Free and open source software and ‘the anarchist-libertarian ethic’

Joseph Reagle’s recent paper on sexism within the free and open source software (FOSS) movement, ‘Free as in sexist?’: Free culture and the gender gap, makes an important contribution to our understanding of FOSS, and particularly to those who want to build a movement which is more diverse and welcoming. However, I do feel that at least one aspect of his argument needs further development. Reagle sees the movement’s ‘anarchist-libertarian ethic’ as playing a significant role in sustaining a hostile environment, outlining this ethic as follows:

This personal-freedom ethic is not only intact in the free culture movement, the movement is now its most vital and popular manifestation. For example, Richard Stallman, geek exemplar, has “campaigned for freedom since 1983” (Stallman, 2010). Eric Raymond, famous for a number of technical and cultural contributions (e.g., fetchmail and as a progenitor of “open source”), is a self–described anarchist and libertarian (Raymond, 2003; 1999). Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, which lauds the autonomy of self–interested behavior and laissez–faire capitalism, had a significant influence on American libertarianism and early Internet culture. At Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales is reported to have named his daughter after a character in one of Rand’s fictions; Larry Sanger, too, was fond of Rand’s The Fountainhead and is a self–described libertarian (Deutschman, 2007; Schneider and Sanger, 2011). Mark Shuttleworth (millionaire entrepreneur, self–funded astronaut, and Ubuntu founder) was a “fan of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and great admirer of Ayn Rand’s vision” though he now identifies as a more tempered “fan of regulated capitalism” (Shuttleworth, 2008). In short, while there are significant differences in the political philosophies of these men — and each would be adept articulating their differences — they are creatures of the Internet’s ethos of freedom.

The Really Really Free Market (RRFM) movement is a non-hierarchical collective of individuals who form a temporary market based on an alternative gift economy. The RRFM movement aims to counteract capitalism in a non-reactionary way. It holds as a major goal to build a community based on sharing resources, caring for one another and improving the collective lives of all.
Really really free market, Perth

There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, while key figures within the movement such as Torvalds, Raymond, and RMS certainly do play a role in shaping the movement’s politics, they don’t fully determine them. Neither their politics nor those of participants in the movement more broadly are as simply encapsulated as Reagle makes out here (as I’ve discussed elsewhere). The second problem with this is that ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’, while sharing a concern with individual freedom, are quite distinct political philosophies, and are associated with very different community ethics. Libertarians tends to privilege an extreme individualism, failing to acknowledge the role of structural oppression in creating inequality, and seeking to diminish (or extinguish) the role of the state in favour of more freedom for the market. Anarchists, on the other hand, tend to place individual freedom within the context of community, acknowledging the role of structural oppression, and critiquing both the state and the market as systems for allocating resources.

Reagle’s conflation of anarchism and libertarianism is more than a minor niggle for political scientists (and anarchists) – it also influences his discussion of potential solutions to the problem. Reagle argues, drawing on Herring’s work, that the alternative to the current open, ‘anarchic’  system is a more structured form of community, including a ‘group leader’:

the anarchic–libertarian ethic requires a significant tolerance for adversariality that may be alienating to some participants. Such participants may actually feel freer to participate under a more structured form of community governance, including community leadership or conduct guidelines. As Herring (2003) writes: “While this result may appear initially puzzling — how can women be ‘freer’ to participate when they are ‘controlled’ by a group leader? — it makes sense if the leader’s role is seen as one of ensuring a civil environment, free from threats of disruption and harassment”. (And a preference for a friendly and civil environment is not limited to women.)

A long list outlining safer spaces policy
Safer spaces policy

This binary between ‘openness’ and governance is problematic. It’s quite possible for a non-hierarchical community to develop codes of conduct: many anarchist communities do just that, often in the form of safe spaces guidelines. It’s also not necessary for structure to imply hierarchy. Not only is it possible to build non-hierarchical structures, but some form of structure is often necessary in order to sustain non-hierarchical organisation. Anarchist communities, as well as many other communities that oppose hierarchy (including many feminist groups), have long experience with building spaces and organisational forms that are non-hierarchical (or at least, less hierarchical).

