Monthly Archives: September 2019

Freedoms and Rights

I want to talk a bit about the relationship between rights and freedoms, and what they are. I think building a mutual understanding around this is important as I dig deeper into conversations around digital rights and software, user, and technology freedom.

A right is like a privilege in as much is that it’s something you’re allowed to do, however rights are innate and not earned. They are things to which everyone is entitled. A freedom expresses a lack of constraints related to an action. When we have a particular freedom (freedom X), we have an unrestrained ability to do X — we can do whatever we want in relation to X. You can also have the right to a certain kind of freedom (e.g. freedom of speech). I talk about both digital rights and digital freedoms. I view digital rights are the extension of our rights into digital spaces, and digital freedoms as the freedoms we have in those spaces. We have the right to free expression when speaking in a room; we have the right to free expression when speaking on the Internet.

Typically, we frame rights and freedoms in terms of government restrictions: governments are not allowed to keep you from exercising your freedoms, and they are there to protect and ensure your rights. It is becoming increasingly relevant (and common) to also talk about these in relation to companies and technology. It is important to also shift this discussion to include companies and technologies — especially computing software. As computing becomes more pervasive, we need to make sure that the software we’re writing is freedom protecting and rights respecting. These freedoms include the freedoms we typically associate with free and open source software: the unbridaled ability to use, study, modify, and share. it also includes freedoms like expression (to express ourselves without constraint) and the freedom to assemble (to get together without constraint). All of these freedoms are freedoms we have the right to, in addition to other rights including the right to digital autonomy and the right to consent.

I want to dig a little into a specific example, of the play between freedoms and rights, and the way we see computing fits in.

We have the right to freedom of speech — to communicate unfettered with one another. Free expression is something to which everyone is entitled, and there is a societal, social, and moral imperative to protect that right. Computers connect us to one another and enable us to express ourselves. They also give us safe spaces to develop the ideas we want to express in public ones, which is a necessary part of freedom of speech. However, computers can also infringe upon that right. Home surveillance devices, like home assistants, that are listening to and recording everything you say are stepping on your right and restricting your freedom. They are taking away your safe space to develop ideas and creating an environment where you cannot express yourself without restriction for fear of possible repercussions.

This is just one example of how computers play with the things we traditionally consider our rights and freedoms. Computers also force us to consider rights and freedoms in new contexts, and push the boundaries of what we consider to “count.” Our right to bodily autonomy now includes which medical devices, which computers, we allow to be implanted into our bodies; what happens with our medical and biometric data; and when and how our bodies are being monitored in public (and private) spaces. This includes the near future, where we see an increase in wearable computers and recreational and elective implants.

We have freedoms, we have rights, and we have the rights to certain freedoms because it is moral, ethical, and necessary for a just world. Our digital rights and digital freedoms are necessary for our digital autonomy, to borrow a phrase from Karen Sandler. Digital autonomy is necessary to move forward into a world of justice, equity, and equality.

Special thanks for Christopher Lemmer Webber.

Thinkers

Free and open source software, ethical technology, and digital autonomy have a number of great thinkers, inspiring leaders, and hard working organizations. I see two discussions occurring now that I feel the need to address: What will we do next? Who will our new great leader be?

The thing is, we don’t need to do something new next, and we don’t need to find new leader.

Organizations and individuals have been doing amazing work in our sphere for more than thirty years. We only need to look at the works of groups like Public Labs, OpenStreetMap, and Wikimedia to see where the future of our work lies: applying the principles of user freedom to create demonstrable change, build equity, and fight for justice. I am positively inspired by the GNOME community and their dedication to building software for people in every country, of every ability, and of every need. Outreachy and projects and companies that participate in Outreachy internships are working hard to build the future of community that we want to see.

Deb Nicholson recently reminded me that we cannot build a principled future where people are excluded from the process of building it. She also pointed out that once we’ve have a techno-utopia, it will include everyone, because it needs to. This utopia is built on ideas, but it is also built by plumbers — by people doing work on the ground with those ideas.

Deb Nicholson is another inspiration to me. I’ve been lucky enough to know her since 2010, when she graciously began to mentor me. I now consider her both a mentor and a dear friend. Her ideas are innovative, her principles hard, and her vision wide.

Deb is one of the many  people who have helped and continue to help shape my ideas, teach me things. Allison Randall, Asheesh Laroia, Christopher Lemmer-Webber, Daniel Khan Gilmore, Elana Hashman, Gabriella Coleman, Jeffrey Warren, Karen Sandler, Karl Fogel, Stefano Zacchiroli — these are just a few of the individuals who have been necessary figures in my life.

We don’t need to find new leaders and thinkers because they’re already here. They’ve been here, thinking, writing, speaking, and doing for years.

What we need to do is listen to their voices.

As I see people begin to discuss the next president of the Free Software Foundation, they do so in a context of asking who will be leading the free software movement. The free software movement is more than the FSF and it’s more than any given individual. We don’t need to go in search of the next leader, because there are leaders who work every day not just for our digital rights, but for a better world. We don’t need to define a movement by one man, nor should we do so. We instead need to look around us and listen to what is already happening.

Free software activities (August 2019)

A photo of a beach in Greece, with bleach and tourquoise water and well trodden sand. In the forground is an inflatable uniforn with a rainbow mane.

August was really marked by traveling too much. I took the end of the month off from non-work activities in order to focus on GUADEC and GUADEC-follow up.

Personal

  • The Debian Community Team (CT) had a meeting where we discussed some of our activities, including potential new team members!
  • CT team members went on VAC, so we took a bit of a break in the second half of the month.
  • The OSI standing committee and board had meetings.
  • I handled some paperwork in my capacity as president.
  • I had regular meetings with the OSI general manager.
  • I gave a keynote at FrOSCon on “Open source citizenship for everyone!” TL;DR: We have rights and responsibilities as people participating in free software and the open source ecosystem — “we” here includes corporate actors.
  • I bought a really sweet pair of GNOME socks. Do recommend.

Professional

  • The LAS sponsorship team met and handled the creation of some important paperwork, and discussed fundraising strategy for the event.
  • I attended the GNOME Advisory Board meeting, where I got to meet and speak with the Foundation Board and the Advisory Board about activities over the past year, plans for the future, and the needs of the communities of AdBoard members. It was really educational and a lot of fun.
  • I attended my first GUADEC! it was amazing. I wrote a trip report over on the GNOME Engagement Blog.
  • At GUADEC, I spent some time helping out with basic operations, including keeping time in sessions.
  • We, the staff and board, did a Q&A at the Annual General Meeting.
  • I drank a lot of coffee. Like, a lot.