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Free Software and ZNet


For several months ZNet, an activist website, has been exploring the possibility of converting to free software and so joining the ‘free software movement’, a movement that advocates for certain fundamental freedoms for computer users. Both ZNet and the free software movement will be described in more detail below.

This article discusses the reasons ZNet’s decision, the philosophies motivating ZNet and the free software movement, and the work on the project so far. It concludes with some thoughts about the next phases of the project, which we hope you will contribute to.

A Bird in the Hand

For many years, free software advocates have been inquiring at ZNet about why ZNet ran on a Windows server using proprietary software. The Indymedia network ran largely on free software, after all. Why couldn’t ZNet, whose political and activist mission were so similar to Indymedia’s? There were several important differences between ZNet and Indymedia. First, Indymedia was a vast, decentralized network of volunteers who came together in local groups under a set of principles. ZNet, by contrast, was developed and run day-to-day by a tiny group of people. While ZNet’s list of writers, volunteers, and sustainers was vast, international, and politically (and in every other way) diverse, its core group of workers was small. The presence and skills of one or two people who were completely committed and who could keep ZNet running using proprietary software, ZNet argued, were more important to ZNet’s operation than a potentially larger number of people who did have free software skills and activist interests but who may or may not be committed to the project. ZNet opted for a bird in the hand.

Free software advocates had replies. ZNet was an activist website and free software was an ethical issue. To use Windows and proprietary software, in the presence of an alternative, was to support corporate power. The question for ZNet, however, was whether or not the alternative was, in fact, a practicable alternative for the jobs that needed doing. The free software advocates always argued that conversion and running a free software version of ZNet would be simple. But those doing the advocating seemed invariably to be computer geniuses with intimidating knowledge and very little time to spare for us beyond making the case. We needed people who could actually show us how it would work, build it for us, and hold our hand through the transition.

And so things remained, at an impasse. But over time, free software was growing and very successful projects were being organized. Many activist groups started using packages like Drupal for their websites. Other interactive technologies, like Wikipedia, gained tremendous visibility and respect. It seemed to me that there was starting to be a practical case for conversion: the proprietary software ZNet uses has a relatively small programmer base, compared to the community that can program in the various open source/free software languages, especially php, and that smaller base is oriented towards business applications, while a higher proportion of the free software programmers might be inclined to donate their time and skills to a project like ZNet (that was the hypothesis, anyway).

ZNet after all is a community of people volunteering. The Sustainers volunteer donations, which means time and effort they could be using elsewhere. Many volunteers provide labor and skills on many parts of the site. ZNet’s writers donate their own skills, research, ideas. These contributions make it possible for others to work on the site full- or part-time, and for writers of the Sustainer commentaries to receive an honorarium. Were ZNet’s software choices, then, making it harder for programmers to volunteer their skills?

Perhaps. Perhaps on the other hand, those who argued that ZNet’s choice of proprietary versus free software was a moral issue actually wouldn’t show up when the chips were down. Most projects work because of fanatical devotion by a small number of people and subsidized by their sacrifices. And if ZNet depends on a large number of sustainers and volunteers, it has also been maintained day-to-day, for many years, by the commitment and dedication of a handful of people. Those who made that commitment and those sacrifices were understandably reluctant to turn everything over to people who had no particular attachment to Z or its politics, but instead were attached to the ethics of software.

But maybe communication was possible between the two groups, leading to mutual education and development of skills and cross-pollination of ideas? At Z, we hoped to persuade some of the free software community that their arguments about the ethics of software were generalizable to the ethics of the whole economy. We hoped also that among the large numbers of programmers who were motivated by sharing knowledge freely, some would be interested in joining our community and working on our project. We were certainly impressed by the technical aspects of what they were able to do. And ZNet is so big now that we need a tech community: ZNet now covers too much of the world and too many different, complex political issues to work any longer with just a handful of writers. It is also such a huge site that it needs more tech people working as well.

