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Organisations Are/n’t the Problem

Posted in Deception, Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux, OSI at 5:40 pm by Guest Editorial Team

By figosdev


Summary: “Our goal has to be for Free Software to outlive its founder.”

I used to think the FSF was salvageable. Now I’m pretty confident it’s not. The mission of Free Software, at least, is to give their user control over their computing.

The FSF has failed at this in spectacular ways. It is also not accountable to users — but it has made itself accountable to its enemies above all else. The FSF is subjugated, but wants you to believe it can fight for your freedom.

“More than 20 years ago, Microsoft made their plans to overthrow Free Software by overthrowing Open Source.”The greatest assets of the FSF are the Free Software Definition, the GNU Project, the GPL 2 and 3 licenses (2 because how you are going to fork GNU/Linux without it? But you can thank Microsoft and Linus for that snafu) and Stallman himself.

Clearly, the FSF has failed to manage these assets with regards to their mission. Unfortunately, they are still locked up with the FSF — The exception is the GNU Project, which is locked up with Microsoft GitHub via Perl, Python, libFFI, zlib1g and HarfBuzz. These 5 projects are controlled by Microsoft and yet are vital to the GNU Project.

Figure of Virgin Mary. Image taken in Seville, Spain.Like many others, I sought to alleviate this problem simply by creating another organisation. One of the two main purposes of that organisation was to help salvage the Free Software movement, and to work to rally other organisations to that purpose.

The most promising and rewarding collaboration along such lines has been with Techrights, albeit on a completely unofficial and informal basis. I have also tried to encourage other people to create Free Software organisations for specific purposes (typically their own) but so far nobody wants to do that kind of work. I can’t say I blame them. I have tried to show how to make that work easier.

If you can’t save the FSF, the best you can do is recreate it. When you do that, you start with the same problem the FSF had; namely that you cannot prevent the hostile takeover of a non-profit organisation without playing every single card right, year after year.

More than 20 years ago, Microsoft made their plans to overthrow Free Software by overthrowing Open Source. I don’t think there’s a single person on this planet (and I’ve spent years looking for such people) who could have done a better job than Richard Stallman in thwarting those takeover plans. But I believe the FSF started to fall apart around 2015.

“Our goal has to be for Free Software to outlive its founder.”The successes of the FSF are many, and inspiring. The majority of non-profits do not succeed as wildly as the FSF did. Stallman did not expect to do as well as he did. There is a myth that people learn how to create the perfect organisation, and then they just go and do it by some book — the reality is that people end up learning by doing, and most fail.

Our goal has to be for Free Software to outlive its founder. We know numerous attempts were made (sincerely or otherwise, sometimes it’s hard to tell) to extend the geographic and organisational reach of the FSF. We know there is a Free Software Foundation India (FSFI), though not much happens with that. There is a “Free Software Community of India” which is more active. There is not only a Software Freedom Law Center, associated with the co-author of the GPL, There is a Software Freedom Law Center India.

There is an Irish Free Software Organisation. In France, there is April. My favourite is still FACiL in Québec; their platform is the closest to mine of any Free Software organisation. If I had a mountain of assets (alas…) that I needed to put into non-profits right now, I would split it among the OpenBSD Foundation, the NetBSD Foundation, Hyperbola GNU(/BSD) and FACiL — probably not in that particular order.

“SFC may have started in sincerity, but it is traitorous.”I do not know the real motivation for the creation of the Open Source Initiative, only the official narrative and the overall trajectory and outcome. From the latter, I believe OSI was created out of jealousy, and quickly turned into a weapon (as a pawn or collaborator, perhaps even both) against Free Software. We may never know for certain, but that is no reason to be charitable. Open Source has not just attacked Free Software but all of us, relentlessly. In the past when I had more faith in Ben Mako Hill, it was due to personal dealings, writings of his, and the fact that he said at not-so-LibrePlanet that we should probably distance ourselves from Open Source. That would have been a good idea.

