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03.19.20

You May Never Find a Better Time Than Now to Start a Freedom Lab

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 10:32 pm by Guest Editorial Team

Article by figosdev

A computer lab

A freedom lab establishes a project or (typically small) group of people, similar to an organisation, devoted to research or a task related to software freedom.

It can be about promoting, improving, documenting or designing Free software. It can be about studying aspects of the community or about activism. It can be political, such as promoting Free software from an anti-capitalist software; or apolitical, such as an umbrella organisation designed to help coordinate different groups.

Cooperation between labs is ad-hoc and voluntary, though the Freelabs Federation is one organisation (you can create others) that can assist other labs — yours could as well. There aren’t by-laws for collaboration, leaving that up to each lab to make their own decisions in this regard, but the thrive guidelines are still recommended as a place to start.

These voluntary guidelines are more about working together despite differences than they are about conformity or “conduct” and are simply suggestions for making things easier.

It’s worth pointing out that if you feel passionate about a Free software (or free culture) related cause, you are encouraged to pursue it via such a lab. Be sure to let us know about your work; freedom labs do not need to exist in social isolation. One of the overarching purposes of these labs is to create more nodes for software freedom as a federated network. This is “federation” in an ad-hoc sense, and does not refer to a single mode of communication or a particular protocol. This is a grassroots effort; a community of communities that is harder to knock down, take over with corporate interference, or pay off.

But since it is still a fairly new idea, some “seed ideas” to get started are recommended here.

A Lab to Develop New Ideas for Labs

Might as well start with recursion; if your only interest is in ideas, a simple lab like this could help people collaborate on more ideas for labs. There is no rule that a lab has to be single-purpose, even if it has an area of focus. This article is about ideas for labs, but who knows was such a group could come up with?

A Free Software Watchdog Lab

Techrights calls its feed the “Free software Sentry” — it has no monopoly on the concept, and has welcomed collaboration from other groups, such as the now defunct Free Media Alliance, the Free software Fellowship and Debian.community. When these groups work together, it is without any formal ties. What ties together these groups is simply a common interest in Free software.

Personally, if we are to become even partly independent of the largest Free software groups, it’s my opinion that the Free software Definition is something that governs what we do. Of course it’s only my opinion, but I don’t wish to redefine Free software. I do think the definition could benefit from a fifth freedom, though I also think everybody should be very careful and even wary of such an effort (even my own.) I consider the FSD akin to a constitution for the Free software movement, and nothing to take more lightly than that. There is no way to enforce this, but if you feel similarly, the thrive guidelines do provide suggestions on how you can collaborate with groups without abandoning your own principles.

Note that joining an existing freedom lab is also meant to be an option, though starting one can be as simple as having one or two people spending time on an issue, and documenting their ideas, efforts and outcomes.

Freeing Projects from Gitjail

This is a major crisis in our community, and someone who argues that it’s the worst thing happening to Free software right now may not be exaggerating. I can certainly think of other Free software crises that vie for that ranking.

If you have ideas for how to liberate Free software from Github — please, please either start a lab or keep talking about your ideas. At least send an article to Techrights about it (it will go a little farther if the article is under a free licence. Techrights makes extensive use of CC By 3.0 for example.)

Increasing Free Speech for Free Software

We are also in the middle of a cancel crisis, and the freedom lab movement is in part a response to that. But it isn’t only about free speech, it is about partial autonomy. Joining the freedom lab movement does not require abandoning any other project or organisation.

If you have other ideas about standing up for “Free as in Speech”, please consider this.

Web Browser Alternatives

Not just alternative Web browsers! I wrote recently (and really for years now) about how much I loathe what the Web browser has turned into. Blame the Web — blame the companies responsible for giving it the scope it has.

If you’re happy with the state of the browser, this probably won’t interest you at all. If you’re not, let’s talk about how we could make more alternatives to Web browsing. This would involve creating interesting tools, whether they use HTTP/HTML or gopher or something closer to gopher than HTML5 — they can be multipurpose, but so was the Web before it got “too corporate.”

Nobody believes this is going to kill the Web. But some of us have grown to loathe it, so at least this would give us some things to try (just like some of us already think gopher is “kind of cool”) and even if some things required (or even offered) JavaScript functionality, these tools may or may not — and would not have to. As far as Free software, the Web is sort of dead-ish anyway. DRM is now part of the Web standard, rendering the standard “worthless” and subjugated. How do you think that’s going to get fixed? Clearly we need more ideas.