Two Philosophies

Z and Parecon

Z Magazine was founded by Lydia Sargent and Michael Albert. ZNet was an outrgrowth of Z Magazine, and was founded by Michael Albert, who moved from a staff member on Z Magazine to doing ZNet full time. ZNet has grown to a huge size and has many distinct parts. Most users are familiar with its daily-updated articles, accessed from (www.zmag.org/weluser.htm). This database of over 10,000 articles grows by 5-10 articles each day and consists of analysis of current events. Day-to-day, the articles are oriented by a critique of US foreign policy and corporate globalization and their effects on people’s lives all over the world. Writers, many of whom are regular writers, come from different parts of the world, though most are based in North America. The coverage in these articles is organized regionally, by country and by issue, in a series of ‘Watch’ subsites (like ‘Colombia Watch’, ‘Mideast Watch’, and ‘Ecology Watch’). In addition to this coverage, ZNet publishes interviews and debates that are of relevance to activists and movements. ZNet has a set of Blogs, with regular bloggers (http://blog.zmag.org/). It has a small, but growing, audio section. Among the many political news and analysis sites that exist on the internet, ZNet is distinguished by its connections with international social movements, its activist orientation, its commitment to holistic politics, and its aspiration to discuss positive aims and strategy. The whole operation is funded by Sustainers, who pay a premium donation of $5-10 a month in order to receive exclusive commentaries by a set of ZNet’s regular writers and their own forum, in which they interact with the commentators and one another. In addition to the list of Sustainers, ZNet maintains a list of over 150,000 people who receive a biweekly note, updating them about recent happenings at ZNet, and a public, unmoderated forum, where anyone can discuss political matters or ZNet content.

In addition to having founded, ZNet, Michael Albert is also an anti-capitalist advocate of an economic model called ‘participatory economics’, or parecon (www.zmag.org). Parecon is a model based on the idea that the economy promotes and rewards certain core values in the people who live in it. Albert argues that capitalism, by design, with its private property, market allocation, and hierarchical workplaces, promotes self-interest, greed, domination, and subordination. By contrast, a participatory economy would promote solidarity, equity, self-management, and diversity. It would do so by council decision-making, a participatory planning allocation system, and balancing jobs so that the quality-of-life and empowerment effects of work were equal for all. Albert presents parecon as an alternative economy for the future, but, especially in its argument for balanced jobs and self-management, ParEcon also has implications for institutions today, in that it offers norms that leftist organizations could follow. A ‘pareconish’ institution would not have a boss: decisions would be made by everyone affected. A ‘pareconish’ institution would not have vast salary differentials, nor would it have some people monopolizing the skilled and interesting work while others were stuck with the boring and rote tasks.

But applying parecon norms in the real world is tricky. Paul Burrows, another parecon advocate, provided an extensive discussion of the real world problems, based on real-world experience helping found and run such an institution, in his 2003 essay on ‘Work after capitalism’ (http://www.zmag.org/lac/burrows-work.htm). He discusses problems in every aspect of trying to create a pareconish situation in the real world. ZNet has faced these problems. They include the fact that any pareconish institution has to cooperate, and compete, in capitalism. There is also a tricky balance between volunteers and paid staff. According to self-management norms, people should have say in decisions to the degree that they are affected. But a project with a specific political mandate, that represents the specific vision of a small ‘core’ group who also do most of the work, is complicated. That core group creates something that others want to join and contribute to, but how much ownership does the community have? In the free software community there are many different examples, from the Linux kernel, which remains under the control of its founder, to more decentralized projects. Indymedia has addressed this in a different way, by organizing around principles of unity and local autonomy.

ZNet has many different groups relating to it in different ways. It has writers (and bloggers), including freelance volunteer writers, paid editorial staff, volunteer editorial staff, paid system administrators, volunteer designers and developers, volunteer translators, and of course users and sustainers. What we all shared was a desire to make ZNet grow, and to make it most effective at its principal purpose, to facilitate social change and empower social movements in accord with its principles.

Free Software as a Social Movement

For a dialogue between the principles that move those at ZNet and the advocates and programmers of the free software movement, we figured we would start with one of free software’s most visible proponents: Richard Stallman (or RMS), the founder of the GNU Project. If parecon philosophy can be encapsulated in four core values (solidarity, equity, self-management, and diversity) and four institutional innovations (council decision-making, balanced jobs, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and participatory allocation), free software is summarized by four freedoms. Quoting RMS:

The basic idea of the Free Software Movement is that the user of software deserves certain freedoms. There are four essential freedoms, which we label freedoms 0 through 3.

Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the software as you wish.

Freedom 1 is the freedom to study and change the source code as you wish.

Freedom 2 is the freedom to copy and distribute the software as you wish.

Freedom 3 is the freedom to create and distribute modified versions as you wish.

With these four freedoms, users have full control of their own computers, and can use their computers to cooperate in a community. Freedoms 0 and 2 directly benefit all users, since all users can exercise them. Freedoms 1 and 3, only programmers can directly exercise, but everyone benefits from them, because everyone can adopt (or not) the changes that programmers make. Thus, free software develops under the control of its users. (see the full interview for more details http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=9350)

Despite its concerns with freedom, the free software movement is often presented as merely an alternative model for developing software – a different way to organize software programming. The alternative model is referred to as ‘open source’, and its advocates argue that ‘open source’ is more ‘competitive’ than the normal, proprietary model for software development. Thus the very technical success of free software has led to the obscuring of its roots in an activist, ethical ideal. RMS told me: “As GNU+Linux came to be used by thousands, and then hundreds of thousands, and then millions, they started to talk to each other: Look at how powerful, reliable, convenient, cheap, and fun this system is. Most people talking about it, though, never mentioned that it was about freedom. They never thought about it that way. And so our work spread to more people than our ideas did… Linus Torvalds, the developer of Linux, never agreed with our ideas. He was not a proponent of the ethical aspects of our ideas or a critic of the antisocial nature of non-free software. He just claimed that our software was technically superior to particular competitors. “

With its focus on the ethical implications of social relations, perhaps ZNet’s community (were we to join the free software movement) could help keep these activist aspects on the table.

The interview with RMS had two purposes: first, I hoped to introduce ZNet readers to the philosophy of free software. Second, I hoped to use the interview with RMS, which I assumed would be widely read by programmers, as an ‘advertisement’ to free software programmers who might want to volunteer for ZNet. I believe the interview succeeded on both counts. It also had, and showcased, limitations. First, as an interview of a free software advocate intended for a ZNet audience, it was not the best opportunity to introduce ZNet’s motivating philosophy or principles to free software folks: I hope to remedy that here. Second, it also revealed some of the philosophical differences between ourselves at ZNet and the free software movement, at least as articulated by RMS.

The differences between a pareconish view of the world and a free software view came out in this segment of the interview:

JP: I have read other interviews with you in which you said you are not anti-capitalist. I think a definition of capitalism might help here.

RMS: Capitalism is organizing society mainly around business that people are free to do within certain rules.

JP: Business?

RMS: I don’t have a definition of business ready. I think we know what business means.

JP: — But “anti-capitalists’ use a different definition. They see capitalism as markets, private property, and, fundamentally, class hierarchy and class division. Do you see class as fundamental to capitalism?

RMS: No. We have had a lot of social mobility, class mobility, in the United States. Fixed classes–which I do not like–are not a necessary aspect of capitalism.

However, I don’t believe that you can use social mobility as an excuse for poverty. If someone who is very poor has a 5% chance of getting rich, that does not justify denying that person food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or education. I believe in the welfare state.

JP: But you are not for equality of outcomes?

RMS: No, I’m not for equality of outcomes. I want to prevent horrible outcomes. But aside from keeping people safe from excruciating outcomes, I believe some inequality is unavoidable.

Because we had such different definitions of ‘capitalism’, it was difficult to pursue this line of inquiry much further. But I believe there may be a real difference of opinion about what the source of problems, even in software, is. Earlier in the interview RMS had said:

“Non-free software, by contrast, keeps users divided and helpless. It is distributed in a social scheme designed to divide and subjugate. The developers of non-free software have power over their users, and they use this power to the detriment of users in various ways.”

But to my mind, this could be written:

“Capitalism keeps people divided and helpless. It is distributed in a social scheme designed to divide and subjugate. Owners and managers have power over people, and they use this power to the detriment of of people in various ways.”

Powers include the power to hire and fire, to determine someone else’s activities, to control their creativity and time, in order to extract a profit from them. Proprietary software, to my mind, is just the extension of a capitalist logic to the realm of information.

