Tag Archives: free software

busy busy

I’ve been working with Karen Sandler over the past few months on the first draft of the Declaration of Digital Autonomy. Feedback welcome, please be constructive. It’s a pretty big deal for me, and feels like the culmination of a lifetime of experiences and the start of something new.

We talked about it at GUADEC and HOPE. We don’t have any other talks scheduled yet, but are available for events, meetups, dinner parties, and b’nai mitzvahs.

Fire

The world is on fire.

I know many of you are either my parents friends or here for the free software thoughts, but rather than listen to me, I want you to listed to Black voices in these fields.

If you’re not Black, it’s your job to educate yourself on issues that affect Black people all over the world and the way systems are designed to benefit White Supremacy. It is our job to acknowledge that racism is a problem — whether it appears as White Supremacy, Colonialism, or something as seemingly banal as pay gaps.

We must make space for Black voices. We must make space for Black Women. We must make space for Black trans lives. We must do this in technology. We must build equity. We must listen.

I know I have a platform. It’s one I value highly because I’ve worked so hard for the past twelve years to build it against sexist attitudes in my field (and the world). However, it is time for me to use that platform for the voices of others.

Please pay attention to Black voices in tech and FOSS. Do not just expect them to explain diversity and inclusion, but go to them for their expertise. Pay them respectful salaries. Mentor Black youth and Black people who want to be involved. Volunteer or donate to groups like Black Girls Code, The Last Mile, and Resilient Coders.

If you’re looking for mentorship, especially around things like writing, speaking, community organizing, or getting your career going in open source, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. Mentorship can be a lasting relationship, or a brief exchange around a specific issue of event. If I can’t help you, I’ll try to connect you to someone who can.

We cannot build the techno-utopia unless everyone is involved.

Racism is a Free Software Issue

Racism is a free software issue. I gave a talk that touched on this at CopyLeft Conf 2019. I also talked a little bit about it at All Things Open 2019 and FOSDEM 2020 in my talk The Ethics Behind Your IoT. I know statistics, theory, and free software. I don’t know about race and racism nearly as well. I might make mistakes – I have made some and I will make more. Please, when I do, help me do better.

I want to look at a few particular technologies and think about how they reinforce systemic racism. Worded another way: how is technology racist? How does technology hurt Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC)? How does technology keep us racist? How does technology make it easier to be racist?

Breathalyzers

In the United States, Latinx folks are less likely to drink than white people and, overall, less likely to be arrested for DUIs3,4. However, they are more likely to be stopped by police while driving5,6.

Who is being stopped by police is up to the police and they pull over a disproportionate number of Latinx drivers. After someone is pulled over for suspected drunk driving, they are given a breathalyzer test. Breathalyzers are so easy to (un)intentionally mis-calibrate that they have been banned as valid evidence in multiple states. The biases of the police are not canceled out by the technology that should, in theory, let us know whether someone is actually drunk.

Facial Recognition

I could talk about for quite some time and, in fact, have. So have others. Google’s image recognition software recognized black people as gorillas – and to fix the issue it removed gorillas from it’s image-labeling technology.

Facial recognition software does a bad job at recognizing black people. In fact, it’s also terrible at identifying indigenous people and other people of color. (Incidentally, it’s also not great at recognizing women, but let’s not talk about that right now.)

As we use facial recognition technology for more things, from automated store checkouts (even more relevant in the socially distanced age of Covid-19), airport ticketing, phone unlocking, police identification, and a number of other things, it becomes a bigger problem that this software cannot tell the difference between two Asian people.

Targeted Advertising

Black kids see 70% more online ads for food than white kids, and twice as many ads for junk food. In general BIPOC youth are more likely to see junk food advertisements online. This is intentional, and happens after they are identified as BIPOC youth.

Technology Reinforces Racism; Racism Builds Technology

The technology we have developed reinforces racism on a society wide scale because it makes it harder for BIPOC people to interact with this world that is run by computers and software. It’s harder to not be racist when the technology around us is being used to perpetuate racist paradigms. For example, if a store implements facial recognition software for checkout, black women are less likely to be identified. They are then more likely to be targeted as trying to steal from the store. We are more likely to take this to mean that black women are more likely to steal. This is how technology builds racism,

People are being excluded largely because they are not building these technologies, because they are not welcome in our spaces. There simply are not enough Black and Hispanic technologists and that is a problem. We need to care about this because when software doesn’t work for everyone, it doesn’t work. We cannot build on the promise of free and open source software when we are excluding the majority of people.

