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Less RMS, more freedom – FSF pitches to wider audience

The Digital Speech Project

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Now that GNU/Linux is becoming a household commodity, the Free Software Foundation is facing changes in its priorities. Used to be that rounding up Free Software developers to complete a non-proprietary operating system was job one. Now other things are more urgent, like fighting digital rights management (or digital "restrictions" management, as Richard M. Stallman puts it), and enforcing the GPL. So when it comes to the public face of the FSF, it means you may be seeing less of RMS and more of other people.

Like Bradley Kuhn, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, who is filling the role of spokesman and advocate with enthusiasm. "I am charged with the task of bringing the message of FSF to a broader audience," he says. Kuhn is fervent in his belief that software freedom is for everyone, not just an elite few. "Of course, I love the Free Software community and am an active member of it. However, there was always one aspect of our community that didn't sit right with me: the idea that you had to 'prove your hacker credentials' to be taken seriously.

"Too often, we have a tendency to develop Free Software that 'scratches our own itches.' While lots of useful and important Free Software does get written that way, navel-gazing work can't be the only focus.

"This means that the FSF's charge to bring and defend software freedom must reach beyond the insular world of computer science. Trying to convince people to choose Free Software because of technological superiority or admiration for the hacker ethic is a tactical error. While I am confident in our ability to keep pace with proprietary software, it will likely be decades before Free Software is more convenient than proprietary software in every way.

"It's up to us to teach everyone else that our country wasn't founded on a notion of 'Give me convenience or give me death,' but rather 'Give me liberty or give me death.'

"I have felt that the Free Software movement has teetered for too long on the cusp of directly impacting the general public," says Kuhn. "The time has come to stop shouting our technological advantage from the rooftops, and shout instead about the freedom we bring.

"The public saw us once in the late 1990s as technological innovators. The time has come for us to get active and get organized, so that the public can see us as revolutionaries, too."

But not too extreme. Of late, Stallman, the FSF's founder, has kept out of the spotlight. In August, for example, the Free Software Foundation held a snazzy $250 per plate fundraising dinner, from which Stallman was conspicuously absent. FSF's director of communication, Ravi Khanna, told Wired.com: "We're trying to portray the FSF as more than just Richard," and that it "made sense for (Stallman) not to be there."

And this month, there was another fundraising dinner that didn't include Stallman. Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, was the featured speaker.

Stallman lays it out this way: "The FSF's focus is Free Software, not me. I work for computer users' freedom, and the FSF works for computer users' freedom ... Once upon a time, I was the FSF's only speaker, but one was not enough, so we decided years ago to develop more. Now we have seven speakers, but we still need more.

"With both Congress and industry cartels proposing schemes to exclude Free Software from large areas of computing, we have to talk to everyone who uses computers and even digital TVs and audio recorders about the freedoms that they stand to lose. The Digital Speech Project addresses this threat."

Kuhn and Khanna are putting a lot of energy into the burgeoning Digital Speech Project. They initiated an advisory committee whose primary goal is to gain endorsements for the project from organizations represented on the committee. The group is also working to put together a statement of principles: a pithy paragraph or three that communicates the ideals and goals of the project. "In this statement of principles, we have the DSP committee representatives -- from consumer rights organizations, civil liberties organizations, musicians' and artists' advocates, libarians, educators, and software freedom advocates -- coming together to say: 'Technology control measures have gone too far and must go no further. Furthermore, damage already done by existing legislation like DMCA must be undone.'"

Kuhn admits that the DSP isn't saying anything new. "It is what many different groups have been saying for a while. The profundity comes from the realization that all these different groups are in agreement that we can't let large copyright holders dictate public technology policy anymore," he says.

The organizers of the Digital Speech Project hope to awaken voting constituencies to the dangers of legislation like DMCA and CBDTPA [the US Consumer Broadcast and Digital Television Promotion Act]. To do that, they're driving a grassroots campaign that begins with reaching young people. Kuhn has spent a lot of time recently visiting college campuses and doing the work of an evangelist. "We dove into the project with vigor earlier this calendar year. We focused on forming campus Digital Freedom groups. I've heard this year the Digital Freedom group at the University of Kentucky is getting very active."

"What I find on these campuses is a growing underground awareness mostly, but not exclusively, based in the computer science departments, that current notions of copyright law are too extreme and downright harmful. From what I've seen, college students, despite the popular opinion from the mainstream press, don't dismiss the artists' needs when they share music non-commercially online.

"In fact, when I lead class discussion on the topic, all the students who speak up say they've considered it carefully, and that they find the current system of music production to be a scam controlled by the publishing companies.

"They know as well as Courtney Love does that the current regime isn't about the artist; by contrast, it's about corporate control."

The biggest snag, he says, is bringing these students from a place of mere receptivity to software and digital freedoms, to a place of political action. "The climate on college campuses right now is tough. The U.S. military campaigns have polarized the political spectrum, and speaking out against the status quo has become more dangerous, both socially and politically. This shadows issues like digital freedom, because they are often seen as side issues from the foreign policy arguments that are raging."

Kuhn says getting the word ingrained in people who've never thought about digital freedoms before is slow-going. "We formed the committee as a first step, because we believe that the best way to approach this project was to first and foremost build a broad coalition. With that coalition we hope to get the interest of funders to provide us the resources to design a strong grassroots campaign."

Another problem is making technical issues make sense to the average non-geek. "What we've found is that there are a lot of enthusiastic activists for digital freedom in communities and campuses around the U.S.," Kuhn says. "However, they suffer from the same problems that the Free Software movement has often suffered from: difficulty translating the message so that a non-technical audience can understand. Industry and governmental initiatives like the so-called 'broadcast protection flag' are buried in confusing technical details.

"We plan to design a campaign that gives the average Free Software activist the right tools to educate her campus, her community and her circle of friends, that issues of digital freedom are central to other freedoms we currently enjoy."

Like the legal right to time-shift or space-shift DVDs, TV shows, or music CDs. Kuhn points out that these issues are more central to students' lives than foreign policy. "These activities have become the staple of campus life, and we must provide a roadmap to show students that industry and legislative control measures may destroy this budding ecosystem of technology advancement."

Kuhn is scheduled to speak at Purdue University on October 25. "I'll be talking about software freedom in the GNU generation, as well as about issues surrounding digital freedom. One of the things I'll stress is how much is happening in back rooms between the industry groups like RIAA to make certain restrictions mandatory. They literally talk about 'selling' these restrictions to the public, and this is going to happen if we don't do something."

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