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Freedom, memories, and campaigning for free software

by Greg Farough Contributions Published on Dec 24, 2020 03:36 PM

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) turned thirty-five years old this year, and so we took the occasion to do some digging into the past to bring you some of the key moments and fun anecdotes in three parts, one focusing on collected stories centered around each of the three major areas of work at the FSF:

  • The licensing and compliance lab handles GNU General Public License (GPL) compliance, fields questions from the public about licensing best practices, provides licensing education, and manages the Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification program;
  • The campaigns team advocates for free software, and helps spread awareness through writing and educational projects, developing resources, and organizing the community; and
  • The intrepid tech team supports the development of free software by providing a wide selection of services that support free software development; they also provide all of the FSF's own infrastructure, as well as the infrastructure for the GNU Project, and other free software projects.

This installment in our series is focused on the history of the FSF's campaigns team. As with our article on the tech team, it is not meant to be a comprehensive history, but is instead a collection of some past members of the team's favorite moments, memories, and actions from our history of spreading the message of free software.

It's the support of people like you that enables the campaigns team to teach the world about software freedom. Our associate membership program is at the heart of the Foundation's work. If you're not already, can you take the next step in your advocacy and become a member today?

If you're already a member, thank you! Can you ask at least one other person to support the FSF as well? If each free software advocate like you inspires just one other, we could do at least twice as much of this work. Please share this blog post and our appeal page with others, using the hashtag #UserFreedom on social media. If you're able to, anything additional you can contribute will enable the campaigns team to support the free software community for years to come.

This fall fundraiser, our goal is to reach 500 new associate members before December 31st. If you join today, you can select a special gift in addition to being able to enjoy all of our associate membership benefits, which include the free "as in freedom" videoconferencing server.

Early history of the campaigns team

The technical goals involved in creating the GNU operating system and encouraging others to develop free software were the FSF's early focal points, starting in 1985. As more people around the world heard the call and started to release their own free programs, the FSF could then turn its attention to educational and advocacy issues surrounding free software, which are just as crucial as making technical progress.

It is one thing to have a large amount of free software, and even an entire operating system that people can use, but recruiting new community members, and giving them a grounding in the ethics of software and the importance of software freedom poses different challenges. At the same time, we saw the need to address structural barriers to full software freedom, like software patents and Digital Restrictions Management (DRM).

The campaigns team is committed to advocating for free software and against the injustice of proprietary software, and to that end, we can often be found tabling, doing public speaking engagements, writing blog posts on current events, and working for software freedom in education, only to name a few of the things that we do. Working on the FSF's campaigns means putting up a broad attack on threats to user freedom coming from a wide variety of places, both within proprietary software development and exterior factors like software patents, the DMCA, and other unjust legislation. Not to mention writing this history!

One can see the beginnings of the campaigns team in early GNU Bulletin articles, such as the editorial on audio copy protection found in the June 1987 issue. A look at articles like these is instructive. Not only does it show the FSF weighing in on a kind of proto-version of DRM, but it shows how entwined the organization's commentary on issues were with its technical goals. Founder Richard Stallman's editorial on audio copy protection ends with a call to action and instructions for contacting congressional representatives in the United States, something that would be continue to be common to see in an article the campaigns team writes today.

GNU's early software freedom activism consisted of a range of interesting activities, convincing people to take a stand for free software. For instance, in 1989, the GNU team collaborated with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors in taking out a full-page ad in the MIT student newspaper The Tech in protest of Apple and Lotus. The very next issue of the GNU Bulletin encourages readers to boycott Apple, and announces the founding of the League for Programming Freedom, a separate organization from the FSF whose mission was to oppose the "look and feel" lawsuits being filed by proprietary software developers at the time, and later, the existence of software patents.

One of the earliest named campaigns undertaken by the FSF was the formation of the Digital Speech Project in late 2001, to combat the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). For this initiative, the FSF collaborated with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a diverse core committee of activists, including a law professor, a music teacher, a songwriter, a librarian, and Ravi Khanna, the FSF's director of communications.

The Digital Speech Project focused particularly on outreach to college campuses, and at least one group, at the University of Kentucky, saw a lot of activity. In conjunction with the other members of the project, Bradley Kuhn, FSF executive director at that time, spoke to college classes on the overreach of copyright law, and the unjust restrictions being levied by the music industry against those who used the Internet to share music files in an unauthorized but non-commercial manner. Even at this early stage, the FSF was focused on communicating the importance of digital freedom, and encountered some of the same challenges we face in our outreach today. The organizers of the Digital Speech Project saw the importance of having a diversified approach, which is why they drew on the experience of people working outside the realm of computer science.

