This is the second conversation of the 100+ Conversations to Inspire Our New Direction (#OKFN100) project.
Starting January 2023, we are meeting 100+ people to discuss the future of open knowledge, shaped by a diverse set of visions from artists, activists, academics, archivists, thinkers, policymakers, data scientists, educators and community leaders from all over the world.
The Open Knowledge Foundation’s team wants to identify and debate issues sensitive to our movement and use this effort to constantly shape our actions and business strategies to deliver in the best possible way what the community expects from us and from our Network, a pioneering organization that has been defining the standards of the open movement for two decades.
Another objective is to include the perspectives of people from diverse backgrounds, especially those from marginalised communities, from dissident identities, and whose geographic location is outside the world’s major financial powers.
How openness can speed up and strengthen the fights against the complex challenges of our times? This is the key question behind conversations like the one you can read below.
Today’s conversation is with Zoë Kooyman, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).
Zoë assumed that role exactly one year ago, in March 2022, following a series of recent steps taken to make the non-profit’s governance and board recruitment practices more transparent and participatory, including a new community engagement process that empowers associate members of the FSF to nominate and evaluate candidates for the board of directors.
Her background is as an international project manager and event organizer, especially in large productions in the music sector. Zoë has also led technology and social justice initiatives before joining the FSF in 2019 as a program manager, when she has been in charge of LibrePlanet. She has also been involved with member recruitment and fundraising during her time at the FSF.
We spoke to Zoë in mid-February, a few days after she participated in the Free and Open source Software Developers’ European Meeting (FOSDEM) in Brussels, to which we at OKFN also sent representatives.
We hope you enjoy the read.
Lucas Pretti: What is the state of the art of free software today? Do you think it is still an answer to all the challenges we face? Let’s consider the latest developments in artificial intelligence (AI), for example.
Zoë Kooyman: I think it’s a fair question in the sense that we face a lot of challenges. AI is a good example of that, but I don’t think that it takes away from the idea of free software, technically. Going back to the basics of it, AI technologies should also be free, according to our standards. There are a lot of challenges and we need to think about what that means for the future of free software and for our licences, but it doesn’t change the definition of what free software is. AI brings a lot of new considerations (like its training data, the question of who is the actual creator or how much creativity is in the work), and it affects both software and cultural works. But the need to be able to understand what any part of the program is doing and have control over that, the need for transparency, or to be allowed to make changes to it and share those, didn’t change. The basic idea is still the continued focus on freedom. That doesn’t change.
Lucas Pretti: What about the free software community? Is the movement more or less engaged, more spread or impactful, compared to what it was a decade ago? What are the challenges the community is facing today?
Zoë Kooyman: I like that question. I think the general awareness of the underlying concepts of free software is there, and that audience is growing. More and more people are using free software, understanding the concepts, and getting annoyed by the fact that we, for example, don’t have control over our software, or that there is some level of surveillance happening, or that we are not in charge of our own privacy anymore. So people are getting more and more involved in finding ways to protect themselves from software and that often leads them to the concepts of free software, of understanding that free software is needed if we wanna be able to control any of these aspects of technology.
Increased awareness means our audience is really growing as well. But there’s also a lot of confusion among people about what freedom means exactly. At the Free Software Foundation (FSF), we are very focused on making sure that people understand that freedom is at the core of what we are advocating for. But we do encounter the issue that, as the community and the understanding that we need more control over technology is growing, confusion between open and free is becoming more and more prevalent. The word “open” these days just means so many different things to people, unfortunately. Its meaning has drifted from how it started, at the four freedoms and their benefits. That distracts people from how they can resolve their issues with technology. Look, for example at an organization like OpenAI – there’s nothing open about that. These concepts don’t explain clearly to people what they’re looking for, they create confusion and that can be problematic for growing our cause.
One of the biggest challenges that we as the free software community face is to be able to approach people and create awareness about our existence, showing them where the resources are and leading them to the core of how they can defend themselves, or what is necessary to be able to educate themselves on what role software plays in our lives. That’s why I like the question. We have an immense opportunity ahead of us, but one of the biggest challenges we face is approaching people the right way, making sure that they get to the right resources when they need it, and don’t get confused in their paths or stumble upon things that will direct them in different ways that are not just another version of the same problem: a lack of freedom.
