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The board process, the GNU Cauldron, SaaSS, and more

by Ian Kelling Contributions Published on Jan 17, 2024 11:42 AM
Staff seat board member and senior sysadmin Ian Kelling shares his personal musings on the board process improvements, his experience working at the Free Software Foundation (FSF), why Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS) should get more attention, some lessons learned from the GNU Tools Cauldron, FSF's legal defense of GCC, and why the FSF needs your financial support.

I recently wrote to you to update you on the FSF tech team's work because I'm primarily a FSF tech team member, but noticed I had more to share. I do more than just tech team work and today I want to talk about that and explain why the FSF needs and is worthy of your financial support.

I've been at the FSF for six and a half years now. It is a fun and positive environment, and I feel grateful to be working here. All of our eleven staff are doing great work, and I have so much more I want to accomplish.

In 2021, I was elected as the staff seat to the FSF board of Directors, for which I have volunteered since. The FSF board is about to make its first significant expansion of directors in years as it draws to close a many months long transparent nomination and evaluation process. I'm excited about the FSF gaining more leadership, insight, and support from its board, especially after the hundreds of hours the other board members and I worked to modernize and improve the board governance.

Our mission will take a long time to fully achieve, but every year, we see free software usage growing, often under the label of open source. This helps us, but the open source label lacks a guiding philosophy of why free software is essential to a free society and in our lives.

Over the years, I've read of some people dismissing the FSF or the idea of software freedom. Often this dismissal is based in assumptions about the world or the FSF which don't match up with what I see or how I understand a given situation. I try to remember the xkcd cartoon about someone being wrong on the internet, and hope for opportunities to have a dialog with people who have an open mind.

I am also reminded of when FSFE president Matthias Kirschner said that as the software freedom movement grows, we will naturally face the situation of people who care about software freedom disagreeing about things besides free software, and when that happens we should try to still work together, be respectful, and not get distracted by them. I don't always agree with Matthias, but I agree on this point. I also really enjoy the children's book he wrote on free software, and so have the kids I've given it to.

With this in mind, I traveled for the FSF several times, giving me the opportunity to meet people after several years of pandemic. I went to FOSDEM and gave a talk about Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS). These are services which take away control of your computing by doing it on someone else's computer where you don't control the software being run. Common examples include modifying a photo or translating text into another language. The amount of SaaSS has been growing, and I think partly because proprietary software is easier to explain, SaaSS hasn't gotten enough attention. The answer to both is running free software on a computer you control.

I also traveled to the GNU Tools Cauldron and met many wonderful GNU developers. This conference primarily brings together developers of the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), the GNU C Library, the GNU Debugger, and the GNU Binary Utilities collection. It is inspiring to be amongst so many people working successfully together on some of the most renowned free software packages.

GCC is the compiler that serves as a great example of why copyleft matters. It is licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL) version 3 or later, requiring anyone distributing an improved version of GCC to contribute the code to their users, which which usually also becomes a contribution to the whole community. LLVM is another popular free/libre compiler, but has no such requirement and unfortunately, every free software contribution to LLVM also becomes a proprietary contribution to proprietary LLVM- based compilers maintained by Apple, NVIDIA, Intel, AMD, and others, giving themselves unjust power over the users and owners of the hardware those compilers are made for. We need a world where our computers act in our interests, and that means we need freedom-respecting operating systems, especially compilers.

I spoke to some GCC developers who saw the company they work for paying different employees to separately work on three compilers: GCC, LLVM, and a proprietary compiler based on LLVM. It is clear to them that some LLVM free software contributions were a way to more efficiently develop their proprietary compiler. Companies rarely talk about why they make these decisions. The only thing we usually see is that they made their company website only mention or recommend using their proprietary compiler. When people defend the companies, they don't engage on the many reasons we insist on free software and why everyone deserves software freedom.

The situation is different, but I'm always reminded of Big Oil's advertisements about how they are really a super green company that plants trees, followed by leaked documents showing they really use this messaging only to fight against climate change activism, not to actually make change. We live in a world of many injustices, but I cannot believe that proprietarization is "for the best" or that this is the best we can do.

When GCC developers meet, they are focused on making the best compiler while having the confidence that companies will redistribute their code in ways that respect users' freedom, and that is a wonderful thing. But, that confidence depends on the vigilance of a small charity that is focused on the interests of computer users: the Free Software Foundation. Not too long ago, we faced a challenging legal threat: A company claimed that code in GCC, in which FSF holds the copyright, was violating that company's copyright. They demanded that we put a stop to publishing the code under the GPL and that we inform the public they should do the same. I looked around and it seemed that the code in question was the only free software code in the world which fully accomplished a certain useful task.

We do not get to publish about this work much to avoid too much detail, and we can't name the company on the chance that publicity could help them (I'm reminded of SCO receiving millions of dollars from Microsoft). This company wanted to be the gatekeeper, dictating the terms of anyone in the world who wanted that task done. We investigated and consulted lawyers to assist us in fighting back, and it worked, that threat is gone. We wrote recently about our copyright handling, and this case only enforces those points. Unlike the big tech companies, we stand up for computer users freedom first, and support from companies to do this kind of work is limited. The vast majority of our funding comes from individual donors like you. If you want the GPL and GNU to continue to stand strong for freedom in an increasingly user-hostile world, we need your help.

In freedom,

Ian Kelling
Board Member & Sysadmin

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