SFC may have started in sincerity, but it is traitorous. I would not give anybody from SFC the time of day. FSF Europe is traitorous and even dubious. We have talked about these things in detail many times, but in this article they are little more than a footnote. It is important to note however, that at some points (maybe even now) FSF Latin America has relied partly on the FSFE for some of its infrastructure. As I consider FSFLA more viable than FSFE, this is troubling. I’m not sure if it remains accurate, and I hope not.

FSFLA of course is the home of linux-libre, as well as Alexandre Oliva. Regarding both Oliva and the previous article I wrote, he brought it to my attention that I probably mixed up two conversations we had about copyright and Free Software, leading me to paraphrase him saying that those two things have nothing to do with each other.

“Stallman remains the original founding member and creator of this movement.”I do not have a copy of the original conversation, so I can’t simply quote what he did say. However, we went over what he more likely said, and what likely got misconstrued, and I have no reason to think that he is mistaken. I won’t deliberately misrepresent him, and I make a fair effort to get such things right, but this is a situation (one of many) where I would prefer to be mistaken, and I’m pleased to be.

Free Software needs leaders, and over the years I have tried to keep track of the most likely successor for Richard Stallman. I can honestly say that Geoffrey Knauth was never on this list, and I would not vote for him now or at any previous point in time. He may just be the best person the FSF can put in charge under the present circumstances, but those circumstances are still bullshit.

When Knauth says of the movement Stallman created, “What a noble idea, but one person cannot do all this” I really don’t know what that’s supposed to mean. A movement, practically by definition, is more than one person. In my opinion, he might as well say of Einstein’s theory of relativity, “What an incredible idea, but one person cannot do all this.”

“Most offshoots of the FSF have gone badly.”No, Einstein did not do “all” of it. The foundations of science were already there, and (with the unlikely exception noted in protest by — Nikola Tesla? To whom we also owe a great deal, of course) credit was given where it was due. But I think too many people have tried to take credit for Free Software the way that Steve Jobs might be given credit for the MP3 player (or Torvalds might be given credit for the GNU Project — hypothetically, of course!)

Stallman remains the original founding member and creator of this movement. He is still relevant, but the (metaphorically) drunken stewards of the FSF have seen fit to stand between the movement and Stallman, allegedly for the sake of the former. If you ask now, perhaps for the alleged sake of the latter. Whatever works, eh?

As far as I know, the leadership of FACiL is doing alright. SFC is corrupt, OSI is led by Microsoft, FSFE has an atrocity at the helm, Knauth is as tepid as John and FSF India has said very little for years. My candidates for successor included Oliva, Ben Mako Hill, Kat Walsh and Denis Roio. I am probably leaving someone out, but it was a short list and Oliva would have likely ranked highest, though I assumed geography was a problem (it’s not). So when Oliva was made Vice President I felt a bit vindicated, though we both agreed that the circumstances were depressing and unfair.

“But first, it’s important to point out that the goal is NOT to replace Richard Stallman.”Most offshoots of the FSF have gone badly. At this point, so has the original. But if you’re going to fork the FSF, one thing you should probably do in preparation for the day when it gets co-opted is to make your fork more forkable. That’s what I tried to do, but I was somewhat aware that most people probably wouldn’t want to go through the trouble.

I abandoned the idea of a forkable organisation designed to lobby the FSF for the sustainability of its own mission (at least for my own trouble) and kept what I felt are the best ideas from along the way: a library of 4-freedom Software and Cultural works (Free Software works and Free Culture works, no freedom-limiting -ND or -NC clause licenses) and an organisational alternative I refer to as a "Freedom Lab".

The idea of a freedom lab works metaphorically like this:

Suppose you have a very large office building. This office is set aside for an umbrella cause, such as Free Software and Free Culture and Free Hardware — note that my affinity for FACiL comes from the fact that like many Free Software advocates, including former FSF board member and 2016 presidential candidate Lawrence Lessig, I am also interested in Free Culture — and FACiL combines these into what they call “Free Computing”.

