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Grassroots views on Free/OpenSource Software

I thought it might be interesting for you to read a perspective of
non-technical grassroot philosopers on open source....

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 30 Jul 2000 19:49:08 -0700
From: Rich Cowan <rich@organizenow.net>
To: org-c@topica.com
Subject: OC:  Email Digest #19: Focus on Free Software

Organizers' Collaborative E-mail Digest #19 - July 30, 2000
Contents of this Digest:

I.  Survey: What "Free Software" do you want to see created?
II. Grassroots Internet news coverage (Republican Convention)
III. Response Regarding Microsoft


I.  Survey: What "Free Software" do you want to see created?

Over the next few weeks, we will introduce some of the work the
Organizers' Collaborative has initiated, responding to the needs
that you have suggested in your intros as well as the ideas
generated at our meeting in March at Yale Law School.

There are 3 program areas our board has decided to prioritize:
1) Publishing information like our web site and this email list.
2) Developing websites that enable activists to communicate and collaborate
3) Encouraging the development and distribution of "free activist software"

This week we focus on point #3.  As most of you know, there
is an enormous amount of energy going into the development of free
and "open source" software.  The Linux operating system (more aptly
titled GNU/Linux) is the result of collaborations among programmers
that began with a call over email by programmer Richard M. Stallman
in 1984.  Stallman's Free Software Foundation (fsf.org or gnu.org)
completed roughly half of its original goal of a completely free
operating system by the early 1990s, and a programmer named Linus
Torvalds of Finland spearheaded the completion of a key piece that
was needed, the operating system's core, in 1997.  The release
of Linux has spawned a multibillion dollar industry while it also
significantly expanded the ranks of those creating free software.

A bit of terminology:  when you browse the internet for software
(say, a script for your web site) you will frequently find that this
software to be released under a "GPL" license.  "GPL" is a form of
copyright.  It stands for "GNU Public License."  While traditional
copyrights prohibit you from making hundreds of copies of something
(a book, for example), the GPL in some ways does the opposite.  It
encourages the users of a software program to copy it and give it
to their friends!  The only restriction on those who might copy is
that they must include with their copy a "the complete corresponding
machine-readable source code."  See http://www.fsf.org/copyleft/gpl.html
for details.

If you visit web sites where free software is distributed (especially
the kind of software that drives web sites), you will notice the
prevalence of the "GPL" term.  A web search on google.com using
the search terms "gpl" and "software" yields 178,000 matching pages!

How does this all relate to social change?  Well, developers of free
software often share an anti-corporate philosophy.  The concept
of a movement of idealistic programmers, developing "software
for people, not for profit" is the antithesis of the capitalist
tenet that innovation depends on an ability to make a killing
when you bring your new product, be it a software program or a
new AIDS drug, to market.  The radical vision of the free software
movement is that the benefits of good software can be shared by
everyone, because the cost of testing is not prohibitive (as it
might be for a new drug) and because the cost of distribution is
essentially zero.  For this reason, programmers usually refer to
GPL as a "copyleft."

Now that GNU/Linux exists (it is faster and more crash-resistant
than Microsoft Windows but still awaits the completion of efforts
to make it much easier to set up and use by non-techies) there
is an opportunity for those of us working in activist groups to
initiate a dialog with the free software community to encourage
the creation of "activist software."

By this I am referring to new programs, or features added to
existing programs, that enhance our political organizing ability.
And by that I am not suggesting a technological fix: the
replacement of human decision making with machines.  I am
referring to software that assists us in creating, coordinating,
or mediating the people-to-people contact that is necessary in
grassroots organizing.  Something to enable organizations to
avoid spending too great a share of their funds paying people
to do administrative tasks.  Something enabling groups to put
a support and coordination structure in place so that more
grassroots volunteers will be involved in political work.  And
something that can allow us to level the technological playing
field when we face corporate and right-wing opponents that have
technology budgets we could not possibly match.

We have contacted the Free Software Foundation and they are
willing to publicize some of the ideas that we come up with on
their web site.  So this is a call to you (600 activists, plus
your colleagues) to come forward with ideas on what you'd like to
see.  Email them to org-c@topica.com.   Here are a few ideas
(not all are original) to get the ball rolling:

1) Listserv Enhancements -- It would be useful to have listservs that
allow the list administrator to place a numerical limit
on the frequency with which one user could post a message (twice a
day, once a week, separated by a certain # of hours, etc.) This
would be useful for situations where the participants agreed that
such limits would be helpful for allowing everyone on the list to
participate more equally.

2) PrecinctWalker -- There was a foxpro based software program for
grassroots electoral campaigns by this name. As far as I can tell,
development  on it ceased around 1997 and it was not open source.
The program tracks  whether people have registered to vote, whether
they supported a  candidate, etc. A more modern version of this
is needed, something  that is able to import raw data files in
either DBASE or ACCESS  format from files provided by city hall,
and then merge in info from the list of supporters a campaign
already has. Also the ability to upload (pscp?) data to a campaign
web site is needed.

3) GnuCash Plus -- GnuCash is a Quicken-like program that runs on
GNU/LINUX.  However, initial versions of GnuCash don't have a
don't see a "chart of accounts" as in Quicken. For small nonprofit
organizations, the ability  to track finances by function is essential.
It would be useful to be able to define categories for both income
and expenses, and then  generate reports on them. It would also be
useful to allow the user  to set up "classes" so that each expense
could be categorized as Administration, ProgramA, ProgramB,
ProgramC, Fundraising, etc.