Computing Under Quarantine

Under the current climate of lock-ins, self-isolation, shelter-in-place policies, and quarantine, it is becoming evident to more people the integral role computers play in our lives. Students are learning entirely online, those who can are working from home, and our personal relationships are being carried largely by technology like video chats, online games, and group messages. When these things have become our only means of socializing with those outside our homes, we begin to realize how important they are and the inequity inherent to many technologies.

Someone was telling me how a neighbor doesn’t have a printer, so they are printing off school assignments for their neighbor. People I know are sharing internet connections with people in their buildings, when possible, to help save on costs with people losing jobs. I worry now even more about people who have limited access to home devices or poor internet connections.

As we are forced into our homes and are increasingly limited in the resources we have available, we find ourselves potentially unable to easily fill material needs and desires. In my neighborhood, it’s hard to find flour. A friend cannot find yeast. A coworker couldn’t find eggs. Someone else is without dish soap. Supply chains are not designed to meet with the demand currently being exerted on the system.

This problem is mimicked in technology. If your computer breaks, it is much harder to fix it, and you lose a lot more than just a machine – you lose your source of connection with the world. If you run out of toner cartridges for your printer – and only one particular brand works – the risk of losing your printer, and your access to school work, becomes a bigger deal. As an increasing number of things in our homes are wired, networked, and only able to function with a prescribed set of proprietary parts, gaps in supply chains become an even bigger issue. When you cannot use whatever is available, and instead need to wait for the particular thing, you find yourself either hoarding or going without. What happens when you can’t get the toothbrush heads for your smart toothbrush due to prioritization and scarcity with online ordering when it’s not so easy to just go to the pharmacy and get a regular toothbrush?

In response to COVID-19 Adobe is offering no-cost access to some of their services. If people allow themselves to rely on these free services, they end up in a bad situation when a cost is re-attached.

Lock-in is always a risk, but when people are desperate, unemployed, and lacking the resources they need to survive, the implications of being trapped in these proprietary systems are much more painful.

What worries me even more than this is the reliance on insecure communication apps. Zoom, which is becoming the default service in many fields right now, offers anti-features like attendee attention tracking and user reporting.

We are now being required to use technologies designed to maximize opportunities for surveillance to learn, work, and socialize. This is worrisome to me for two main reasons: the violation of privacy and the normalization of a surveillance state. It is a violation of privacy, to have our actions tracked. It also gets us used to being watched, which is dangerous as we look towards the future.

Seven hundred words on Internet access

I wrote this a few months ago, and never published it. Here you go.

In the summer of 2017, I biked from Boston, MA to Montreal, QC. I rode across Massachusetts, then up the New York/Vermont border, weaving between the two states over two days. I spent the night in Washington County, NY at a bed and breakfast that generously fed me dinner even though they weren’t supposed to. One of the proprietors told me about his history as a physics teacher, and talked about volunteer work he was doing. He somewhat casually mentioned that in his town there isn’t really internet access.

At the time (at least) Washington County wasn’t served by broadband companies. Instead, for $80 a month you could purchase a limited data package from a mobile phone company, and use that. A limited data package means limited access. This could mean no or limited internet in schools or libraries.

This was not the first time I heard about failings of Internet penetration in the United States. When I first moved to Boston I was an intern at One Laptop Per Child. I spoke with someone interested in bringing internet access to their rural community in Maine. They had hope for mesh networks, linking computers together into a web of connectivity, bouncing signals from one machine to another in order to bring internet to everyone.

Access to the Internet is a necessity. As I write this, 2020 is only weeks away, which brings our decennial, nationwide census. There had been discussions of making the census entirely online, but it was settled that people could fill it out “online, by telephone, or via mail” and that households can “answer the questions on the internet or by phone in English and 12 Non-English languages.” [1][2]

This is important because a comprehensive census is important. A census provides, if nothing else, population and demographics information, which is used to assist in the disbursement of government funding and grants to geographic communities. Apportionment, or the redistribution of the 435 seats occupied by members of the House of Representatives, is done based on the population of a given state: more people, more seats.

Researchers, students, and curious people use census data to carry out their work. Non-profits and activist organizations can better understand the populations they serve.