Instead of having a very conservative top-down approach, like the one the FSF has, this metaphorical office building rents out office space to any group of people who are interested in the umbrella cause. These groups then act like mini-organisations under the auspices of the umbrella organisation. Not-so-LibrePlanet seems to almost operate like this within or with regards to the FSF, although it would be nice to have a better example.

“If Richard Stallman was abducted by aliens tomorrow and Free Software needed a new leader in a pinch, Oliva is probably the closest thing we have.”Here’s the kicker — instead of renting office space in a literal office building, these groups simply form at will under this umbrella cause, and are encouraged to both compete (as in explore different options or methods) and collaborate on ways to advance free software. Instead of competing in a business sense, think of competing theories, advancing science towards a better overall understanding. Hence “labs”.

You do not need to register to become a scientist — you do it by practicing science. Obviously there are credentials you can attain through education, but we aren’t trying to make Free Software into a hard science in the first place — rather the idea is to have something a bit closer to scientific exploration in its approach than just relying on a guru like Richard Stallman to lead.

And here is where it’s very important to point out that this approach has lots of downsides — OSI is a perfect demonstration of those downsides, and this idea would not be complete without some effort to mitigate and account for those.

“Without both people and the will, it really isn’t a movement.”But first, it’s important to point out that the goal is NOT to replace Richard Stallman. If we had a second guru on standby for the day when he finally stops fighting, we could simply let that guru take over where Stallman left off. I’ve explored that option for years, and it counts on a lot of things that might never happen. The closest thing we probably have to such a figure is Alexandre Oliva. If Richard Stallman was abducted by aliens tomorrow and Free Software needed a new leader in a pinch, Oliva is probably the closest thing we have.

This may sound like an endorsement, though I am more reserved than that. Oliva is objectively and most likely the closest thing we have to Stallman, other than Stallman himself. If you can think of a more Stallman-like individual anywhere on earth, who is as passionate about Free Software, I defy you to produce this person.

And yet, Oliva has advanced to the level of vice president and then lost the (official) leadership role nearly as soon as it began. I blame the FSF for this, not Oliva. But although he (like Stallman) will probably fight for Free Software as long as he lives, as a leader he may not be as much of an unstoppable force as Stallman is — and we need an unstoppable force.

“One of the ways in which the FSF has failed fundamentally is that it has taken away Stallman’s platform, under false pretenses.”The point here, is that you cannot actually replace Richard Stallman. We don’t have the parts, the technology, or the budget for it. On most days I don’t think we even have the will to — and without that, all this talk of organisation is moot. A movement needs people in order to work. Without both people and the will, it really isn’t a movement.

At best, we could try to build a Stallman alternative, in much the way that vegetarians try to build a burger that people who actually like meat (per the metaphor, or meataphor — people who actually want the user to be free) would want to eat, albeit one made without the actual thing it is alternative to.

As long as Stallman lives of course, he is still (and really always will be) the father of the Free Software movement. One of the ways in which the FSF has failed fundamentally is that it has taken away Stallman’s platform, under false pretenses. That is not the official narrative, but I firmly believe (and we needn’t go into evidence here) that the official narrative is bullshit anyway.

We may not be able to restore a platform for Stallman, because although we can offer him greater welcome and more sincere respect (let’s call it fairness) than what’s left of his own organisation, we can’t force him to make use of it — Stallman’s lack of a public platform was plotted and executed by others, but remains at least partly self-imposed. But we could certainly offer it, and I believe we would do ourselves a disservice not to. It would be a lesser good for Stallman to have only a symbolic platform, but the symbol is still worth something if his place is reserved in sincerity (not only in rhetoric).

We still know that the movement will eventually lack a leader with all of Stallman’s traits, and thus eventually it will have to continue without him one way or another. When that ship has finally sunk, do we go down with it or do we build a fleet of our own?

“Science works best when it makes things as simple as they can be.”Having a somewhat federated organisation, we then move on to the business of autonomy. Having an all-seeing, all-powerful umbrella organisation at the top of these “labs” creates the same weakness that the FSF has — the ability for corporations to buy in and take over. Apart from the ability to explore different options for advancing the movement, these labs could also provide a degree of redundancy for the organisation that exists overhead — a degree of forkability.