This is not to say that these experiences have gone smoothly. There are plenty of critiques of anarchist, feminist, and other supposedly non-hierarchical collectives which end up with invisible hierarchies based on race, gender, class, or even just more dominant personalities. Many groups on the left have acted to marginalise already marginalised groups: women had to (and still have to) push hard for equal inclusion within left-wing communities; women of colour have challenged mainstream white feminism; lesbians have challenged the primacy of gay men within ‘gay and lesbian’ communities.

What this history means, however, is that there’s a wide range of experience and practices to draw on when it comes to building decentralised, relatively-open communities in which there are structures in place to deal with ‘difficult’ people and behaviours, and with existing structural oppression. The problems which Reagle describes are by no means limited to the FOSS community, and in characterising them as such he neglects to draw on some of the solutions already available.

He also passes rather lightly over existing attempts within FOSS to challenge misogyny and other forms of structural oppression. Just as marginalised groups within other communities have pushed for greater inclusion, cultural change, and better processes, people of all genders within the FOSS community are pushing to create a safer and more welcoming environment. LCA 2013 was just one example of a FOSS space which had a code of conduct and a diversity officer, as well as providing childcare and taking other steps to ensure a safe and accessible space. Debian woman was founded in 2005 and was wholeheartedly embraced by the predominately male project. Python has for years an incredible diversity project and list in existence for years, and the CCC, one of the largest hacker groups also has an anti-harassment policy for their events. This is not to say that misogyny doesn’t still exist – it does, just as it does in most communities. But the answer is not more top-down control; initiatives that come out of the community and are lead by those who have previously been marginalised are far more likely to provide sustainable long-term solutions.

[Edits: I’m well aware that historically ‘anarchism’ and ‘libertarianism’ have been used interchangeably, and that people sometimes use terms like ‘socialist libertarian’ to mean more or less the same thing as ‘anarchist’. This is a rather simplified version of a more in-depth discussion which would require more space than a blog post.

Joseph Reagle has replied here.]

LCA 2013: distributed democracy, speaking stacks, links

Thursday was my final day at Linux Conference, sadly, as I needed to get back to other work. It’s a pity, as there were quite a few talks on Friday that I would have liked to see, including the keynote by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Denise Paolucci’s talk on accessibility, Asheesh Laroia on quantitative community management, and Joh Pirie-Clark on what scans of the .au and .nz domains have turned up. Quite a few of the lightning talks also looked good.

On Thursday I went to a few of the more technical talks, including Bunnie Huang’s keynote: while much of this went over my head, there were some interesting points about the model of startup development and the difficulties involved in hacking hardware.

Distributed democracy

The most relevant talk for me was, of course, Pia Waugh’s, distributed democracy: geeks rule over king [edit: now available on the LCA talks site, here]  Pia began by arguing that the Internet has facilitated the decentralisation of many previously-centralised power structures, including publishing, communication, and monitoring. As we share more on the Internet, we’re going to have to finally accept that noone is normal, and revelations of (for example) drug use or other common-but-socially-risky behaviour will be more widely accepted. Similarly, the wide availability of 3D printing devices is likely to challenge our current system of property, eradicating poverty.

Two stormtrooper figurines putting up a sign reading 'In protest against SOPA and PIPA'
By Flickr user Kristina Alexanderson

While the Internet has enabled these shifts, Pia argued, we’re also seeing problems emerging from the attempts to use geographically-bounded entities (states) to regulate a system which crosses borders. While there’s still a role for states today, Pia suggested that perhaps we need to think about an organisation which will more effectively represent the interests of Internet users. This needs to go beyond the existing organisations which engage in lobbying (like the Electronic Frontiers Foundation and Electronic Frontiers Australia): perhaps we need something more like a government for, and composed of, Internet users.

