LibrePlanet 2021 day one: Taking action to empower users
As you may be aware, this isn’t the first LibrePlanet conference that has taken place entirely online: in 2020, the timing could hardly have been worse, with coronavirus shutdowns in Massachusetts starting the very week that the conference was scheduled. With only a week to scrap plans we had spent most of a year making, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) still managed to pull off a full, vibrant schedule, and livestreamed using only free software thanks to our wildly talented and dedicated tech team, but we knew that with a bit more time to plan, we could do even more.
So when it became clear, last fall, that an in-person conference in Boston was still not going to be feasible for spring 2021, we sprang into action trying to find extra ways to make this conference special and memorable.
An all-online conference had a few advantages and a few disadvantages: on the one hand, scrapping the need to travel meant that many talented voices from all over the globe could submit talks without worrying about plane fare or accommodations. Even better: while the FSF has always made an effort to make LibrePlanet activities available from afar, a fully-online conference could welcome attendees from absolutely everywhere with an Internet connection. Which meant that this conference featured speakers from everywhere from the United States to India, France, Spain, Turkey, and more, with the first count in the morning showing attendees from thirty-two different countries! It also meant that registration for the event has been sky-high, with over 1,100 registrants by this morning (the most ever).
On the other hand, part of the purpose, and the joy, of a yearly conference is the opportunity to create and reinforce personal connections across the free software community. Lasting friendships and professional relationships are born in conference hallways, and these relationships are part of what has caused the free software movement to grow and thrive over the last four decades. This is why, prior to 2020, we always emphasized in-person attendance, and why it was crucial to add social elements to the 2021 conference.
That’s why the 2021 conference included a new space called LibreAdventure. Made using a fork of the most recent free version of the WorkAdventure program, LibreAdventure provided virtual physical session rooms and “hallway space,” as well as an exhibitor hall, which popped up video chat when your adorable avatar bumps into another avatar onscreen. Roaming the verdant little islands floating in space, you might bump into the last person whose talk inspired you, or make a new friend.
GNU chief webmaster Jason Self told me “I love this LibreAdventure -- walking around and getting to talk to other participants,” and Chris at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told me that LibreAdventure has given this conference “the closest feel to a real conference from a virtual conference. It’s been really cool to just bump into people and chat.” The density of attendance in LibreAdventure hasn’t been as great as it could be (it’s a pretty large landscape), so if you didn’t make it in on Saturday, check it out on Sunday! You’ll be glad that you did.
This morning started with a quick address by FSF program manager Zoë Kooyman, who welcomed our attendees and gave some instructions on how to get started watching streaming talks in the Jupiter, Neptune, and Saturn rooms, how to explore LibreAdventure, and how to interact with other attendees via chat in IRC. The mood in the #libreplanet channel on IRC was boisterous, and many dozens of attendees said this was their first LibrePlanet conference, which is exactly what we want to hear -- the free software movement needs to grow in order to win!
The first session began with Eda Nano (who spoke at the FSF35 anniversary celebration) beaming in from France, representing April and La Quadrature du Net, to talk about the Technopolice movement, which analyzes and documents surveillance technologies in French cities. In the other rooms, longtime LibrePlanet speaker Stefano Zacchiroli introduced new viewers to the Software Heritage project, the premier digital preservation initiative, and Sripath Roy Koganti, general secretary of Swecha AP, a free software organization in Andhra Pradesh, India, spoke about his organization’s efforts to create equitable access to digital learning in a hugely economically stratified country.
Sripath talked about how in India, there are families with the most modern devices and Internet access, and top-notch schools -- while other families don’t even have access to a computer, and some schools may have as few as eight or nine computers to serve hundreds of children. GNU/Linux systems, free hardware designs, and freely licensed educational materials have been crucial to Swecha’s efforts to expand access, with simulations constructed to help children understand concepts just as a teacher would demonstrate them in person, and access to educational materials without needing to be connected to the Internet. Swecha is gathering students, developers, and free software activists to develop educational software and hardware, bring them into schools, train teachers, and more.
Every time slot today was a smorgasbord of tempting choices, and the second slot of day one was no exception: in the Jupiter room, educator Mariah Villarreal laid out the state of software in schools, and shared her insights on how to free students from the abuses of proprietary educational software; in Saturn, Pouhiou Noénaute, from Framasoft (who you may also remember from FSF35), described Framasoft’s many initiatives to free computing in France; and Turkish free software activists Alper Atmaca and Özcan Oğuz emphasized the urgent need for free networks in a country where censorship and government and corporate control are overwhelming.