Free software and Anti-Capitalism

I am primarily anti-monopoly, and don’t consider myself anti-capitalist. However, this is an important movement that already associates with Free software through certain people. I have encouraged the formation of an organisation — or at least a broad project — which promotes Free software specifically for and by anti-capitalists. I think this would be positive for Free software, but more to the point — it’s the right of anti-capitalists to create their own Free software organisation if they think it’s a good idea.

Some people might wonder what the point of such an organisation would be. Personally, I think if this group existed, it could provide a multitude of useful ideas, some of which would not only help anti-capitalists. But it would also be a community where anti-capitalists could freely and openly discuss their politics in relation to Free software, and this would not prevent anybody else from joining the Free software movement, though it might help draw more anti-capitalists into Free software.

The Freedom NOT to Run the Software

UNIX at least, and by extension GNU/Linux, already had modularity as a “feature” when Richard Stallman decided to start the GNU Project.

Free software has always benefit from modularity, in terms of autonomy, ease of development and benefits (and relative freedom) for users.

Though it is a matter of debate and discussion, there are people (including myself) who have spent years advocating for more modularity, who also argue that as software has gotten less modular and gained “gratuitously interdependency” we have actually lost a degree of autonomy, ease of development and (relative) freedom for users. A lab (even mostly) devoted to this idea could help save Free software from full corporate takeover.

For Free Software Users

While it isn’t possible to make developers do anything at all, that’s no reason that people can’t advocate for users more. The fact that many developers are volunteers (some are even paid by corporations) doesn’t change the right of users to speak up about what they want, but lately a lot of organsations have floated or stood by the idea that users should just shut up or do everything themselves. Code or GTFO?

Adding to the disingenuous nature of this idea is when people do volunteer to make something work better for users, they are often told they’re holding up development or just interfering. So the idea that users need advocacy is probably more true than ever.

Note that advocacy need not the sole purpose — strategy and coding (and education) are all possible aspects of such a group. This idea for a lab was offered to me with the possibility of me being president of such an organisation. I declined, but I support the idea and might lend a hand to such an effort, without leading it.

Transforming the Distro Concept

A distro is hardly a bad thing itself. But in the hands of a co-opted organisation (apparently several!) the distro can be a tool for bundling software in a way that gradually diminishes software freedom. This is certainly related to modularity. So how can the distro be transformed into something more freedom respecting?

I know very well that distros are not all the same, and a one-size-fits-all solution to this problem isn’t the answer. Even if it WERE one-size-fits-all, we want a solution that itself is easier to fork than a distro — otherwise, it simply puts the same problem (difficulty forking) onto another level. How to create solutions to non-forkablity that don’t result in “now you have two problems” is a fun problem to try to solve (a challenge) and one I worked on from at least 2016 to 2018.

I would likely be inclined to assist such an effort. Of course if people would rather “steal” my ideas about that and set off on their own with them, then by all means, Steal This Idea!

I am no fan of systemd and the goal is not to create conformity but to make it easier for SMALLER groups of people to “take over” their own distribution, starting with someone else’s. (Forking.) Distros are becoming more unwieldy, and far from wanting every distro to be the same, I would rather make it easier for people to enjoy freedom. So easy to fork tools to make it easier for more people (not just large corporate cults like /Debian II: Doing It All For The G-Money/) to take software in the direction that matters to them — to me, this is what software freedom is about.

The distro can be a tool for freedom (it has helped in the past) or for package deals and lock-in. Help us strategise code against the corporate monopolist paradigm.

Your Ideas

Your lab is about your ideas. Even if you start with these (even if you don’t) greater autonomy is likely necessary to keep the Free software movement alive.

What we aren’t doing is asking people to abandon Free software. We are asking people to defend it. A few more lifeboats on hand would not be a bad thing. We live in a world where the conventions of everyday life have proven themselves dangerously inadequate.

I have long believed that greater freedom means greater opportunity. Here is yours. If not now, when? If you find yourself bored with streaming videos and eating takeout (the new norm?) Here’s a great excuse for more people to connect — no matter how corporate culture tries to act as our gatekeepers. Organisations rarely bite the hand that feeds them! As long as that hand is big and corporate enough, and doesn’t belong to lowly users and independent developers…

Long live Stallman, and Happy Hacking!

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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