Defective by Design

In 2006, John Sullivan (now executive director) became the FSF's first campaigns manager, and was soon followed by Josh Gay and Matt Lee, who, for a while, worked in tandem on the FSF's campaigns. A look through one of the FSF's own Bulletin issues from the era shows us covering a wider range of topics than we had done before, and more of them at the same time. These include issues like the dire need to end software patents, on which then-executive director Peter Brown wrote, something GNU had been advocating against for many years, as well as general free software advocacy. Something especially notable in this period was the launch of a dedicated campaign against DRM: Defective by Design (DBD).

Starting the Defective by Design campaign was one of the FSF's greatest campaigns successes, and it remains one of our longest-running and most active efforts. Defective by Design was the initiator of the International Day Against DRM, an event that has substantially grown in size and in number of both individual and organizational supporters. DBD is also the campaign that has had some of our most "iconic" imagery, such as the quintessential HAZMAT suits that we still use today, or the iBad series of stickers protesting the iPhone, iPad, and iPod. Since the campaign has launched, thousands have come to understand the problem that DRM poses to digital culture. When the campaign first began, it was seen as a fringe issue, but as the years wore on and streaming services like Netflix became dominant, the campaign drew even more attention and convinced others of the need for anti-DRM advocacy.

John relates that one of his favorite stories from the Defective by Design campaign was during a demonstration at the Apple Store. After calling on DBD supporters around the country to protest and hand out fliers inside of their local Apple Store, the FSF's own DBD team started the protest by going to a mall in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What they didn't expect was the police to be waiting there for them. Apparently, someone involved in Apple retail had gotten wind of the protests and asked the police to attend. As the group started to assemble on the lawn outside the mall, John continued talking with a police officer who was dispatched to watch them. After the cop asked what they were protesting, John mentioned DRM, expecting to have to explain it to him. Surprisingly, the police officer said, "I know what DRM is. That's what keeps me from copying my son's music on my own MP3 player." The police officer later asked if John or anyone else in the DBD group wanted to be arrested, strictly for the sake of publicity, but he declined, saying they'd rather go through with the demonstration. Once they had gotten into the mall, the team was able to don HAZMAT suits and hand out leaflets inside of the Apple Store. As soon as the crew left the store, they were kicked out of the mall.

Since Apple was one of the largest purveyors of DRM for a long time in the form of the iTunes Store, a practice Steve Jobs himself wrote against in 2007, Apple naturally attracted much of the campaign's attention. Another memorable moment from the history of Defective by Design was its call to deliver a message via appointments with the Apple Store's Genius Bar staff by asking questions about DRM being used in the iPhone. The campaign scored how well the staff had been briefed on the questions, to identify areas for improvement in the company, and called for it to be used across the thirteen countries that had Apple Store locations at the time. Perhaps owing to the ceaseless scrutiny that Defective by Design and other anti-DRM activists placed on the company, they have now greatly reduced their use of DRM on music, for a while -- but now they have doubled-down on DRM in video and audio, as well as iOS applications.

Defective by Design's other actions in its early period were equally varied and creative, and have inspired many later activities in other FSF campaigns. They included sending crates of peaches to Jeff Bezos, in addition to the Brick Nintendo demonstration, during which the campaign assembled hundreds of cardboard bricks to send to Nintendo in protest of DRM being used on the Nintendo DS console. Whether it was addressing DRM in music players, video games, or books, the campaign was able to expand the FSF's advocacy into other areas of digital freedom and to a wider audience. Owing to its widespread appeal, the DBD campaign has shown up in unlikely places, being photographed in locations all over the world, including subway cars and street signs. We haven't seen the films ourselves, but if some licensing forms we have on record are to be believed, one Defective by Design sticker even ended up in one of the Twilight films, so eagle-eyed readers who enjoy vampires and melodrama should pay close attention anytime a guitar case comes on screen.

The new millennium

Of course, while the FSF campaigns team was dedicated to expanding the Defective by Design campaign, it didn't stop its messaging on other issues related to software freedom. Naturally, part of that messaging was celebrating the successes of software freedom. Former FSF campaigns manager Matt Lee told us that one highlight of his FSF experience was producing the "Happy Birthday to GNU" film for GNU's 25th anniversary, which featured UK celebrity Stephen Fry. Before the production of the short, Matt was at another job and in an entirely different country, but over the course of its production, he ended up taking a position at the FSF, a place he had wanted to work at since the early 90s. Matt mentions that for him, one highlight of the short's production was how they were able to keep the celebrity guest a secret until its release. Watching the video today, you might notice that the computer Stephen is using is a MacBook, but rest assured, it was running gNewSense at the time of filming, one of the first fully free GNU/Linux distributions, and a project which Matt has lately been trying to revitalize.

