Who talks at conference for Free Software?

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Fri Jun 14 14:50:05 UTC 2019

On Thursday 13. June 2019 15.47.40 Bernhard E. Reiter wrote:
> There are already other people speaking, especially for FSFE.
> And two challenges would need to be overcome to make it much more:
>  * Many conference organisers mostly care about the fame of the
>    speaker, so they often invite RMS even if he is not especially
>    flexible or well versed in the topic. It is like inviting the world
>    soccer star to talk at an IT conference, it is not that she has deep
>    insight on the main topic, it is that people attent just to see the
>    famous person.

Having been vaguely involved in discussions about inviting speakers to 
conferences, I have known there to be an inclination to invite well-known 
people from beyond the specific subject area of a conference, but usually 
there is some kind of credible connection. And genuinely famous people 
probably don't do things for free or for token amounts of money, so there were 
never any serious discussions about inviting any of those.

In fact, I felt that bringing in outsiders was a good thing. Otherwise, it can 
be the same people dusting off last year's material and perpetuating 
increasingly entrenched attitudes that are not particularly helpful.

Having outsiders come in and remind everyone about broader social and 
technological issues, for instance, means that people remain aware of the 
deficiencies of the things they are doing and of the tools they are using. 
Without such inputs, it easily becomes an echo chamber of self-congratulation 
with diminishing relevance.

>  * Doing good talks needs a lot of time for preparations, practice,
>    research and travel. This needs a lot of funding or someone who
>    makes this her main personal mission in live (and thus disregards
>    other goals family, health or securing a standard of living for
>    retirement). Most people are not willing to make this sacrifices
>    and money is scarce as well for FSFE independent mission.
>    (Money is the reason why industry lobbyist get so much speaking time.)

I know that various people in the Software Freedom Conservancy spend a fair 
amount of time and energy travelling and speaking at events. I imagine that 
this demands a certain proportion of the organisation's budget, although I 
also imagine that the money is spent responsibly.

But it is important that donors feel that this is a wise use of donated money. 
In the case of Conservancy, it does appear that such travel is often done as 
part of a broader outreach effort, not merely to appear, talk and disappear 
again as can be the case with speakers invited to events.

And it is true that it becomes a matter of resources. This is why I feel that 
"volunteer culture" can be very damaging. On the one side you have people 
squeezing in effort around their daily life to try and make a difference; on 
the other you have someone, maybe with a whole team of people, who is being 
paid to advance their employer's interests. The ethical side is not usually 
the one with all the money.

This has some bearing on discussions about funding and organisations like the 
FSFE. It can be tempting to collaborate with companies in order to advance a 
common agenda, not least because those companies will have people on staff who 
can do some of the tedious work that volunteers might otherwise have to do. 
But then you have to make sure that it isn't the FSFE who ends up advancing a 
particular company's agenda.

And it is also important for the FSFE to not act as an apologist for certain 
companies or to curtail any wider campaigning interests because certain 
companies provide financial support for the FSFE. For instance, I noticed that 
there were contributions to the brochure about public procurement of Free 
Software which featured representatives of various companies.

It may indeed be wonderful that those companies support Free Software, but 
when one of them is Facebook, it is a reasonable question to ask whether the 
brochure legitimises Facebook by giving the company a favourable, progressive 
portrayal more than it helps Free Software or reflects the ethics of much of 
the Free Software community. We might wish to see Free Software in wider use, 
but does it not seem unpleasant to seek to achieve this in collaboration with 
a notoriously unethical and predatory corporation?

I can't help feeling that such unresolved issues are part of the reason why 
there has been so much dissatisfaction and conflict around the FSFE of late. 
And since there has been relatively little engagement about that, I decided 
not to continue supporting the FSFE financially. Indeed, I feel that there is 
an otherwise unspoken crisis within and around the FSFE that, while it remains 
neglected, undermines general confidence and interest in the organisation.

There aren't figures for 2018 yet, but I would imagine that they would 
indicate a further decline of income from 2016 through 2017:


I wonder what measures are being taken to remedy this unfortunate situation 
and to regain the trust and confidence that has seemingly been lost.


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