Hundreds, I guess a few thousand, of developers gathered this weekend in Brussels, Belgium for FOSDEM, a conference promoting free and open source software. I mainly attended (by streaming video) the tracks about the decentralized web and privacy. Some first impressions, first the things which make me worry:

  • Nowadays it’s practically impossible to live in “full software freedom”. One needs proprietary software for work and daily life. Even the activists Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen Sandler (Software Freedom Conservancy) confess they can’t avoid proprietary software. For Karen it’s a very existential matter: she has to wear a defibrillator (with proprietary software).
  • Mobile devices tend to make software freedom ever more difficult. Also we became dependent on JavaScript loading fast and automatically (often proprietary) software in our browsers.
  • The open source community focuses on certain areas while neglecting other domains. Being mindful of this would be a first step.
  • The notion “surveillance capitalism” was mentioned a lot. In this day and age capitalism is about harvesting data, all the data they can get, no matter how personal. These data help to reduce uncertainty for corporations or political actors and ultimately the data help them to manipulate us.
  • We need regulators to intervene. As long as our friends and contacts stay on Facebook and Twitter by the hundreds of millions or billions, things will not change except for the one percent of hacktivists and geeks.

Reasons to be cheerful:

  • The European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an inspiring development but it’s not enough since GDPR on itself will not provide alternatives.
  • We get tools helping us to become more mindful about tracking and data-harvesting. Santiago Saavedra and Konark Modi talked about the Trackula-plugin. and the browser extension Local Sheriff.
  • Exodus Privacy also helps people to get aware of the tracking, they focus on Android.
  • There is a fledgling movement of self-hosters and federated hosters. LibreHosters is one of the various groups passionately working on this.
  • YunoHost tries to make server-administration something which is easy and fun to do. Like running your own site. It’s a good thing that technical experts realize they need to reduce the complexity if they want movements like the decentralized web to gain traction.
  • Roger Dingledine explained how the venerable Tor-project gets more traction (estimated daily users between two and eight million).
  • Also the search engine DuckDuckGo is doing great things (for instance a very interesting mobile application making you aware of trackers) and it gets more attention by worldwide users.
  • The Interplanetary File System (IPFS) is one of the projects working on a decentralized web, Paula de la Hoz presented the ambitious project for a new web.
  • Ruben Verborght presented another project for the decentralized web, Solid. The inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, wants to build on the existing web technologies (ensuring interoperability) to enable people to manage their own data in data pods, giving app-builders the opportunity to compete on functionalities and not on harvesting data. I’ll post more about Solid in the coming days and weeks.
  • I noticed a lot of attention for ethics in the broadest sense of the word. Natacha Roussel and zeyev brought a feminist perspective when they analyzed the myth of the hero-coder who single-handedly solves world problems. They contrast this with a practice of care in collaboration, skill sharing and awareness of the impact of what one does.

On February 2 and 3 thousands of developers will gather in Brussels, Belgium for FOSDEM, a conference promoting free and open source software. Things interesting me:

  • Collaborative information and content management application 
  • Decentralized Internet & Privacy 
  • Open document editors
  • Open media (video, images, audio)
  • Tool the Docs (writing, managing, rendering documentation)
  • Blockchain (of course)
  • Community
  • Python and Javascript

There will be keynotes about freedom and ethics, a bookshop etc. I’ll have to make hard choices about what to attend, but anyway, I’ll report about the event on this blog. 

The mood seems to be a bit dark. Let me quote the decentralized internet page:

PCs are less and less used while smartphones are soaring and data is collected and stored on servers on which we have very limited control as users. What happened to user’s freedom and privacy in the meantime? The outlook is not so great: we have less and less control over our digital environment. Network neutrality is heavily attacked and mainstream software products are usually proprietary or run on servers we don’t have control over. Modern technology has given the powerful new abilities to eavesdrop and collect data on people – with critical social and political consequences.