If Richard Stallman is the father of the Free Software movement, and Free Software itself is his child, as he has said himself — then these labs could be his grandchildren. Of course grandchildren are generally raised by the parent, not so directly by the grandparent, with exceptions. But the goal here is to continue the family line.

I am in favour of cloning Stallman. I have long used two metaphors for this process — clones, and parrots.

Stallman specifically tells people not to give him a parrot. He means it literally, I will use it this way: it is better to clone Stallman than to simply parrot him.

“Watchdogging, collaboration and the evaluation of other labs is built into the structure. This is a way to mitigate the fact that some labs will ultimately turn traitor and try to sell out to sponsors or whatever.”Parrots may not be stupid creatures, but when they speak they do not use it to communicate exactly the way we do — they are mostly just repeating sounds. I’m no expert on birds, I think you might be able to train some parrots to say “Coffee’s Ready!” when they smell it brewing, but what you couldn’t do is get them to form their own sentences and justifications or reasoning about coffee. They will not philosophise with you — they just repeat what they’ve heard, sometimes on a loop.

I think that if you literally cloned Stallman, those clones would not simply parrot what he says. They would form their own logic, they would (as Stallman most notoriously does) think for themselves, even if that thinking is unconventional.

This is what I think of supporting Stallman — understanding his work to the best of our abilities, and probably agreeing on the things that matter most. Also demonstrating integrity. OSI did not do these things, and it dishonestly sabotaged (misrepresented) both Stallman and us. Stallman’s response was overly charitable; Ben Mako Hill had (though does not seem to have followed) the right idea.

Once you have a boatload of Stallman clones, they would argue among themselves as philosophers already argue with the self. If you cannot argue with yourself, you have no business arguing with other people. So the question becomes if we create even a brigade of Stallmans (like Dumbledore’s Army, but for software freedom), then what do we do with that? How would we manage such an unruly force (that is, ourselves) without stifling it?

“There is no way to completely prevent a group of people from acting like OSI — sometimes we can only address it when it happens.”Perhaps it is impossible, but again, we are taking inspiration from science. The way you determine the impossible is not by pooh-poohing the question, but by impartial analysis and experimentation. First we create these grandchildren of Stallman. If we fail at that first step, the question of managing such a crew is moot. If we succeed, we move to the next step.

Science works best when it makes things as simple as they can be. Some problems are complex, or perhaps everybody would be a scientist. But science also starts with the universe, and reduces it to the simplest rules possible for the entire universe, per our present level of understanding.

To make certain that umbrella organisations remain the servant, not the master of these freedom labs, I have written what I call the THRIVE guidelines.

“It is also incredibly flexible, but with simple, down-to-earth mechanisms designed to maintain integrity in the face of corporate meddling.”These are instructions for cats that want to be self-herding. If they prefer to travel alone, there is nothing you can do to change that. An individual can contribute to Free Software, and a group can contribute to Free Software, and not every individual absolutely has to be part of a group. But we can (as we do for Stallman) still have a place for individuals who choose to assist us. If they do not appreciate our assistance, or vice versa, perhaps another part of our network can better cater to them.

You notice that I say “umbrella organisations” in the plural. This doesn’t mean that there has to be two or more umbrella organisations at the same time, though there is no reason that some labs cannot act as an umbrella to others. The idea of an umbrella is to assist coordination and education (be informative), not to rule from above. Technically, any lab can do this for other labs (if they are inclined).

Watchdogging, collaboration and the evaluation of other labs is built into the structure. This is a way to mitigate the fact that some labs will ultimately turn traitor and try to sell out to sponsors or whatever. If we consider GNOME part of this broad network, then we already have one example. There is no way to completely prevent a group of people from acting like OSI — sometimes we can only address it when it happens.

“That is a function that Stallman provided, but in the FSF this mechanism has failed spectacularly without an adequate replacement.”In a way, this cat self-herding is not unlike kernel self-Hurding. Where the FSF is monolithic, we are talking about microkernel Free Software organisations.

