Not Someobody Else's Problem - Mine.

Writing, thoughts, experiences and perspectives of Abhas Abhinav.

Personalising your involvement with Free Software


Dr Richard Stallman (RMS), founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, would be visiting India in January 2019. How do we make his visit to India more meaningful? How do we take this opportunity to generate activity around concepts of Software Freedom? What can you do as an individual or school or college or company? How could culminate into a deliverable three months hence? How could whatever effort you you put in help you a life-long user, developer and supporter of Free Software?

Or if you already care about software freedom, how could you create a track of vibrant activity that could evolve into a long term festival of free software? How could you get everyone around you to appreciate free software or contribute to the movement in a meaningful manner?

The Problem

While there is a lot of general awareness about technology and the “open source nature” of Free Software, awareness about software freedom, the ideology and philosophy of the free software movement is not common place. If one considers the major problems that rob us of our essential freedoms in technology, the challenge (in terms of developing ethical and useful technology) is actually very high.

How can we create greater sensitivity about software freedom issues?

We can enable more people to appreciate the problem of free software (and have greater sensitivity to software freedom issues) by explaining and illustrating what happens when we don’t choose or build hardware or software by mindfully considering its impact on our freedom. A very good way to do so is assimilating these values into our own dealings so that not only can we help others but others can look up to us for help and guidance.

Once a person can understand this impact, they can also find ways of making different choices. Buying and owning this problem is a sustainable way to solving it in the long run.

How can we get started?

Let us start by reviewing and auditing our own software usage and reflecting on how we can choose Free Software in places where we don’t. Let’s start by being a user.

As Users: Review and audit software usage

To start with, you could review and audit all the software and technology that you use (personally, in the labs, in teaching, in our communities, in the institute, at work etc.) and then check which of them provide (and preserve) software freedom and which don’t. Also rate each of these things that we use on whether apart from being proprietary software, they also make us participants in the “social media / tracking” ecosystem.

As Users: Defective by Design - DRM-encrypted content

Review your use of DRM-encrypted content - books, videos, music, games etc. To understand the dangers of DRM, the following website is an exhaustive resource:

Make a plan by which you can minimize or eliminate DRM-encrypted content from your life.

As Users: Use / review free software operating system practices

Use a truly free operating system - eliminate proprietary software and proprietary binary drivers from your GNU/Linux operating system. Its not an easy thing to do especially when it means that we need to change the hardware we use.

The thing to understand is that our laptop or desktop computer could have hardware components that can not be used without non-free drivers or binary-only (proprietary) firmware. If you list out such instances, then it would be possible to figure out how they could be eliminated.

Using FSF-endorsed GNU/Linux distributions like PureOS is a good way to determine if you have have been using proprietary software unconsciously on your computer.

As Users: Use / promote privacy respecting hardware

The X200 laptop is one of the most affordable and truly free laptops - it run a free software BIOS (LibreBoot), it run Debian Main (no non-free software or drivers) and it can use an Atheros wireless-card which works without proprietary firmware. FSF endorses this computing platform as a RYF (respects your freedom) hardware:

The idea behind such a certification is not to promote the use of old, outdated or limiting hardware. The idea is to provide a reference for how to build hardware that can respect your freedom. Using such hardware can give us some insight into some aspects of how to support free software.

As Technical People: Propose Free Software replacements

Make a list of free software, self-hosted and federated replacements for every piece of software that you use. Today there is more hardware with software in it. For example, if you are able to switch on a light using your mobile phone, then the “smart plug” also has software in it and if we can’t access its source code or re-compile or modify or share it, then it is not free software.

Hence, when you make a list of what proprietary software we might be using, we should also include such things and then seek free software replacements for the same. Its alright even if we can’t come up with competent free software replacements - in that case it becomes an important and challenging project to undertake and work on in the next few years.

As Technical People: Create resources to support adoption

Build documentation and training videos on how to use these common and already available free sofware solutions. Offer support to others who might be ready to start using these tools right away.

As Developers: The JavaScript Trap

Read the following web-pages:

The first link above is an essay that outlines how we run proprietary software on our computers (often unknowingly and without our consent) when we agree to let a websites or web-application run complex javascript in the web-browser.

Next, here is what we can do:

As Developers: Contribute to FSF high-priority Projects

Review the following list of high priority free sofware projects published by the FSF:

Understand the importance of these projects and why they are high-priority and long term projects and worth working on. Next, choose one (or two or as many) of these projects and suggest what you want to do to contribute to them. Then build a plan and get started.

As Developers: Volunteer Vacanies in GNU Projects

Check this list of volunteer vacancies with various GNU projects:

It might be a good idea to volunteer to one of them.

As Writers: Translations

An important aspect of spreading the message of free software is also to do it in other languages. Knowledge of English need not be essential to participating in a free software project or for choosing software freedom.

Consider this posting:

It says:

In spite of Hindi being one of our priority languages, we have never had a single page translated in that language.

In order to do this job, you need a perfect understanding of the philosophy behind the GNU project, a good command of Hindi and a decent knowledge of English.

This posting has been open since 2015. There may be many such ones on the website and elsewhere. I think a part of the and websites are translated into Hindi but that effort is not complete. We could translate the website into Hindi, Bengali, Kannada and other languages.

As Writers: Free Software, Free Society - Essays by RMS

This is a set of essays by RMS called “Free Software, Free Society”:

It might be a great idea to translate these into various Indian languages and launch it during an event with RMS.

There could many such localisation opportunities that we can pursue.

A three-month long hackathon!

Pursuing one or some of these exercises would be a great idea for a three-month long hackathon. It would be valuable to write about our experience so that it can serve as a guide for others.

© 2018, Abhas Abhinav.

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