The Future of the Free Software Foundation: Your Input Requested

Tuesday Jan 12th 2016 by Bruce Byfield

The FSF is surveying computer users in an effort to renew its relevance, asking users for input on all manner of free and open source software issues.

Addressing questions about the Free Software Foundation (FSF)'s future direction seems long overdue. For that reason, the FSF's current online survey seems a step in the right direction.

In many ways, the survey is a necessity. Although the FSF regularly tackles too many major issues to count, its entire operating budget for 2013 was $1,250,498, approximately five percent of the budget for the more corporate-oriented Linux Foundation during the same year. Under such budget restraints, some selection seems inevitable if the FSF is to avoid spreading itself too thin.

Even more importantly, the influence of the FSF seems to have lessened since 2007, when the third version of the GNU General Public License was released without a general consensus among the stakeholders consulted. In addition, the FSF's failure to strongly address licensing issues on Android or in cloud computing has reduced its authority. Perhaps, as John Sullivan, the FSF's executive director suggests, this perception is largely a matter of perception, but increased publicity could, in itself, be a priority.

Still, from any perspective, the survey matters. The answers the FSF receives, and how it responds to them could easily determine not only if the FSF still exists thirty years from now, but whether it remains a strong voice in the next five years.

FSF Priorities

The survey opens with a list of ten possible priorities, and asks you to choose three. The priorities vary from technical issues, such as promoting free-licensed hardware and ending Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) to legal ones, such as ending software patents, to social ones, such as encouraging the use of free software. My personal preference would be for the addition of several other choices -- including increased publicity of the FSF's efforts to help it regain its authority and an "all of the above" option. Yet I understand the need for focus.

After some thought, the three priorities I decided on was movement building, adoption, and hardware. I chose movement building because I have thought for years that free software should be an issue for activists alongside environmentalism and sustainable development. I also think that the FSF's promotion of diversity needs improvement --after all, it has been years since I have heard anything from its Women's Caucus.

As for adoption, it seems a core purpose, while free hardware seems the current New Frontier for free-licenses, and I would like to see the FSF assume a leadership role as early as possible. After all, by definition, free hardware is a natural area for the FSF.

Responses to Statements

After the list of possible priorities, the survey asks for reactions to a series of ten questions. I don't know how the FSF will react to these questions, but I find that considering my answers goes a long way towards clarifying my thoughts about the organization.

For example, the first statement is "FSF representatives are positive figures in the free software movement." On a personal level, I immediately think of people like Deb Nicholson or Joshua Gay. However, to those less interested in the FSF than I am, I suspect that it is represented largely by its founder, Richard M. Stallman. Unfortunately, despite his ground-breaking accomplishments, I often hear comments about his eccentricity and obsessiveness. Increasingly, he seems to be regarded as yesterday's hero -- and this sense of obsolescence clings to the organization in general.

Another statement, "The FSF's online materials are not attractive or user- friendly enough," I agree strongly with. I am far from a LaTeX expert, yet I could practically name the macros used in its newsletter. When I go to the FSF's web pages, I get little sense of the organization's identity -- and, writing in the second week of the new year, notice that the Christmas gift- giving guide is still the lead article on the front page.

I realize, of course, that the FSF's emphasis is technical, and that many developers and engineers are suspicious of marketing, yet a lackluster appearance almost certainly increases the difficulty of getting people to listen to the Foundation's concerns.

In other statements, I seem to hear echoes of internal discussions. Diversity, for example, is mentioned both in the list of possible priorities and as a statement in the second part of the survey -- and both times I consider it both common justice and a much-needed indicator of relevance.

Similarly, "The FSF needs to compromise more" seems an effort to gain some insight into a commonly expressed sentiment. Personally, though, I am still debating on how to answer it. On the one hand, I am glad to see that at least some FSF supporters no long avoid conferences whose titles do not include "GNU/Linux." On the other hand, I see no reason for the FSF to compromise on its basic principles, although I think it needs to be more creative in expressing them.

The last statement suggests that ease of use should be a priority for free software. Again, I find myself divided. Perhaps an FSF endorsement of usability might encourage more developers to think about interfaces. Yet, at the same time, usability seems too remote from the FSF's chief concerns to become a priority, given the Foundation's limited budget.

However, the statements I consider most important in the survey are "The FSF does a good job overall," and "The free software movement has been successful at achieving its goals over the last 30 years." Both questions seem impossible to answer except with qualifications.

Given that limited staff and budgets means that the FSF is often fighting a rearguard action, I think it does a better job than anyone has a right to expect. However, especially in the last eight years, I think its success has not always been what it could be.

Too often, the FSF needs to do too much at once, and that has meant that it has not always addressed issues that, in retrospect, have proved to be important, such as the move away from the desktop. As a result, key aspects of computing remain unaffected by its efforts. Ironically, free-licenses have done more for developers than for users in general -- and that means that the FSF has sometimes done more to promote open source than free software ideals.

Free Software in 2020

The final section of the survey asks readers to imagine how free software will become successful or fail by 2020. In many ways, I found this section the easiest. If the FSF continues to drift, then so many new technologies will be outside its main concerns that it will become irrelevant.

By contrast, if the FSF identifies its priorities and establishes a strong identity, then I have every hope for its renewed -- or, at least, its increased -- relevance.

The survey is open until the end of January. If you care about free software issues at all, you will do everyone a favor by taking ten minutes to answer it. Personally, I plan to answer as soon as I send off this article.

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