Going beyond advocacy

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Fri Jan 31 16:29:18 UTC 2020


Last summer, there was a discussion on this list about "Strategy and 
serendipity" to which I contributed the following remarks:

> Maybe the role of the FSFE is to go beyond advocacy and help knock some
> stubborn heads together, to eliminate people's parochial and needlessly
> competitive attitudes, to actually persuade people to commit to realising an
> actual vision in a genuinely serious way, perhaps to secure resources to
> allow this to happen. Urging people to use Free Software products that
> don't exist just won't do the job.

Recently, in the "suggestions/request for fsfe" discussion, it was pointed out 
that people want to use Free Software solutions but have no clear course of 
action they can take. And more recently still, I encountered another kind of 
situation that perhaps highlights the deficiencies of merely advocating for 
something without anything being organised to make that advocacy meaningful.

As luck would have it, it has something to do with arguably one of the more 
successful and engaging campaigns that the FSFE has run: the PDFreaders 
campaign [1] requesting that public institutions cease advertising proprietary 
PDF-reading software (particularly that of a single vendor), emphasise the 
standardised nature of the PDF format, and acknowledge the existence of Free 
Software solutions.

(One can imagine taking elements of such a campaign in other directions. For 
instance, public broadcasters like the BBC systematically promote proprietary 
social networking platforms whose harmful social effects go far beyond those 
caused by the promotion of proprietary PDF reader applications. Just as one 
might wonder whether Adobe had somehow procured favours from public 
institutions, so might we wonder what bargains have been made between 
taxpayer-funded media organisations and multi-billion-dollar corporations.)

But it is the aspect of promoting Free Software solutions in a campaign that 
becomes troublesome, particularly if those solutions do not manage to address 
end-user needs. It was precisely this problem that I encountered recently. 
Having been sent a PDF form that needed completing, I rediscovered the 
apparent lack of support in Free Software applications for performing this 

Now, I may have mentioned this before in another context, that being a 
discussion about an alternative microkernel-based foundation for GNU Hurd, 
which I think most people would agree is quite a different area from PDF 
application software. But ignoring the rather out-of-place nature of the 
encouragement from an influential figure of the Free Software movement [2], a 
need for improved PDF document handling in Free Software is clearly 

Yet the situation is still confused and rather unsatisfactory:


While there may have been other factors involved in my own recent experiences, 
such as whether such documents would even be communicated securely, I ended up 
with the feeling that it would not be possible to perform an important task 
using Free Software. No amount of advocacy would remedy this situation.

I imagine that some people would rather let "the market" figure out how Free 
Software products can be improved, that people motivated by a "business case" 
would see to it that such improvements are made. Unfortunately, the 
accompanying "business model" usually ends up taking the software proprietary, 
pursuing dubious monetisation strategies, or looking after niche groups of 

What really needs to happen is that a coherent vision be articulated and then 
all necessary action pursued to realise it. If people are supposed to be able 
to use Free Software for their needs - interacting with PDF documents, in this 
particular case - then organisations must go beyond advocacy and actually 
facilitate the development of the features that are part of that vision. That 
may well involve the financing or sponsorship of developers, rather than 
"inspiring volunteers" or whatever the mantra - ostensibly empowering 
creativity, actually perpetuating exploitation - tends to be.

So, while the PDFreaders campaign was helpful in raising awareness of Free 
Software and competition issues, as well as having useful side-effects in 
terms of liberating some PDF handling software, it also needed to be 
accompanied by initiatives to sustain Free PDF software development. Without 
such accompanying initiatives, we find ourselves confronting the same 
situations over and over again, always on the defensive and never really 
having something compelling to offer to those willing to try something new 
(or, for that matter, those of us who have supported Free Software all along).

Well, that was probably far too many words stating the obvious, but I suppose 
the message will eventually sink in.


[1] https://fsfe.org/campaigns/pdfreaders/pdfreaders.en.html

[2] https://lists.gnu.org/archive/html/l4-hurd/2018-05/msg00001.html

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