While I have a lot of respect for the work Pia’s doing and think her talk was very thought-provoking, I disagree with much of her argument. While the Internet has certainly helped to change many of the structures mentioned (and will do so further), existing power structures have responded to the challenge and acted to further consolidate power where possible. For example, although it’s theoretically possible for people to get news from a wide range of sources, we’ve seen a massive concentration of media ownership over recent decades, and a look through the top sites visited in Australia shows that the most-visited sites are still predominantly controlled by large corporations. The idea that technology will solve poverty is also quite problematic, given that poverty is mostly an issue of distribution rather than limited resources: we have enough food to feed everyone, but we don’t.

My disagreement with the second part of Pia’s argument largely centres on the issue of where we put the focus of our political struggle. There are issues with how we regulate the Internet, and it’s worth thinking about how to resist attempts by elites (including economic elites) to control it (I’ve addressed this further in much of my academic writing). However, I think we need to put this in the perspective of other struggles. That means acknowledging that while the digital divide is lessening, Internet access is still linked to privilege, and a “government for the Internet” is likely to disproportionately represent the interests of those who are already relatively empowered. Instead, we need to think about Internet regulation in a way which centres the needs of those who are most marginalised, locally, nationally, and globally.

Making links and further reading

Brianna's moo cards with links to the Geek Feminism wiki and blog
Brianna’s moo cards with links to the Geek Feminism wiki and blog

I’ve had some great conversations throughout LCA, and I’m happy to see that in addition to having learned a lot myself and plenty of directions for further reading, some of the ideas I’ve suggested are already being built on and expanded. During the Free Software Activism BoF on Wednesday, I raised the possibility of using a simplified version of a progressive speaking stack: Brianna Laugher’s mocked-up an implementation in Python, and Russell Coker has a longer discussion suggesting how a progressive speaking list might be implemented at LCA and other events. Brianna also has some reflections on my talk from Wednesday, and plenty of other posts worth reading. I particularly like her ‘RTFM’ cards for feminism. Mary’s site is also worth looking through: I had somehow managed to miss it previously, possibly because I tend to by quite bad at visiting blogs (I really need to work out a RSS reader that I can feel enthusiastic about).

Did you write something about either of my talks, critical or otherwise? Do you have some recommended reading? Let me know! I’m really hoping that the excellent conversations I had at LCA can continue, and that I’ll stay in touch with people, particularly as I never get enough time to talk to everyone I want to in all the excitement of conferences.

Linux Conference Australia: disaster response, activism, and copyright

A mobile phone displaying the Serval software.I began the day with a couple of talks looking at FOSS projects for disaster support. Paul Gardner-Stephen started off talking about The Serval Project, which aims to provide secure communications for those in need. Mostly, “in need” means “affected by a disaster”, which was defined broadly as a situation where a community’s ability to respond is overwhelmed. The project allows the set-up of mobile-phone mesh networks that allow encrypted voice telephony, encrypted short messaging, file/data dissemination, and crowd-sourced mapping. Using mesh networks, rather than piggy-backing on existing infrastructure, is useful in situations where mobile networks or other communications services have been taken down by accident, or by the government or other forces. Theoretically, it will be possible to drop a single phone into an area and use it to copy the software onto other phones around the place to create the mesh. It should also be possible to transfer data by moving the phones around, even by bicycle or on foot. They’re also thinking about ways to develop mesh-based social networks which would be able to tie in to existing social networks like Twitter.

OpenStreetMap Indonesia

Kate Chapman talked next, about open source and open data for humanitarian responses with OpenStreetMap. OpenStreetMap aims to provide a worldwide map produced and available openly – the analogy she gave was ‘like Wikipedia but for maps’. She was talking particularly about the use of OpenStreetMap in humanitarian responses to disaster: mapping data is helpful for marking hazards (including violence), as well as for other tasks like coordinating clean-ups. Open data also helps communities to manage some of these processes themselves. A lot of this work is done with university graduates, particularly in geography, but more skilled volunteers and interns are still needed.