Sara Petti: It’s interesting that we’re talking about challenges. In the open data space, there has been a loss of momentum or enthusiasm. Maybe that’s because we have moved out of the activist space. And I wonder if it’s the same for the free software movement too and if you think that’s something that needs to be addressed?
Zoë Kooyman: I think it changes per organisation. The FSF, for example, is a very activist group of people. Our focus is really on advocacy, so we do feel like activists. The pandemic didn’t help our cause though, because it didn’t allow people to go onto the streets and get groups together, or to hold in-person events. I think a big part of activism is to find like-minded people and make sure a statement is made together. This is something that has definitely faded over the last few years and damaged the spread and the effect of our discourse.
Also, there is a difference in how this is dealt with in European countries versus America because legislations work very differently. And, being a 501(c)(3) charity means our focus has to be on activism. We aim to educate institutions and governmental agencies and to call for people to go and talk to their governors in cases of need. But we cannot spend more than a fraction of our time lobbying. I feel that this difference speaks to your feeling. Being more involved with governmental institutions or with answering questions and getting to a certain point of institutionalizing ideas does feel a lot less like advocacy. I don’t work in Europe, so I can’t be certain, but from the organizations that I work with in Europe, their way of approaching activism and making change is somewhat different.
Lucas Pretti: Let me take a ride on these thoughts, but change the focus to younger audiences. I feel that the millennial generation grew as free culture activists while the internet was also growing as a concept, but today younger people arrived in a world with all the apps already encapsulated in their phones. The experience of an 18-year-old person with technology is so peculiar that I suspect it’s hard to have them becoming activists in this topic. Is it more difficult to talk about free software with young people?
Zoë Kooyman: It’s certainly more difficult. If you walk up to someone that was born into the digital age, first, you have to explain what software is. They are educated with user interfaces so they don’t have any idea of code or how that works unless you tell them. I tend to think that not educating people properly about software is almost a deliberate choice. We need to teach younger people what code is, how they can build something, and how they can make changes to what someone built. Such a skill should be taught in school with reading, basically. Our culture has shaped itself over the past 100+ years from a textual-linguistic understanding of society to a visual one. Everything that is software with a user interface that is either an app or a website fits right into that progression. Images mean more to people than text these days, and by creating that smooth transition into software, there are very few people questioning if it has to be the way it is presented to us. We really have to take a moment to make young people understand that there is something behind it and that they could control it. That the demands that technology has for functioning properly are imposed, not by necessity, but by choice of a corporation.
As an example, recently we had such a conversation during our fundraiser, which had a focus on sharing. We went to a skate park in Boston and asked a bunch of kids skating there different questions focused on sharing, like: “Do you think that you should be allowed to share your music?” And it took a long time for them even to understand that question. They just said: “I can share my music, I listen to the song and I either send my friends a link”. We then had to go into detail and say: “That’s not what we mean. What if you actually owned this song and didn’t have to pay for sharing it, or go through some company that has access to a lot of your information to get it to the other person? Or what if you could just actually make this person listen to it instantly, and then they could take it with them and take it home, keep it, and share it again? And what if you could make changes to it?” That still brings a lot of question marks in younger people, because it is hard for them to even understand why they would want that. They didn’t grow up in a time when it was normal to go to your friends’ house and play the latest mixtape you made or share the latest games you were playing. So it takes patience to get through those first layers to explain what it means to have control and to exercise your freedom when it comes to both software and culture, and the relation between those two.
It’s crazy, but fun as well. They’re a whole new generation and those conversations are really inspiring. It shows that we need a slightly different approach and a lot of time and patience to get to the same point with them. But when you do, there’s a stronger sense of justice. I have a very hopeful look at generations that are coming after us – I feel they have a stronger sense of justice and more actively strive for a fairer society. Free software is a fight that fits into that sense of purpose. So that gives me a lot of hope.
Lucas Pretti: Speaking in more political terms, somehow the free software movement meant to our generation something like taking over the means of production. Twenty years ago, we believed in the utopia that we could control the chain of production, and therefore transform society if we exercised our freedom through software and technology. Do you think free software is still a radical anti-systemic statement today?