Similar to Defective by Design's Apple Store protest, John remembers a demonstration that FSF's BadVista campaign had outside the Windows Vista launch in Times Square, New York. NYPD were less understanding than the Cambridge police, and forced us into a "free speech zone" sandwiched between the ends of two giant tour buses, where nobody would be able to see us or our signs. Fortunately, before that, we had already been able to go up and down the line of people waiting to get in and passing by, distributing leaflets and bootable GNU/Linux discs.

John Sullivan writes that another of his favorite experiences in his time on the campaigns team was in conjunction with the PlayOgg campaign, an initiative meant to encourage the use of media formats compatible with free software. Before the patent on MP3 expired, promoting the use of these formats was critical in preserving free software developers' ability to create audio and video decoders without fear of legal attack. As part of this effort, the FSF and PlayOgg supporters petitioned the NPR affiliate WBUR to start offering a radio stream in the Ogg Vorbis format, and were successful. Harnessing the commitment of a small group of activists to affect change in the digital world is what the FSF's campaigns team is all about, and is a current that runs through our history. These focused, specific actions add up to build momentum for the whole movement.

A cursory look at its history will reveal how forward-thinking the FSF is when it comes to spotting new threats on the horizon, and its response to network services is one of them. As early as 2008, the FSF led the call for freedom in the realm of social media and network services in general, playing host to a summit on network freedom that resulted in the publication of the Franklin Street Statement, one of the earliest articulations of the need for software freedom and decentralization to come to social media. Decentralization and freedom from bulk surveillance are two issues that the FSF is still campaigning on today, and we continue to embrace decentralized media publishing, recently adding our videos to PeerTube.

Moving forward

The traditional, annual FSF associate membership meeting that ran from 2003 to 2008 transformed in 2009 into the LibrePlanet conference that we still hold today. Covering LibrePlanet and the many inspiring sessions that have resulted from nearly thirteen years of the conference could be an article all on its own, but rather than wait for us to write about them, you can see some of the conference's highlights for yourself by visiting the LibrePlanet archives on our MediaGoblin instance. Please be sure to also read up on and register for the LibrePlanet 2021 conference, which will be held online, and where we will be making even more history for the record books.

Part of the campaigns team's leap forward was branching out into educational endeavors, and through a grant from the Staples Foundation, we were able to introduce students at five public high schools in Boston to free software and advanced computer literacy. As most computer literacy programs are subsidized by proprietary software developers, and purposefully try to get students dependent on a single nonfree program, the FSF's curriculum made freedom a priority, introducing students to useful free software tools, in addition to teaching them the importance of the four freedoms. As recently as 2019, before the pandemic hit, members of the FSF campaigns team were able to travel to local high schools to deliver the message of free software.

On the subject of educational advocacy, the campaigns team debuted its Email Self-Defense Guide in 2014, a simple and practical tool newcomers can use to ensure that their communications remain secure. In the first year of its launch, the Guide was translated into ten languages, and was used by tens of thousands of people to avoid government and corporate bulk surveillance. As there have recently been changes to the programs used and recommended in the Guide, the current campaigns team is working on improvements we hope to unveil soon.

Using some of the experience gained from the Defective by Design protests, future members of the campaigns team were able to diversify their tactics to address other issues in the software freedom movement. Former campaigns manager Zak Rogoff wrote to us to say that one of his favorite moments from the time he spent on the campaigns team was protesting a new version of Windows outside a Microsoft store in Boston. The team wasn't able to stay very long before being ushered out by security, but Zak was able to don the office's famous GNU mascot head and try out some dance moves. Apparently, an attempt at breakdancing was one of them, something that would have been difficult even without an enormous plush wildebeest balanced on your head. We'll never know whether it was Zak's dance attempt or the protest that actually caused someone to call security.

Unfortunately, this article can't cover every project the FSF campaigns team works on, or even all of the issues we address in our day-to-day work. We also haven't covered some of the important advocacy work that's been done by other FSF staff, such as the mini-summit on women in free software in 2009. But what we can do is invite you to join us in our mission to bring free software and #UserFreedom to computer users around the world. Before joining the team myself, reading about the work and protests from afar never failed to be inspiring, and it helped me take my first steps into organizing for software freedom.

Thank you to all of the past and present members of the FSF campaigns team, wherever you may be, and thanks especially to all of the FSF's many volunteers, protesters, activists, and supporters who have helped us reach this important milestone. It's your dedication and support that ensures we're able to focus on creating a world in which all software respects its users' freedom and dignity.

Illustration Copyright © 2020 Free Software Foundation, Inc., by Raghavendra Kamath, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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