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Feature: Free Software

Newest FSF board member Hill discusses free software goals

By Bruce Byfield on July 11, 2007 (9:00:00 PM)

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"I'm a bit of a rebel," Benjamin Mako Hill says, quoting a phrase he first read on an online calendar for activists, "with rather too many causes." Best known for his many roles in Debian, Hill is also a member of the Ubuntu Community Council, an advisor to One Laptop Per Child, a director of Software Freedom International, and the originator of several free software projects -- to say nothing of an active voice for the Free Culture Movement, and the occasional organizer of such activities as last fall's iPod Liberation Event in Cambridge, Mass. Hill recently took on his largest challenge yet as the youngest director on the Free Software Foundation's board of directors.

Hill "represents fresh, young blood," says Peter Brown, the FSF executive director. "He's very much a community person."

Hill replaces free software legal expert Eben Moglen, who resigned from the board two months ago in order to focus his efforts on developing the Software Freedom Law Center. Although half Moglen's age, in many ways, Hill is a natural replacement, sharing Moglen's interest in writing and speaking about free software in a historical and social context, and having his own background in civil rights.

"I've certainly been inspired by Eben," says Hill, "but I'm sad that I'm not going to be working on the board with him." Acknowledging that Moglen leaves a lot to live up to, Hill adds that he is considering studying for a law degree himself, and perhaps taking steps to improve his public speaking.

Facing such challenges, Hill is reprioritizing his other activities. "I've actually decided to cut back on a lot of things I've been doing," he says. "I'm in the process of selecting a few pieces of my software to orphan, I've resigned from the board of Software Freedom International, and I'm considering rolling back other commitments as well. [The board] is the most important thing I'm involved with now."

The road to the board

In many ways, the FSF board is a natural culmination of Hill's interests. Born to parents who worked in Kenya and Papua, Hill spent a few of his high school years in Ethiopia. However, it was the discovery of free software that first started him down his own road to social activism.

The discovery came in the early 1990s when he received a Slackware disk from a friend. From the first, what attracted Hill was not primarily the sharing of code. Hill was not a developer when he first started using GNU/Linux, and, even today, despite his contributions to various projects, he tends to disparage his coding skills, pointing out his lack of any formal academic background in programming. Instead, what Hill responded to was the free software message of user empowerment and social freedom. Then, "thinking about freedom in software led me to thinking about freedom in other sorts of ways," he says.

At the same time that Hill was becoming a Debian maintainer, he was also working at a summer job with the Independent Media Centers. It was "the activist equivalent of an internship," Hill recalls. "People would send me an email saying, 'Hey, we'd like an IndyMedia site,' and I would just create one. Apparently it caused a lot of problems, because then they created a process for deciding whether a group was ready to become part of the IndyMedia network."

"I went from free software to doing more traditional political activism -- things like protests and carrying signs for social justice, civil rights, anti-racism, and anti-poverty actions," Hill says. Yet, at the same time, his path was curving slowly back toward software. He now credits his stint at IndyMedia as the start of the programming skills he does possess. Yet he became frustrated with the lack of results, to the point of stopping his involvement for a while. In recent years, his causes have tended to "take things I've learned from free software and apply them to a different context," he says.

According to Hill, free software advocates "have tried to bring the philosophy to technical communities, to radicalize the technical communities. That's sort of the low-hanging fruit. I think there's a compelling reason to reach out to communities that are already politically aligned. There are a lot of nonprofit organizations, or people in the civil society space who believe that it's absolutely essential that people be able to control their communications environment. They are philosophically 100% aligned with free software, and, as soon as you can tell them about it, they're already on board."

The major drawback to making this connection with like-minded activists, Hill says, has been "the Eric Raymond mode of production, that you write software for yourself. That's meant that free software has historically been pretty good at serving the needs of the people who write free software, and less good at catering to the needs of people who don't. But all it takes is a few people to go out of their way and open the door to whole masses of like-minded people who just need a technical solution to their particular problem -- which is fantastic, because, as it turns out, technical solutions are what we are as a software community are pretty good at building."

As an example, Hill points to the FSF's Defective By Design campaign against digital rights management. "It has really successfully made an argument about control over technology to people who have never heard of free software, and who don't need to have heard of free software to understand that their freedom is at stake. I'm interested in helping the foundation move forward in that space, to bring the ideals of free software -- and free software -- into those spaces."

Introducing the second generation

Soon after Moglen resigned, the remaining board members began looking around for a replacement. Almost immediately, Hill's name came up.

Although tempted to apply for the campaign manager position that the FSF was then advertising, Hill decided that he was more interested in serving on the board. After being informed by Peter Brown, the FSF executive director, that he was under consideration, Hill says that he begun "this process in which each week I've had at least one usually long conversation with all the other members of the board, where I talked about what my vision for the organization was. I met with Richard [Stallman] and others, and they apparently came to the consensus that they liked my ideas."

Asked to explain his vision, Hill says that, in many ways, he represents the second generation of free software activists. He suggests that the first generation of activists, such as Richard Stallman, were motivated by their dream of a free operating system. People of Hill's generation share that goal, but view it differently, because they have grown up with free operating systems. As a result, Hill says, "The things that interest me are not flexing the technical muscle, although that's important. It's more defending freedom, helping to make the tough calls about how the FSF protects freedom. We've succeeded to a massive degree -- not entirely, but hugely -- and I think it's important to start thinking about how we're going to move from here."

Hill sees the potential audience for the free software message as having shifted. "It used to be that software freedom was something most important to hackers, because they were the ones who were most impacted." But now, with the majority of people in industrialized worlds using computers or computerized devices throughout their day, the audience has grown vastly larger, and so has what is at stake.

Now, Hill says, the issues are about "defining how people communicate. It's saying whom people can talk to, what they say, and how they say that. When you pick up that cell phone to communicate to people in a certain way, or when you pick up that new iPhone, you're doing it on the terms of Apple, and you cannot change it. This is the core message of the FSF, and it's something that's now affecting everyone in ways that are incredibly fundamental.

"But, as the technological community has grown to be -- well, everyone -- our group has become increasingly unrepresentative. It's also run into problems in terms of getting our message to more people. I suffer from all the same problems, but I'd like to spend time being very aware of that and to find ways for us to communicate our message more generally."

These are ambitious goals, but Hill is certain that as an FSF board member he will be in the best position to try to realize them. Already, he notes that existing directors like Henri Poole are taking the FSF in the direction that he advocates. And, according to Hill, "There is no group or organization in a better position to communicate the issues or show the vision of what a future free world looks like than the foundation -- which is why I'm thrilled to have the opportunity to work with the organization."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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