After lunch I spoke on Free and Open Source Software and Activism, to an encouragingly-full room (with, I found out later, more people who wanted to get in but couldn’t because the room was full): there were also plenty of questions. There was also a request for some ‘anarchism 101’ reading. I’ve been meaning to put this together for a while (and failing), but here’s a few starting-points:

  • Bob Black’s Anarchism 101 gives a useful overview, from the quick look I’ve had at it.
  • We are everywhere, put out by the Notes from Nowhere collective, is great to dip into for more detail. The introductory stories at the beginning of each chapter are particularly useful.
  • “Introduction to Anarchism”, parts 1 and 2, in Avenue 1 and 2, give a more in-depth discussion.
  • Refusing to wait: anarchism and intersectionality is a good look at feminism and anarchism.

If you’re interested in anything I raised in my talk, please feel free to contact me on here, Twitter, or elsewhere.

After me, ironically, there was a talk by the DSD guy, which apparently LCA wasn’t allowed to film. From the looks of it (on Twitter), I probably should have snuck over to the other room and seen Geoff Huston’s talk on the IPocalypse. Ben Powell also covered copyright issues in the final session, looking at how recent changes to legislation will affect the future of cloud-based and streaming services.

A group of penguins.
Adelie penguins, by !WOUW on Flickr.

The day will end with Birds of a Feather meetups. We already snuck in one BoF, looking at FOSS and humanitarian responses, over afternoon tea. While there wasn’t much time available, Tim McNamara had some useful things to say about ‘hfoss’: there’s a lot of need for good documentation and bug reporting, and for venues with wifi to provide support for teams on the ground. For those interested, there’s a list of helpful links on the lca2013 wiki. I’ll probably end up at the free software activism meetup for the BoFs, surprising no-one.

Linux Conference Australia: Haecksen

After Radia Perlman’s keynote talk, I spent today at the Haecksen miniconference, which focuses on women in open source. It was great to see a mixed audience, rather than an all-woman audience.

While much of Radia Perlman‘s talk on networks was focused on technical systems that are beyond me, it was still interesting because she talked a bit about the reasoning behind the adoption of different network protocols. She emphasised that the protocols which are widely adopted are not always those that are best, and made it clear that the development of network technology doesn’t always follow a ‘rational’ path of development. I also liked that she illustrated her talk with references to her children: it’s good to have people talk about their work in ways that acknowledge that it’s just one part of their lives.

I gave the first talk at Haecksen, critiquing ‘open-source politics’: you can find my slides and the abstract here.


A bee and a bee-mimic.
One of these is a bee. One of these is not. It’s doing just fine anyway.

Denise Paolucci‘s talk on Overcoming Imposter Syndrome was great, and happily included quite a few tips:

  • Watch your language: don’t reinforce the problem, for example by saying that you’re “just” or “only” a beginner (or a researcher, or whatever it is you are); avoid “I think” – this is implied by what you’re saying; avoid saying that you “should have…” done things a certain way; you could try a ‘self-deprecating language’ jar.
  • Teach what you know, even if you think you don’t know it. Explaining something will help you to realise what you know.
  • Question corrections (especially nitpicking about small details, but also larger criticisms). Have faith in your own work, and remember that not all criticisms are legitimate.
  • Ask questions.
  • Ask for perspective checks from a friend.
  • Keep a list of your accomplishments.
  • Get background information for comparison: if your boss or colleague is being very critical, for example, there’s a chance that it’s not you. Talking to other people who have worked with this person might give you more of an idea of what’s going on.
  • Remember that you are awesome.

Denise also talked briefly about how helping other people overcome their imposter syndrome: by providing appropriate support and encouragement, Dreamwidth has ended up with contributions from a much more diverse range of people than most other projects.

Mortar damage to a road, filled in with red concrete.
A Sarajevo Rose, marking a fatal mortar attack. Joh used this image to emphasise the difference between real war and ‘cyberwar’.

Next up, Joh Pirie-Clark gave an excellent critique of ‘cyberwar’ rhetoric, Cyberwar: Mo’ Metaphor, Mo’ Money, Mo’ problems? She argued that the analogies we use to describe the world shape how we respond, and the language of ‘cyberwar’ is problematic because it applies terms that refer to massive damage and loss of life to digital attacks which, for the most part, don’t. For example, NZ laws around “making, selling, or possessing software for committing crime” are clearly modelled around drug and gun laws, whereas it would be far more appropriate to base them on dual-use tools (like crowbars) that have legal uses. The cyberwar narrative is building a million-dollar industry, particularly in the use, and contributing to a sense of states under siege by vague and shadowy sources.