As things like the Census increasingly move online, the availability of access becomes increasingly important.

Some things are only available online – including job applications, customer service assistance, and even education opportunities like courses, academic resources, and applications for grants, scholarships, and admissions.

The Internet is also a necessary point of connection between people, and necessary for building our identities. Being acknowledged with their correct names and pronouns decreases the risk of depression and suicide among trans youths – and one assumes adults as well. [3] Online spaces provide acknowledgment and recognition that is not being met in physical spaces and geographic communities.

Internet access has been important to me in my own mental health struggles and understanding. My bipolar exhibits itself through long, crushing periods of depression during which I can do little more than wait for it to be over. I fill these quiet spaces by listening to podcasts and talking with my friends using apps like Signal to manage our communications.

My story of continuous recovery includes a particularly gnarly episode of bulimia in 2015. I was only able to really acknowledge that I had a problems with food and purging, using both as opportunities to inflict violence onto myself, when reading Tumblr posts by people with eating disorders. This made it possible for me to talk about my purging with my therapist, my psychiatrist, and my doctor in order to modify my treatment plan in order to start getting help I need.

All of these things are made possible by having reliable, fast access to the Internet. We can respond to our needs immediately, regardless of where we are. We can find or build the communities we need, and serve the ones we already live in, whether they’re physical or exist purely as digital.

[1]: https://census.lacounty.gov/census/ Accessed 29.11.2019
[2]: https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2019/03/one-year-out-census-bureau-on-track-for-2020-census.html Accessed 29.11.2019
[3]: https://news.utexas.edu/2018/03/30/name-use-matters-for-transgender-youths-mental-health/ Accessed 29.11.2019

Consent

I was walking down the platform at the train station when I caught eyes with a police officer. Instinctively, I smiled and he smiled back. When I got closer, he said “Excuse me, do you mind if I swipe down your bag?” He gestured to a machine he was holding. “Just a random check.”

The slight tension I’d felt since I first saw him grabbed hold of my spine, shoulders, and jaw. I stood up a little straighter and clenched my teeth down.

“Sure, I guess,” I said uncertainly.

He could hear something in my voice, or read something in my change of posture. “You have to consent in order for me to be allowed to do it.”

Consent. I’d just been writing about consent that morning, before going to catch the train down to New York for Thanksgiving. It set me on edge and made more real what was happening: someone wanted to move into my personal space. There was now a legal interaction happening. “I don’t want to be difficult, but I’d rather you didn’t if you don’t have to.”

“It’s just a random check,” he said. “You don’t have to consent.”

“What happens if I say no?”

“You can’t get on the train,” he gestured to the track with his machine.

“So, my options are to let you search my bag or not go see my family for Thanksgiving?”

“You could take a bus,” he offered.

I thought about how I wanted to say this. Words are powerful and important.

“I consent to this in as much as I must without having any other reasonable option presented to me.”

He looked unconvinced, but swiped down my bag anyway, declared it safe, and sent me off.

Did I really have the right to withhold consent in this situation? Technically, yes. I could have told him no, but I had no other reasonable option.

At the heart of user freedom is the idea that we must be able to consent to the technology we’re directly and indirectly using. It is also important to note that we should not suffer unduly by denying consent.

If I don’t want to interact with a facial recognition system at an airport, I should be able to say no, but I should not be required to give up my seat or risk missing my flight spending exceptional effort as a consequence of refusing to consent. Consenting to something that you don’t want to do should not be incentivized, especially by making you take on extra risk or make extra sacrifices.

In many situations, especially with technology, we are presented with the option to opt out, but that doesn’t just mean opting out of playing a particular game: it can mean choosing whether or not to get a life saving medical implant; not filing your taxes because of government mandated tax software; or being unable to count yourself in a census.

When the choice is “agree or suffer the consequences” we do not have an option to actually consent.

Autonomy

I’ve been stuck on the question: Why is autonomy an ethical imperative? or, worded another way Why does autonomy matter? I think if we’re going to argue that free software matters (or if I am anyway), there needs to be a point where we have to be able to answer why autonomy matters.

I’ve been thinking about this in the framing of technology and consent since the summer of 2018, when Karen Sandler and I spoke at HOPE and DebConf 18 on user and software freedom. Sitting with Karen before HOPE, I had a bit of a crisis of faith and lost track of why software freedom matters after I moved to the point that consent is necessary to our continued autonomy. But why does autonomy matter?

