Constructive measures to help people communicate freely

Paul Boddie paul at
Sun Mar 25 16:08:46 UTC 2018


There has been a lot said recently about Facebook, Google, and other entities 
that facilitate online communication through services that have hidden impacts 
on people's freedoms. But as I noted before, it is more constructive to focus 
on how we in the Free Software community can help others communicate using 
more respectful tools and services.

This isn't just in the context of recent discussions about Mozilla and 
Facebook: I also mentioned it when Daniel suggested a plugin to remind people 
about how their use of proprietary, exploitative services might be impacting 
their freedom and those of others. While I understand what the motives are for 
doing something like this, telling people that they are bad only really 
appeals to people who like punishing themselves or who admit to weakness and 
want someone else to apply the discipline.

Now, it is often the case that any negative message is accompanied by a 
positive one. One might suggest a range of alternatives that are better for 
people. So, people have already suggested that the FSFE and the community in 
general promote things like Diaspora, GNU Social, Mastodon, or whatever. But I 
don't think this goes far enough.

In the context of the FSFE, one may consider the campaigns that are 
occasionally run by the organisation. An interesting example is the PDF 
Readers campaign which attempted to promote Free Software PDF reader 
applications and to demand that public organisations advertising the 
proprietary Adobe Reader stop doing so.

Much of the focus of the PDF Readers campaign appeared to be on getting those 
organisations to stop giving Adobe's software free advertising. I support such 
efforts and even attempted to participate in them. But the other side of the 
campaign involved promoting the Free Software alternatives, and it was in this 
area where I think much more should have been done.

Anyone going to the site will see a list of applications, and 
the diversity of Free Software means that there is plenty of choice, but a 
consequence of this is that it would have been awkward for people to take the 
intended positive action when confronted with such information. Admittedly, it 
is a complicated problem to solve: how can such a campaign suggest a 
relatively simple, concrete action that helps the user to do the right thing?

But it goes beyond whether people can get started with the right solutions. 
Many of us will have been faced with documents that need certain features in 
the application we are using. Things like forms in PDF documents, for 
instance. It is likely that some of the suggested solutions do not support 
forms, and others may have problems with whatever Adobe's authoring tools 
emit. Standards-compliance is difficult, especially when proprietary software 
companies often indulge in a bit of "front-running" to lock people into their 
own products.

In other words, promotion and advocacy are not enough. Support has to be given 
for people to actually develop and improve the solutions we suggest. And the 
combination of solutions suggested for meeting people's needs must be coherent 
and provide an obvious path for them to follow. Where there are deficiencies 
or gaps in those solutions, support has to be given to make the campaign 
message credible rather than "here's some cool stuff, you're on your own now".

Another relevant example involves things like the use of encryption 
technologies for personal communications. How many times have we been told 
that encryption is important only to be confronted with lengthy "instructive" 
texts full of caveats and the hedging of positions on things like key 
management? That maybe the way to adopt such things is to become an expert 
yourself and, by the way, good luck! People just get put off from doing 
anything at all because at any moment someone might berate them for "doing it 
all wrong".

With such considerations in mind, does anyone else think that the topic of 
genuinely free communication might be worthy of a comprehensive campaign? One 
that would focus on solutions and not problems.


More information about the Discussion mailing list