After lunch, there were a couple of talks looking at cool geeky craft stuff: Kathy Reid talked about integrating the Arduino Lilypad with knitting projects, and Ruth Ellison spoke on laser-cut jewellery (including some cool climate data visualisation jewellery).

Fee Plumley‘s talk on Open Source Cities raised some interesting points about how we think about cities, diasporas, and nomadic living. I was quite uncomfortable with the use of the term gypsy throughout the talk (more about this here). I’m always nervous about raising issues with problematic language at conferences, but happily Fee was open and asked for more resources to read up on: always a good way of responding if you get a call-out, even if you ultimately don’t end up agreeing with what’s said. We all make mistakes, including me, and I’ve had some great moments of learning when people have pulled me up.


A room full of young women sitting at computers and smiling.
Click on the image to see Kate Miller’s slides.

Katie Miller spoke on programs for teaching school-aged girls how to use FOSS, using FOSS programs. She had some good suggestions on specific lessons learned, including the need to break up large chunks of text and to include examples. Jacinta Richardson’s suggestions on getting your conference talk accepted had helpful tips, especially for those starting out: think about how difficult it is to get accepted to a particular conference; make sure that you write well, because organisers are likely to use this is a shortcut to guessing whether you’re a good speaker (including using clear language good paragraph structure); skip titles like “x for fun and profit” and “making x sexy”; consider asking for help from people who know the area, including people from the papers committee.

While the technical content of Mary Gardiner and Breanna Laugher’s demonstration of py.test didn’t make much sense to me, I liked the format of the talk. Breanna gave instructions to Mary (who hadn’t used py.test before) on how to use it for various tasks and Mary typed up her work on the screen. This seems like a useful way to make discussions less abstract, as well as to ensure that issues an experienced user might forget to cover are made visible.

A crocheted toy robot.
(Not this robot.)

Finally, Samantha Cheah and Lauren Hassall talked about the Robogals project, which uses university volunteers to run robotics workshops for highschool students. These workshops are designed to introduce girls to engineering in a fun way, with positive and relatable role models. The project’s been very successful, with several chapters in the Asia-Pacific (including Perth), UK, and North America.
Despite some initial worries that my knowledge base is too far away from the focus of Linux Conference, it’s been great so far. Even talks where I didn’t get all the technical detail were useful in other ways, and of course it’s lovely to meet new people, as well as meeting people in person who I usually only see online.

Upcoming talks: ‘Free and open source software and activism’ and ‘feminism, anarchism, and FOSS’

Next week I’ll be heading over to Canberra for Linux Conference Australia, where I’ll be giving a couple of talks. These will have a slightly less academic focus than many of my conference presentations: while they still draw significantly on my research, I’ll be giving a freer rein to my activist interests. During the main program I’ll be talking about free and open source software and activism:

Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy movement have made the need for user-controlled digital technologies clear, as activists have used the Internet and mobile phones to organise and to communicate with each other and with potential supporters. The consequences of failures in these systems, particularly security breaches, can be extreme: activists may face fines, jail time, or even death. Free and open source software (FOSS) provides one potential solution to these problems, as it is focused on users’ needs. FOSS communities also already overlap significantly with many other activist communities, and are working to develop cross-movement connections as well as useful tools. However, many FOSS communities, and particularly those defined by a commitment to open source, rather than than free, software, are reluctant to take overt political stands. Similarly, many activists on both the left and the right have an aversion to digital technologies for both ideological and practical reasons. This means that there are frequently significant barriers to increasing the links between FOSS and progressive political movements. This presentation explores the connections between FOSS communities and the broader activist landscape. It looks at the politics of FOSS, the ways in which global movements and FOSS communities are building links, and the potential benefits of actively seeking cross-fertilisation of ideas and politics between FOSS and progressive movements.

