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You are here: Home Blogs Community LibrePlanet day 1: Can free software carry an entire online conference? Yes, it can!

LibrePlanet day 1: Can free software carry an entire online conference? Yes, it can!

by Greg Farough Contributions Published on Mar 14, 2020 08:54 PM
Photo of FSF tech team monitoring the conference streams

Sometimes, all of your best-laid plans can go awry, and when COVID-19 collided with LibrePlanet 2020, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) staff and management had to make an incredibly tough decision: how were we to weigh the risk of a spreading pandemic against our most important yearly event? Within the space of a week, we had to change course from months of scrupulous planning and figure out how to ensure that our carefully-composed program could move forward, giving the worldwide free software community access to the experts, creators, and enthusiasts we had planned to bring together in Boston. We were incredibly excited to present this slate of free software luminaries and newcomers, all eager to discuss what it will take to "Free the Future," and we weren't about to let all of that effort go to waste.

Thankfully, free software activists aren't afraid of a little adversity, and are accustomed to taking on challenges. In only a few days, we fully shifted gears to deliver the LibrePlanet 2020 program remotely, with online talks streaming in from all over the world. We're so grateful to our speakers, who have been so flexible, and to the last-minute benefactors that volunteered to help fill any gaps that might ensue. All this allowed us to present you with a nearly full program for the event!

Photo of FSF campaigns manager Greg Farough moderating remote panel

Usually the FSF office is packed to the seams with visitors from all over the world during our Friday night open house and our Saturday night hack night. While we had to discourage all visitors and volunteers from coming due to the COVID-19 risk, the office was still bustling all day, since it served as the home base for our online conference operation. Our intrepid copyright and licensing associate Craig Topham made a deep clean of the "pirate room," and the tech team worked practically overnight on our fully free streaming setup for 2020. The conference was brought to viewers around the world using entirely free software: our local Jitsi instance, Gstreamer and Icecast.

Today's program kicked off with a panel calculated to line up perfectly with the conference theme: the "Free the Future" keynote panel featured a group of talented hackers in their teens and early twenties, interviewed by FSF campaigns manager Greg Farough. Speakers Alyssa Rosenzweig, Taowa, and Erin Moon each shared stories of how they discovered free software, and shared insights they feel are essential to the future of the free software movement.

Alyssa, who interned at the FSF in 2018, spoke eloquently about how important it is for our community to come together: "We cannot let fear of future dystopia drive us, quibbling over semantics of our fear and burning out by the fires we chase, but rather must unite in constructive optimism propelling us to free the future." She added, "Optimism is also critical for we free software activists. We need to empathize and support each other as a community, not demonize imperfections. Measured against our dream utopia, none of us are perfect. Judging others is emotional mutiny to the movement. Judging ourselves, however, is a one-way ticket to activist burnout. But if we focus on the constructive love of freedom instead of the destructive forces we fight, our movement becomes sustainable..."

The morning's conversation turned on a variety of topics, including free software community building, mobile phone freedom, and the unique role decentralized (or "federated") social media plays when it comes to bringing users freedom. Taowa shared his experiences as a non-uploading Debian Developer, discussing the challenges of organizing Debian's own conference, DebConf. Erin, who came to free software by way of her work in digital signal processing, had special insights to share on how free software is poised to being people freedom on the Web.

The first morning session started on an creative note with a lesson in "Digital painting with Krita on GNU/Linux: Cute creature concept art" from French cartoonist David Revoy, whose Web comic Pepper&Carrot is created with an entirely free workflow. Revoy demonstrated the capabilities of the free software painting program Krita to draw two adorable GNU from start to finish. Other sessions were a presentation by journalist Lucy Ingham called "Rented future: The dangerous rise of life as a service," and an expert overview of free software in the US government by Karen Johnson and Fen Labalme.

In the next session, online viewers chose between learning about encryption with engineer DeeDee Lavinder, about free software community building in the US versus China with artist and programmer Giselle Jhunjhnuwala, and methods for educating students about the importance of ethical software with William Liggett. DeeDee gave viewers a crash course into the "huge topic" of encryption, which touches the lives of every software user, providing technical and non-technical users alike with a conceptual overview of free software encryption technology and its importance.

After a brief lunch break, sessions resumed with more lessons about free software communities from developer advocate JJ Asghar, a visit to the fascinating world of typography with Felipe Sanches, and a passionate motivation for broader use of free software from local high school student Ben O'Neill, who correctly points out that free software provides a far more environmentally sustainable model for computing than the "planned obsolescence" model embraced by most proprietary manufacturers.

The next time slot lined up a choice of interesting questions for online participants: would you prefer to learn about how copyleft can be used to disrupt the "smart device" dystopia from former FSF executive director Bradley Kuhn. Or, would you prefer to find out how free software can improve the future of farming, with a dynamic panel from the Gathering for Open Ag Tech ( Or, would you prefer a freewheeling metaphor comparing bicycles and free software, from perennial LibrePlanet speaker Wm "Salt" Hale? (Luckily, if you were having trouble deciding, you don't have to miss out on any of these -- videos of all of these talks will be available at the LibrePlanet video library).

Talks in the next session got down to practical nuts and bolts: where is free software being used in real life, and by whom? Robb Ebright explained how his community radio station uses LibreTime, an AGPLv3-licensed radio automation system, while Paul Gazillo and Joshua Santana explained how free software provides the best tools to enable free scientific inquiry, and Camille Akmut presented their study of exactly how diverse free software projects are (and aren't). All in all, it was an engaging look into the practical "future" of free software: both in terms of how we can welcome an ever-changing userbase into the community, as well as how free software can be used to transmit other kinds of messages out to the world.

The last multi-talk slot of the day included LibrePlanet 2019 keynote Micky Metts digging deeper into her thoughts on how we can control our own data, Document Foundation co-founder Italo Vignoli taking a look back at ten years in the life of LibreOffice. Micky painted a somewhat frightening picture about the future surveillance capitalism is creating for us -- and what we can and must do to stop it. On the other hand, Italo gave an overview of the successes the LibreOffice project has seen in such a short time, becoming a free software writing and presentation suite used by millions around the world.

Finally, the day ended with a keynote by FSF executive director John Sullivan, including the bestowal of the 2019 Free Software Awards. The winners had already been notified in advance (under ordinary circumstances, they would have been present and would each be giving a talk on Sunday). This gave the FSF the opportunity to praise the accomplishments of the three winners: longtime free software contributor and author Jim Meyering, talented newbie Clarissa Lima Borges, and the Let's Encrypt project. Each winner chose the person who would present them with the award. In fact, reaching out to the community is something we plan to do even more as we move forward with LibrePlanet 2021.

In his keynote address following the award presentation ceremony, Sullivan announced the beginning of a new working group on free software communication technology. True to the conference's mission to "free the future," this working group will combine the free software acumen of the FSF with experts working in the related fields. Together, the working group will identify and publicly document the most pressing issues facing the freedom of person-to-person communication, with the goal of having ethical solutions to virtual events, online education, and workplace collaboration. In a situation like the present COVID-19 pandemic, these are precisely the tools that we need.

This year's volunteering tasks were very different but no less essential than in the past, and we're so grateful for all of the volunteers helping out and taking the time to keep our IRC channels peaceful and orderly. We're also grateful for raffle donors Technoethical, Vikings, JMP, No Starch Press, and ThinkPenguin. Since we weren't able to organize an online raffle, we're scheming some fun ways to parcel out these goodies, so keep an eye on for future announcements!

Join us for the second day of LibrePlanet 2020, streaming live to you tomorrow at 09:30 EDT!

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