FOSDEM: looking for Freedom

This year I was thrilled to be able to contribute to one of Europe's leading free software community gatherings, FOSDEM, in Brussels. The weekend included assisting the telephony devroom team spearheaded by Matt Jordan of Digium and some productive face-to-face discussions about DebConf13. To top it all off, though, was the opportunity to participate in a first-of-it's kind initiative in the main track, panel discussion about Free, Open and Secure Communications.

In an event where Free is the first letter of the acronym, and where Free with a capital F is a major objective, it feels to me imperative to reflect for a moment on what Free really means, or we risk cheapening this serious term by throwing it about willy-nilly. It is not necessary to ask too many people before you come to the conclusion that we are talking about Free as in liberty rather than Free as in "nothing to pay". For some groups, like the FreedomBox crew, Freedom has a wider social purpose than just our own personal technological preferences.

A very effective way to deepen our understanding of a subject is to make a comparison or look for some contrast. Reflecting on Freedom may involve reflecting on the lives of those who have been stripped of it. In his call to action when launching the FreedomBox project in a keynote speech at FOSDEM 2011, Eben Moglen implored us to consider the plight of freedom activists in Libya and Syria, people risking their lives to gain access to basic democratic institutions that the rest of us take for granted (at our own peril).

For the simple fact is, in a world where communications and technology are now so interconnected, communications is all-or-nothing and free software developers either have to aim to serve the whole of society or remain on the sidelines, there is no middle ground. Serving the needs of society with sincerity and integrity means developing solutions that offer freedom in every sense, including privacy.