I don’t believe the difference between RMS and us is a vast gulf, nor do I believe that our positive aims are incompatible. Indeed, in the practical, activist world of ongoing campaigns, tactics, and strategy, the work is similar: to educate, inform, empower people to make decisions and change policy. RMS’s blog shows that he has an activist orientation. He devotes his time, because of his skills and inclinations, to free software. ZNet has an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist agenda, but think free software is an important movement. RMS says he isn’t an anti-capitalist and doesn’t want to make anti-capitalism a prerequisite for free software advocacy. Given how difficult it is to have a sensible discussion about capitalism, and the time-scale of day-to-day policy choices that campaigners work on, this is an understandable tactical decision. I stand by my belief, however, that the division and subjugation of proprietary software and the attacks on computer and internet freedoms are based on attempts to extend capitalist logic (which is based on controls and restrictions of access and freedom for profit) to the realm of information. I hope that those who come to the free software movement upset about these controls and restrictions come to see the violence of capitalist logic in other sectors of the economy, from land, food, and water to education and health care, and come to help in struggles for freedoms including, but also beyond, software.

Having clarified differences between the two philosophies, I should also reiterate what I admire about the free software movement. In still another segment of our interview, I asked RMS:

JP: Most people who think about “movements’ think in terms of building an opposition, changing public opinion, and forcing concessions from the powerful.

RMS: What we are doing is direct action. I did not think I could get anywhere convincing the software companies to make free software if I did political activities, and in any case I did not have any talent or skills for it. So I just started writing software. I said, if those companies won’t respect our freedom, we’ll develop our own software that does.

Especially as a component of a larger strategy, this spirit deserves respect. RMS also recognized a similarity between the two approaches when he suggested that “Z Mag is accustomed to looking at the justice of social arrangements, and could help others consider the social arrangements about software.”

First Steps

Having opened the discussion on free software, we were ready to try it out. Above all, we needed people to show up. The one free software advocate who had argued with us for so many months prepared some of the preliminary infrastructure: a web board and a wiki for software-related discussions and organizing work. We ended the interview with RMS with a call for volunteers.

The response (at http://znet.2y.net/) was strong. Over 100 people signed up to the forums, and about 30 introduced themselves and expressed interest in volunteering. Over the next few weeks, the volunteers discussed different free software possibilities. After some discussion, we decided on Drupal. Although some of the programmers and administrators on the webboard argued against it for technical reasons, we thought that Drupal’s wide use on activist websites and its large volunteer base were overwhelming arguments in its favour.

Our plan was to spend a good time building community, take proposals, and move forward. Indeed, it was not long before innovative proposals and ideas for projects, like a system for coordinating international translation, popped up on the web board. But for various reasons we accelerated the plan in order to change the Z Blogs system to free software. On the one hand, this enabled us to get a free software project going quickly and demonstrate that it could work for us. On the other hand, by accelerating our timeline, we outpaced the capacities of the community we were trying to build, and most of the programming for the Z Blogs system was done by a single volunteer – the opposite of what we had intended. The new Z Blogs system went live before it was fully tested, and there were bugs and headaches. And yet, at the end, we now have a little piece of ZNet running on free software, and it is an expansible system. We also have the seeds of the volunteer community we had hoped to create, and the beginnings of a system on which we can coordinate our work on the project. We also no longer have any doubt that we can only advance this project as a community.

Our ambitions are vast. A few ideas: we hope to create a system to fold all of ZNet’s static pages, that remain un-archived and un-databased, into a database. That includes pages, that number in the thousands, like this one (http://www.zmag.org/alibombs.htm) and this one (http://www.zmag.org/reactionscalam.htm). We hope to create a system to coordinate and better present international translations of articles. We hope to have better multimedia integration. We already have created a ZNet Wiki (http://wiki.zmag.org) in which, with no fanfare, people are already working on interesting things, including discussions of parecon and foreign policy. We have also expanded ZNet’s public forums and incorporated the free software discussion into them.

But, like the bigger project for social change ZNet aspires to be a part of, what ‘we’ can do depends on how big ‘we’ are. Are you interested?

Justin Podur is a ZNet editor, writer, and volunteer. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you are interested in working on the free software/znet project, please come to http://znet.2y.net. Introduce yourself in the new public forums http://blog.zmag.org/forum, or to Justin by e-mail, to be added to the mailing list for the project.

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