Zoë Kooyman: I think so. I think as long as we are a movement that isn’t accepted as the norm, it can be considered as such a statement. We still have to fight so hard! Again, I’m speaking from a truly free software perspective. The FSF is at the far end of the spectrum of everything that is free or open, and we are very conscious of this fact. What we need to say is still that sort of purest perspective.
In the end, making it very simply, all the development, progression, and push forward that our lives are going through from all different angles are mostly pushed by software. Our purpose is saying: “Hold up, let’s think about this and consider what this means for everyone’s freedom”. For example, it’s great that I can now have my car drive itself, but what does it take away from me? It’s important to always have that counter-voice and think about what this progress means and what we can do to make sure that it doesn’t take away freedoms or increases some level of control over people’s lives.
As we are giving up more and more of that control and freedom, our message is more and more important. Is it more challenging? Is there more noise? Is it harder because development is going so fast? The answers to all those questions are yes. But is it still necessary? I think maybe more.
Sara Petti: Speaking from a broader perspective about the concepts and values behind free software, do you think that the kind of processes used in these communities can be exported as a model of governance outside that space? How could that be used for accountability, collaboration, and increased transparency?
Zoë Kooyman: Oh, absolutely! That is a utopia, of course. But wouldn’t it be beautiful if we all just lived in a society where we just shared with each other and built upon each other’s work without holding back and putting everything in a little black box? Yes. Can it be exported? Well, we’re facing some pretty big opponents. There are too many organisations and people feeling that they would lose their power, control or money if they give freedom to people. But is it inherently something that people are interested in? I like to think so, yes. Community-building is based on that. Look at something like Wikipedia, for example. That’s a community project and it continues to grow. Of course, one can argue that in these communities it’s usually a small percentage of people that gives 90% of the contributions and then ask if that’s still the utopia that we’re looking for. We can debate about that, but the result speaks for itself.
You can bring the four freedoms to more simplified personal experiences though and see they work. Ask people from small communities, like groups of friends or families, and you’ll get to that point where sharing, building upon each other’s work, wanting to help each other, and working together are at the core of how people interact with each other. The big question is how to extrapolate it to the societal level. But it’s definitely what comes naturally for most people. It’s inherent in who we are.
I know people from my personal life that are taking their time and putting their energy into building communities like that, getting together, teaching each other skills that they got through life, traveling, or education and sharing those skills again, and then helping each other build stronger, better lives. I see it in my surrounding, and I think everyone can point to examples like that. If you look close enough, you see the four freedoms used in daily life.
Lucas Pretti: Speaking specifically about FSF, you recently had a change in governance where the community is able to evaluate or nominate board members. Tell us more about that experience.
Zoë Kooyman: Yes, we did open this new nomination process. The board has been working very hard to include associate members into nominating and also discussing potential board members. We opened this process about a month ago, so we are in a phase of getting nominations in to be further reviewed and start a discussion forum that the FSF built to evaluate those nominees. We’ll start with the discussion of one nominee, because it’s a completely new process, and hope to be able to run more than one discussion at the same time further in. A recommendation from those discussions will then go to the board, and then the board can start a test period with the candidate. The idea is to keep doing that until we have enough board members to establish a healthy and strong board, and to be able to replace older ones that have said that they would resign. That has been a huge process. I believe that it’s positive to listen to what the community thinks the Free Software Foundation needs, and what things are important to them. This line of communication is opened again, after being closed, or less open, for a while. It’s something that we’ve been working really hard on for the past year, and I’m quite proud of it.
Lucas Pretti: And how has your time at the head of the organisation been? It’s been a year now since you took over.
Zoë Kooyman: I am learning so much every day from our community members, from our staff, from the history of the FSF, from all of it. It’s been a lot of internal work for the past year. Since I stepped up, I fell into that reorganisation process. For me, it’s been good because I’m good at organising things, pulling people back and strategising. As soon as we get more acquainted with how the process actually moves forward, this phase is gonna come to an end and we will start being able to turn more outward again, to focus on advocacy, free software and licensing work, and on our campaigns. The year has given us the opportunity to take a moment as an organisation to go inward and rethink the things we have done in the past.
