or pro-FOSS activity.
The Guide is not a book for FOSS activists: I have done my best to write the perfect gift that every FOSS activist could give to non-geeks parents, partners, friends, rooommates, coworkers and so on, to make them finally understand why we consider a weekend spent promoting Free Software a worthwhile activity.
The other half of this project, that is the companion of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, is the Digifreedomt website: I am building it to be the first place where all parents and teachers, starting from those who still hope that computers had never been invented, can come to figure out why it is bad to ignore the existance of DRM, Free Software and all the Digital Dangers.
Besides excerpts of the book, the visitors of Digifreedom will be able to meet other parents and teachers who want to fight those dangers or just share related experience. Above all, visitors will find a lot of useful news and resources to better understand these problems and fight them.
Right now, such resources include a database of Digitally Free Schools, one of Trashware (associations which refurbish old computers with Free Software for families, schools and non-profits) and other miscellaneous links to relevant websites. Over time I plan to add at least a database of Bad ICT information, a series of flyers temporarily called “The Fridge copyright violation cheatsheet” and very short tutorials (1 or 2 pages maximum) on several arguments.
The first of those tutorial will probably be “How to try Free Software and migrate to it without getting hurt”. A possible outline, just to give an idea of what the Digifreedom approach is meant to be, is the following:
- Start using Free Software for Windows
- Once you’re confortable with it, choose the best version of Gnu/Linux, that is anyone, as long its online user community is tolerant and friendly with beginners.
- Try a live CD of that distribution, without installing anything
- If, and only if, you like what you see, install that distribution: Otherwise, stick to Windows, but please never ever send proprietary attachments in email or create web pages unusable with Gnu/Linux.
The Bad ICT information pages will try to explain how to recognize incompetent reporting in mainstream press. They will link to articles which give misleading or plain wrong information about FOSS, P2P and so on, briefly explaining what’s wrong with them. An article titled “Hackers attacked public servers and made them crash”, for example, will earn a caption explaining the difference between hackers and crackers. One boasting that “File sharing is illegal”, instead, will get a “only if the file license forbids it” note attached.
The Fridge cheatsheets will be lists of short answers and questions, one for each country, where a FOSS activist of that country explains what is legal and what not with digital content and where to complain, something like:
- Q: Can I make a backup copy of my own legally purchased CDs? A: Not in this country, if the law proposal number XYZ is passed
- Q: If I don’t like the law, how can I stop it from being approved? A: Write to you Parliament Representative or sign the petition at www .somewhere. org
Even in this case, the purpose is to help people to finally see what is happening and make informed decisions about it.
I always welcome feedback about the book, the website and proposals for future initiatives. Please let me know what you think at email@example.com
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