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Network services are one of the fastest growing areas in modern software. However, while network services have much of the convenience of free software, only a minority are available under a free license. In fact, it was only last November that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) released the GNU Affero General Public License for network services. Under these conditions, last week's announcement of the formation of autonom.us, a new activist group "to focus on issues of software freedom in network services," seems overdue. The group's immediate plans are still evolving, but currently, its main goal -- so far as it has one yet -- seems to be as a policy discussion and advocacy group.
According to Luis Villa, best known for his work with the GNOME Foundation, the roots of autonom.us go back a year, when he was blogging about network services and software freedom in connection with the GNOME Online Desktop. "I reached out to a number of people to discuss the issue," Villa recalls. Mako [Hill] and I got into a particularly intense discussion, and one of us suggested getting together a group of like-minded people to discuss it." The group met in Boston on March 16 this year.
Members of autonom.us tend to have activist or legal backgrounds. They also represent a wide variety of free software organizations. In addition to Villa, members include Gabriel Burt (Novell), Jonathan Gray (Open Knowledge Foundation and the Open Service Definition), Benjamin Mako Hill (MIT/FSF), Bradley Kuhn (Software Freedom Law Center and Software Freedom Conservancy), Mike Linksvayer (CC), Henry Poole (FSF and CivicActions), Evan Prodromou, Kragen Sitaker, Brett Smith (FSF), Aaron Swartz, and James Vasile (Software Freedom Law Center).
Despite the group's name, Villa says, autonom.us is not specific to the United States. "Think of 'autonomous' as another word for 'free,'" Villa says. So far, autonom.us's main activities have been the creation of its group blog and the release of the Franklin Street Statement on Freedom and Network Services, a manifesto that gives a rationale for the group's activity.
Although Franklin Street is a reference to the mailing address for the FSF office, the somewhat romantic name does not imply a direct connection to the FSF. As members of autonom.us who talked to Linux.com were careful to explain, they are acting entirely as individuals.
"But obviously we all have external relationships, and some of us certainly hope that in the long run our organizations adopt some or all of thinking," says Villa. "It is also important to note that we don't all agree on everything. I'm probably more business-friendly than some members, for example; some other members think that if we don't replace all centralized web applications with p2p-based applications, we're doomed."
Similarly, the group is not funded by any other organization, although the FSF provided meeting space for the March 16 meeting.
Talking about autonom.us's concerns, Villa says, "The current trend towards hosted software brings a lot of benefits, but it also restricts the autonomy of users, since they often can't control the data, hardware, or software of the services they use. Given that the trend doesn't seem to be going away any time soon (if anything, it seems to be picking up steam), it seems important to get together and think about the issue."
Henry Poole of CivicActions adds that the control of network services is especially becoming an issue among non-profit groups. "Speaking from my own work for NGOs, there is an increasing concern that for-profit Software as a Service providers are not aligned with the values of mission-based organizations," Poole says. "CivicActions has already been responding to the need for independence from our no-profit clients, including Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, WITNESS, FSF, Creative Commons, and numerous others. As these organizations grow into a social web, they have a need for developers who are aligned with their values, and they need services that will not break the social contract with their members."
For now, Villa says, autonom.us is "more of a salon than anything else -- a place where people meet to share ideas. So we might have people drop in on the salon/blog who never formally affiliate, and we're always looking for people who share similar interests. It might better to think of us less as a political party with clearly defined membership/ideology and more like a very informal think-tank, where serious thinkers and conscientious doers are always welcome to drop in and chat."
However, Evan Prodromou, a self-described "hacker and entrepreneur," suggests that the group's general principles are not only the users' right to control their own data but also to:
"I'd expect that from time to time, we may issue statements that publicize and refine our thinking," Villa says, "But we may also leave that up to other organizations."
However, as the lack of officers or official representatives implies, autonom.us is intended as an open-ended, decentralized group. "Members of our group value their independence but have a commitment to freedom and openness," Poole says. "I would imagine that some end-user groups will form to take on a more activist role in this area. It is unlikely that the tactics of these groups will be coordinated centrally, but our commitment to our communities will ultimately move the power to the edge of the network, giving individuals the ability to move quickly to respond to threats and embrace opportunities."
Beyond promoting software freedom and encouraging discussions, for now autonom.us has "no concrete plans," Villa says. "I think our goals are primarily education and stimulation at this point -- if nothing else, we want to prod people to think about these issues instead of letting them fall by the wayside as they have at times."
It's a vague goal, but, then, probably the FSF had no clearer goals when it began. And perhaps, at this stage, engaging people on the topic of network services and software freedom is the most important action to take.