I’ll also be speaking at the Haecksen mini-conference that runs alongside the main programme. Haecksen, organised by the Oceania Women of Open Technology group, will “feature women speakers and panellists on technical and community topics related to free software and women in free software.” I’ll be talking about feminism, anarchism, and FOSS:

The language of open software is increasingly being applied to politics, as people talk about and develop “open government” projects. However, much of this discussion does not unpack the politics of “openness”, instead taking for granted that it involves a technologically-enhanced model of existing liberal democratic ideals. However, there are other ways to interpret what free and open source politics might look like. One is to more thoroughly apply the politics espoused by key figures within the free and open software movements, such as Stallman and Raymond. Another, more radical, route is to take the commitment to decentralisation of power that lies at the heart of free and open source software and apply it not only to an analysis of politics, but also to the existing free and open source software movement. This route demonstrates that there are useful lessons to be learned from looking at the interaction between free software principles, anarchism, and feminism.

This will be my first time at Linux Conference, and the mailing list has made it clear that the conference has a vibrant community around it. I’m also really happy to see that Linux Conference has a great Code of Conduct and is offering free childcare. While I don’t have kids, things like this seem like a good sign that the conference organisers are taking active steps to being an inclusive space that allows space for parents and supports groups that might otherwise be marginalised. I wish more academic conferences did this. If you’re going, please feel free to say hi to me!

“Come, brother, come, sister, look at this software!”: Activism and Play

Last Thursday night, I spent a couple of hours walking the streets of Bangalore with a strange assortment of others, shouting out Kannada variants of “Software! SOFTWAAARE! Get your software!” We had a push-cart, like the vegetable sellers here use, a heap of handwritten signs offering “Free software USB stick, only Rs 250!”, and a whole stack of Ubuntu, Gnu/Linux, and Debian stickers in English and Kannada that Omshivaprakash of Linuxaayana bought down.
Around 16 people, walking and pushing bikes and a cart.
On the way to MG Road...

The idea came out of a kitchen conversation that Dinesh, Murali, and I had a while ago, as a fun way of combining two things we’re all excited about: bicycles and free and open source software (FOSS).

Some of the people who came were excited about bicycles. Others have been using and promoting FOSS for a long time, while some had only just heard about it. A few, like one or two of the people from Servelots who came, support FOSS but also wanted to see “one of these crazy things that Dinesh is always doing.” The guys from the Agnii performance troupe don’t use FOSS but are learning about it, and support the general idea (you can watch a great introduction to them here, or check out Saravana’s YouTube channel).

The same group of people, now on a crowded street
On MG Road

A few of those who came said they think of themselves as activists, but most don’t. About half hadn’t been to a protest, or similar event, in the last six months. When I asked people how they’d categorise the event, most said it wasn’t a protest, but was about “awareness raising”. The police seemed to agree: you need a permit for protests here, but as soon as they asked what it was all about and someone said “free software!” they obligingly let us go on, and even stopped traffic to let us cross roads.

I don’t think that all activism need be like this. But sometimes having events that aren’t overtly political and which use novel and playful forms can be a good way of getting people involved who wouldn’t usually think of themselves as activists, and who wouldn’t usually go to protests.

Street vendors sitting with protest signs.
Street vendors' protest

This event wasn’t without problems. We started off at the street vendors’ protest that I mentioned in a previous post, the idea being to briefly give support their protest before moving on. This had been agreed to beforehand with some of the protest organisers, and while we were there the response from the street vendors seemed to be positive. However, Zainab Bawa pointed out that there was concern among some of the street vendors that we were diluting the focus on their issues. (There’s far more to be said here about the processes used to negotiate among different groups when planning and running activist events, but I’ll leave that for another post!)

There were two questions that I asked people at the end of the protest: “what do you think we achieved?” and “would you come to something like this again?” Everyone that I spoke to was happy that they’d got people thinking about free software in one way or another: by introducing the term, by handing out stickers that people might investigate later, or by having longer conversations with people on the street. A few people also mentioned being pleased about being able to give support to the street vendors’ protest, or about being able to promote bicycling.

Almost everyone said that they’d come to a similar event again. One woman said, “Yes, I’d come, but only if it’s something crazy like this!”

Photos once again courtesy of the talented Dipti Desai.