It is more complex in practice, but here the components are actually simpler than the alternative. The idea is not to create a perfect or flawless top-heavy organisation, but a network with nodes that anybody can work to form more quickly and easily (and with relative autonomy) compared to the FSF.

It might not work. And without people with the will to fight for your freedom, as the FSF still claims to do — it would never happen anyway.

The advantage of doing it this way is that it does not require the level of up-front resources (or authority) that we have relied on the FSF and Richard Stallman for. It is an idea borne of the relative loss of both.

It is also incredibly flexible, but with simple, down-to-earth mechanisms designed to maintain integrity in the face of corporate meddling. That is a function that Stallman provided, but in the FSF this mechanism has failed spectacularly without an adequate replacement.

“Doing it this way also resists censorship — it takes a lot more effort to censor people like Richard Stallman (or even Oliva) when things are designed this way.”It is an idea that lets you, the user — go about building a platform for self advocacy (for you or for yourself plus others) within a week or so, if you can find people interested in working with you — even a small handful of people. And if two or more groups of people do this, it is designed in anticipation of that and provides a way to create ad hoc networks of such groups. They do not all need to work exactly the same way, so you can actually explore designs and strategies you think might help. In turn, we can observe your efforts and note possible success or ideas we can adapt to our own advocacy.

People already do this all the time when they create applications, but it is applied less often to organisations. We have a mythology that says that applications don’t exist until there is a larger organisation associated with them, though so many Free Software projects start with a single developer or small groups. It may be possible to rebuild the Free Software movement in a similar fashion.

Doing it this way also resists censorship — it takes a lot more effort to censor people like Richard Stallman (or even Oliva) when things are designed this way. We will not make the mistake that the Fediverse makes and pretend that censorship is impossible or can’t exist within this scheme. The number of separate organisations that have already been taken over by corporate interests demonstrate the folly there.

“Instead of just having such a network attacking our base, it would be ideal to have a similar network defending our movement — turning the design to a positive goal.”When they collaborate, as SFC and GNOME may have — we have some reason to think this is possible — to undo our advocacy, they are using a similar process to fight us that we might use to fight back. Their advantage (assuming we are correct) hurt the FSF substantially.

If this does not apply to that particular combination of organisations, it certainly applies to other pairs or groups of organisations. Instead of just having such a network attacking our base, it would be ideal to have a similar network defending our movement — turning the design to a positive goal. The alternative seems to be to just watch Free Software die.

You can’t create a censorship-proof design — you fight censorship with a combination of good design and on-the-ground defence of free speech. The Fediverse has the former, but it is found lacking with regards to the latter. Freedom requires the will to defend freedom, not just good design.

But a good design can certainly help those who have the will. Today, the FSF actively resists the will of those who would create the sort of technological and political reform that Richard Stallman founded the FSF to organise. We can build the internet to rival the FSF’s Ma Bell.

“The internet was strictly non-commercial until the advent of the Web. It became, not unlike Free Software itself, a mix of non-commercial and commercial space.”It really depends on what sort of people we are, though. Open Source worked to decentralise Free Software as well, critiquing the “Cathedral” and advocating the “Bazaar”. In time it replaced high tech cottage industries with technofascist mega malls, and those were all bought up by surveillance capitalist monopolies.

The internet was strictly non-commercial until the advent of the Web. It became, not unlike Free Software itself, a mix of non-commercial and commercial space.

Free Software by definition, includes both the commercial and the non-commercial; it is a false dichotomy to characterise it in any other way. But being controlled by multinational corporations is not any kind of freedom. The purpose of Free Software is to give control of computing to the user.

“The purpose of Free Software is to give control of computing to the user.”If the FSF cannot keep that promise, we do need to build something — if we wish to keep the promise of free computing for the user alive.

My feelings about that are strongly opposed to building something that’s identical in every fashion, just to have it taken over by monopolies like GIAFAM again. The FSF’s IFF systems are clearly malfunctioning — and if nothing else, we need to find a way to rebuild a better one of those.

Long live rms, and Happy Hacking.

Licence: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (public domain)

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