Autonomy matters because autonomy matters. It is the postulate on which not only have I built my arguments, but my entire world view. It is an idea that is instilled in us very deeply that all arguments about what should be a legal right are framed. We have the idea of autonomy so fundamental as part of our society, that we have been trained to have negative, sometimes physical, reactions to the loss of autonomy. Pro-choice and anti-choice arguments both boil down to the question of respecting autonomy — but whose autonomy?  Arguments against euthanasia come down to autonomy — questions of whether someone really have the agency to decide to die versus concerns about autonomy being ignored and death being forced on a person. Even climate change is a question of autonomy — how can we be autonomous if we can’t even be?

Person autonomy means we can consent, user freedom is a tool for consent, software freedom is a tool for user freedom, free software is a tool for software freedom. We can also think about this in reverse:

Free software is the reality of software freedom. Software freedom protects user freedom. User freedom enables consent. Consent is necessary to autonomy. Autonomy is essential. Autonomy is essential because autonomy is essential. And that’s enough.

Free software activities (November 2019)

November brings two things very demanding of my time: Thanksgiving and the start of fundraising season.

Free software activities (personal)

  • The Open Source Initiative had it’s twice-a-year face to face board meeting! Good times all around.
  • Debian is having a GR. I’ve been following the development of proposals and conversation, which is basically a part time job in and of itself.
  • Participated in Debian Community Team meetings.
  • I started drafting Bits from the Debian Community Team.
  • Wrote some blog posts! I liked them this month.
  • Wearing multiple hats I attended SustainNYC, talking about sustainability in free and open source software.
  • I submitted to some CFPs — SCaLE, FOSSASIA, and OSCON.
  • I am serving on the papers committee for CopyLeftConf, and for this I reviewed proposals.

Free software activities (professional)

  • We launched a fundraiser! (About a patent infringement case)
  • Funding a legal case is an expensive proposition, so I am also meeting with companies and potential large donors interested in helping out with the case.
  • We launched another fundraiser! (About general Foundation activities)
  • I participated in the hiring process to fill two roles at the GNOME Foundation.

Health care

One of the most important issues for free software within the US is one we rarely talk about: healthcare. That is why I am going to write about it.

These days, sustainability in FOSS is a hot topic. In my experience, for many years this conversation focused nearly exclusively on making FOSS -profitable- for companies, in order to create jobs. Now, the conversation is shifting to ask: what conditions do we need to create so that everyone who wants to work in FOSS can do so?

The answer is not the same for everyone, nor is it the same in every country. Someone supporting a family of two, three, four, or however many has greater income needs than I do, as my biggest financial responsibilities are debt and a cat. However, I also have a condition with a mortality rate estimated at 15%. Access to affordable, comprehensive health care is not just a nice perk, but crucial for my continued survival.

Access to health insurance has been the primary factor in all of my professional decisions: staying places where I was miserable, doing work I hated, even choosing where to apply. Access to health insurance was a major factor in my moving to Massachusetts, which offers health insurance to all residents.

While my free software career has been amazing — I am extremely lucky that I was able to cultivate a skill set and social network that enabled me to work in the greater sphere of FOSS (and previously open ed) — I would have made different decisions had I not been reliant on employers to provide me with health insurance.

In the United States (and many, many other places), access to affordable, comprehensive healthcare (from here on: healthcare) is a major factor holding people back from FOSS contribution. When your access to health care is tied to your employer, your time — and literally your life — is dependent on your employer. This seriously impacts your ability to even have free time, let alone using that time to build FOSS.

Since the creation of software largely relies on people’s professional skill sets, we’re asking people to do in their free time what they do in their paid time — design, develop software, plan architecture, organize events, maintain systems and infrastructure, be a lawyer, manage finances, and everything else that strengthens FOSS and FOSS communities. In asking someone to take on a leadership role in a FOSS project or community, you’re asking them to take on another job — one that comes with neither pay nor benefits.

When people face constant threats to their existence due to fearing for their lives (i.e. their health), it can be hard, if not impossible to spend their time contributing to FOSS, or indeed to any activist project.

People who live in societies that rise to meet the basic material needs of all citizens are able to spend time contributing to the greater good. Those of us struggling to survive, however, must forgo opportunities to become participating members of communities that are trying to change the world. Instead, we look to our employers (usually with commercial interests) to meet our needs.