All of these talks were delivered by people doing important work with great passion and enthusiasm, but I could only watch one talk at a time, so I turned my attention to Alper and Özcan, who are always a delight to watch. Their current project, Freifunk Istanbul, is an effort to extend the work of a German group called Freifunk Ulm into their own city, utilizing mesh networks to enable people in their neighborhood to communicate in freedom.
It’s a complex project, with every kind of barrier, from potential legal problems to expensive equipment to the location of the Bosphorus River, but Alper and Özcan are cheerfully defiant. One of their slides asked, “Perhaps we humans suck at keeping democracies? What we are good at is ingenuity and revolution!” and concluded, “When did we decide anyone but us be the arbiter of our communication? In a place where power is unquestioned, infrastructure is controlled, information is weaponized, nobody can stay human for long.”
At noon (rather than earlier in the day, since we wanted to maximize how many participants around the world would be able to join), former European Parliament member and copyright reform activist, Julia Reda, delivered the opening keynote. Julia discussed the intersection between politics and technological freedom, covering topics including the centralization of power among tech companies, the issues with the concept of “digital sovereignty” (an ideological framework under which it would theoretically be fine to have huge tech monopolies as long as they’re from your particular country), and how governments must not merely tolerate but must encourage and promote free software.
The 12:55 EDT round of talks featured Etienne Gonnu from April, talking about free software activism in France and Europe; Giselle Jhunjhnuwala and Charlie Koch talking about how to use gamification to encourage and motivate people, and how to use it in the context of free software and free culture; and Neil McGovern, executive director of the GNOME Foundation, told the hair-raising tale of how GNOME was hit with a patent suit in 2019, but ultimately triumphed. Notably, Neil was enjoying some social time during the GUADEC conference when he got the news of the lawsuit through social media, just before the boat he was on, sailing the lovely harbor of Thessaloniki, set sail, cutting off his Internet access so he had to wait until he returned to shore to respond!
In the next shift, we learned about the right to repair from iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens, who correctly noted that all the free software in the world doesn’t matter if you have no hardware you can run it on, and got a report back from the FSF High Priority Projects committee from Sean O’Brien. Manufactura Independente, a research and design studio in Spain, also told the story of their ten years using only free software design tools. It may be more complicated to use command line and git tools to create, share, and collaborate on design projects, but the results are beautiful and allow for creativity that proprietary tools are designed to curtail. (You can see some of their work on the FSF annual reports page!)
Another highlight was Karen Johnson’s talk, “Building equitable free software communities for all,” which began with a success story: how Karen’s love for the video game Doom exposed her to the possibilities of free software, and how she discovered community after community that encouraged her curiosity about free software and nurtured her passion for GNU/Linux, ultimately becoming a volunteer on free software projects, then a professional systems administrator, and finally, working for CivicActions, which encourages the use of free software.
We want free software communities to nurture each new person along the way until they become a free software lifer, as Karen has, but she noted, along her journey there were any number of experiences that were less welcoming and could have shifted her from this path. Pain points including difficulty getting involved, a lack of training, limited community time spent training new members, bootstrap mentality, unclear goals, and community toxicity, can all turn people away from the rewards of making, proliferating, and advocating for free software, and combating these factors is crucial to keeping our movement growing.
A long and very interesting day ended with evening keynotes from FSF president Geoff Knauth and FSF executive director John Sullivan. Geoff's talk emphasized the key values of free software, and the fundamental importance of free software for our rights as human beings. John's talk included an announcement that the FSF will be prioritizing work to bring a fully free ebook reader into the Respects Your Freedom certification program, in order to free users from dangerous proprietary control over knowledge and culture. To participate, please visit https://libreplanet.org/wiki/Group:Hardware/research/e-readers.
Finally, the Free Software Awards ceremony honored individuals and organizations who have strengthened the free software movement and used free software on projects of wider social benefit. You can find out more about our winners and the presentation here.
Reflecting on the talks I attended, I find myself going back again to an idea from Turkish free software activists Alper Atmaca and Özcan Oğuz: “Everyone likes to talk and see someone else doing...” It’s one thing to lament the dangers and abuses of proprietary software, but ultimately, someone must take action. Today’s conference demonstrated that there are more people taking action than you might think -- and together, bit by bit (and commit by commit), we are moving mountains.
We couldn’t be prouder of how this conference has come together. We’re looking forward to a full day of useful talks and fun conversations tomorrow, and we hope you are, too!
Screenshots Copyright © 2021 Free Software Foundation, photos licensed under CC-BY 4.0.