4) Local Namebase -- Public Information Research (pir.org) distributes
a large directory of folks associated with corporations, the military,
etc. This is a research tool useful primarily for people interested
in national policy. It would be useful to be able to have a piece
of PC-based software that activists could use to enter research
information on people involved in influencing the government at the
city or state level. This information might include various forms of
public information such as membership on committees influencing
government policy, membership on corporate boards, campaign
contributions, etc. It would be useful to incorporate an "upload"
capability so that activists could register information they have
collected into a central statewide or national database. It might make
sense given privacy concerns to have the central database be a dossier
on corporations or corporate sponsored groups rather than a dossier on

5) Tenant Database Generator -- Software to help activists merge a data
file from the assessor's office with the voter list of a town to
produce a list of tenants, that can be used in tenant organizing and
voter registration activities. This tenant database would then be
exported into a tab-delimited file which could be loaded into the
"PrecinctWalker" style program.

6) Ebase -- Many nonprofits are using ebase (ebase.org), a free software
database application based on Filemaker. It would be useful to have a
version of ebase or some other, simpler, membership/fundraising database
software, that is based on an open source database engine,
running in a GNU/Linux-based graphical interface.

7) Web Signup Import Utility -- It would be useful to have a module that
would fetch files from a web server generated by users signing up
for information on a web form. This module would automatically import
the information into ebase (Linux, Windows, and Mac versions).

Feedback on this initial list is welcome.
If you have information on software that does some of the things mentioned
here and is free, please also send it to org-c@topica.com.

II. Grassroots Internet news coverage (and the Republican Convention)

An already-developed piece of free activist software is the software
used to run the Independent Media Centers (indymedia.org) that
have covered the Seattle WTO protest and the IMF/World Bank protest
more recently in April.  This software allows many people to
post news that can be seen via the Internet by millions.  Arthur
Waskow and Dance Muchamatter emailed us the links to grassroots
coverage of the protest starting today in Philadelphia:

From:  awaskow@aol.com
At Christie Balka's suggestion (she'e exec of the Bread & Roses Foundation,
supporting "change, not charity"), I'm glad to pass on the news that you'll
be able to find continuous independent-media reports of the demonstrations,
etc., in Philadelphia in connection with the Republican Natl Convention by
checking Website www.phillyimc.org
B'sha'ah tovah! -- May the moment be propitious!

From: "Dance B. Muchamatter" <bangzap@yahoo.com>
To: rich@organizenow.net

Hello, this is Dance B. Muchamatter, a member of your e-mail list.
During the upcoming Republican National Convention in
Philadelphia (7-31 to 8-3), www.microradio.net will be
web-casting live audio reports from the front lines of protest!

People from around the world will be able to tune in
and support our brave brothers and sisters over the
airwaves of the internet at www.microradio.net.

Listen first hand to the messages that our brothers
and sisters are voicing to their governmental representatives.
The revolution will not be televised...it will be
webcast. Keep it tuned for more...

III. Response Regarding Microsoft

From:  Karl Muth <Rhetoric@aol.com>
As an activist, organizer, and director of a not-for-profit active nationally
in worker, student, and consumer education, I'd like to add that Microsoft's
actions in supporting pro-microsoft-platform (not neccessarily Republican or
Libertarian or even conservative in the traditional sense) interests and
politicians is very similar to Netscape's support several years ago of
anti-microsoft-platform groups ranging from Democrats to Linux startups to
etc. ... if the question is whether or not companies make an effort to
influence politicians, the answer is that this certainly happens. Otherwise
Lockheed Martin would not be in business making fighter planes the country
doesn't need, the tobacco lawsuit craze would have hit in the 1960's when the
first conclusive modern medical evidence against tobacco was found, Celera
would not have been treated as nicely by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton after
its genetic discoveries, etc.

 From what I've seen, many individuals and corporations make far more sinister
political plays mid-lawsuit than Microsoft has and, as a software company,
Microsoft is restricted in the amount of conservative activity it can be
involved in as most recruiting sites for successful software firms (Berkeley,
Brown, etc.) are historically liberal. Hence, the majority of activists I've
encountered do not see the Netscape vs. AOL vs. Linux vs. Microsoft vs. Cisco
vs. Oracle political funding resulting directly from the case as being of
signficant interest or harm to either major conservative or major liberal
interests aligned along lines other than technology.

[A brief response: given the visibility of the Microsoft case, it still
  can provide activists with an opportunity to shed light on the
  corrupting influence of corporate cash on the political process.  I bet
  that Oracle is less likely to fund a liberal group like American Prospect
  than Microsoft would be likely to fund a conservative group.  Perhaps one
  reason is that if Oracle did such a thing, conservative activists would
  make a stink about it.  But the main reason Oracle would desist is that
  their views have too much of a rightward tilt for them to even consider
  funding the liberal group.  The main point here is that when corporations
  have battles and want to marshal public opinion, they ONLY tend to
  enlist libertarian or conservative ideological groups as allies.  For
  example, financial services companies have been supporting Third
  Millenium, a Generation X advocacy group working to privatize social
  security.  Corporations DO act in an ideological fashion.  As you
  suggest, the funding patterns and alliances made by the Linux
  industry might be different from those of traditional corporations.

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