When you work in tech, meeting our basic material needs through employer-sponsored insurance comes at a steep price: non-compete agreements, signing away patent and intellectual property rights, fights to ensure your work is available under a free and/or open source license, and giving up more than 8 hours a day/40 hours a week. When we try to create good FOSS in addition to that, we burn out, we become miserable, and we’re trapped.

People are incapable of creating FOSS when they’re sick, burnt out, worried about their health, struggling with an ongoing condition or disability, or dead. It’s that simple. [powerful]

People fighting for access to healthcare should care about free software for many reasons, but we as a free software community also need to care about access to health care. This is for the sake of ourselves and the sake of our communities. We cannot build the tools and resources the world needs when we are struggling simply to live.

If you accept the notion that lack of access to comprehensive healthcare impacts our ability to have the resources necessary to create something like free software, then we can acknowledge that, by providing health care to everyone, everyone will then be in a better, more equitable position from which they can contribute to FOSS and lead safer, happier lives.

According to the KHN, 8.5% of U.S. Americans didn’t have health insurance in 2018. Un-insurance rates are even higher among non-white populations according to HHS. As a community, we’ve accepted that the lack of diversity and the over-representation of cis white folks is a problem. We need to create more equitable conditions — so that people come to FOSS from similar places of privilege, rather than having a huge disparity in privilege and oppression. Providing health care to everyone will help alleviate this, and will enable more people to do the things they are passionate about — or things they will become passionate about once they have the chance to do so.

If we are to create a world where FOSS is successful, access to health care is paramount and we need to take it seriously.

Rebellion

We spend a lot of time focusing on the epic side of free software and user freedom: joys come from providing encrypted communication options to journalists and political dissidents; losses are when IoT devices are used to victimize and abuse.

I think a lot about the little ways technology interacts with our lives, the threats to or successes for user freedom we encounter in regular situations that anyone can find themselves able to understand: sexting with a secure app, sharing  DRM-free piece of media, or having your communications listened to by a “home assistant.”

When I was writing a talk about ethics and IoT, I was looking for these small examples of the threats posed by smart doorbells. False arrests and racial profiling, deals with law enforcement to monitor neighborhoods, the digital panopticon — these are big deals. I remembered something I read about kids giving their neighbor a pair of slippers for Christmas. This sort of anonymous gift giving becomes impossible when your front door is constantly being monitored. People laughed when I shared this idea with them — that we’re really losing something by giving up the opportunity to anonymously leave presents.

We are also giving up what my roommate calls “benign acts of rebellion.” From one perspective, making it harder for teenagers to sneak out at night is a good thing. Keeping better tabs on your kids and where they are is a safety issue. Being able to monitor what they do on their computer can prevent descent into objectively bad communities and behavior patterns, but it can also prevent someone from participating in the cultural coming of age narratives that help define who we are as a society and give us points of connection across generations.

People sneak out. People go places their parents don’t want them to. People stay up late at night reading or playing video games. People explore their sexuality by looking at porn when they’re underage. People do things their parents don’t want them to, and these are things their parents are increasingly able to prevent them from doing using technology.

I met someone at a conference who was talking about potentially installing a camera into the bedroom of their pubescent child — the same kind designed to allow parents to monitor their babies at night — because their child was playing video games when they “should be sleeping.”

This appalled me, but one of the things that really struck me was how casually they said it. Technology made it not a big deal. They already had one in their baby’s room, putting another in seemed simple.

I would happily argue all the epic points that come out of this: creating a surveillance state, normalizing the reality of being monitored, controlling behavior and creating a docile population. These are real threats, but also, seriously, poor sleep hygiene is just a thing teenagers do and it’s okay.

These benign acts of rebellion — staying up later than we’re told to, chatting with our friends when we’re not “supposed to” — are not just important points of cultural connection, but also just important for our own individual development. Making mistakes, doing dumb things, acting the fool, and learning from all of this is important in the process of defining ourselves. Technology should not be used to hinder our personal growth, especially when it offers to many opportunities for us to better explore who we are, or makes it safer for us to continue to rebel in the myriad ways we always have. Rebellion is important to our narratives — it’s certainly integral to mine. I hope that people younger than me don’t lose that because of the fear others hold.