We went through some internal shuffling as well, I had to be replaced myself for example. And now we are getting back on track with things, We’re organising our event – LibrePlanet, which is coming up now in March. which was part of my responsibilities as a program manager, and now we have a really good staff member that is taking that job on. It’s the first time we’re going in person again, so that’s all new and exciting.
Another thing we’re looking forward to getting back into is the Freedom Ladder campaign, which we started already one and a half years ago or so. It fits very much with what we’ve been talking about: how do you connect to a younger generation and to people in different levels of skill or knowledge, whether you’re a high school student, a developer that is running your own operating system (OS) and has a fully free setup, or whether you’re a person that doesn’t have any clue and just would like to learn more, or has just installed Libre Office, for example.
In the future, for campaigns, I would love to focus more on right-to-repair and free software, and privacy issues. Our focus should return to licensing as well, and to building interesting and much-needed free software projects too. So, those are things that I want to start doing again, and we’ll get to that. We just have needed to take this time, to be focused on the core of what the organization is, and how we can create a sustainable future for ourselves.
Lucas Pretti: What about the issue of diversity and representation within the free software and general tech communities? For example, you are the first female to lead FSF in decades. In what ways your internal discussions and the broader discussion about governance could lead to more diversity these days?
Zoë Kooyman: Is diversity still a challenge? It’s a pretty short answer: yes, absolutely. We are short of all kinds of representation in all sorts of technology and software communities. It’s important to continue to understand that and see what we can do, and how to take minor steps forward. Specifically for our board process, the board has set up a matrix that lists all of the basic requirements and qualifications that any board member should need, and one of those is indeed diversity. But it will be a challenge for a while longer. There are full generations that had no female or otherwise marginalised people representation at all, so it will take time for those people to enter the community and take positions of leadership. I hope we can speed up those processes by really being conscious about it.
If you are asking in a more general sense, it remains a hard topic that takes a lot of time. We want to get to a point where these things are no longer a question. In the end, I don’t like to be called out as a female in this community, or as a female leader. It’s important that we educate people and support other marginalised people to get to positions like this, but I personally don’t like being called out for my gender at all, because that is not, and should not be what matters most about me.
Lucas Pretti: Let’s try to analyse a real case scenario: the Free and Open source Software Developers’ European Meeting (FOSDEM), one of the world’s largest and most important meetings of the free software community. Both of you attended it recently in Brussels. Do you think diversity is represented there somehow?
Sara Petti: FOSDEM is just a mirror of what happens in the outside world, I think.
Zoë Kooyman: Yes, that’s right. Interestingly, I was in touch with a group of Swiss activists a few days ago, they sent me a photo of their I Love Free Software Day get-together, and there was just one woman. The good thing is that the people that are organising this group are conscious about pointing that out and saying that they want to do something about it.
In the case of FOSDEM, I don’t know any of the organisers, so I can’t speak to the way they think about it. There are plenty of track organisers within FOSDEM though that I know are conscious of the program they present and how they build their schedules because they want to see more and different kinds of representation. I think that’s good. But, when you go, if you take a random picture, you can count women or people of colour on one, two hands.
Sara Petti: I co-organised the Open Research Tools and Technology devroom at FOSDEM 2023. Maybe this community is slightly more diverse than the others, but anyway it is a real challenge to organise a truly diverse panel or a programme. It’s exactly what you said before, Zoë, no one wants to call people just because they’re female or from a given identity group. They should be called because they have a good talk. It’s always very difficult to balance that decision. If you get like 80% of the applications coming from white men, it’s going to break the balance anyhow…
Zoë Kooyman: We deal with this every year when we are doing LibrePlanet as well. It’s exactly like you said, you get a hundred applications in, and 80 out of those are male. How are you gonna guarantee diversity? In our case, the review process is basically anonymous, so we try to not put in any names or details about the proposer, trying to make sure we look at the quality to really get the best talks out of it. But then, how do you secure representation? It’s hard. However, we do make conscious efforts for securing diverse keynote options at least. In the end, the event should aim to represent a community that everyone would like to see.
Lucas Pretti: One of the purposes of this 100+Conversations project is to open up Open Knowledge Foundation’s process of rethinking our strategy and our path of action. Recently, we have been asking ourselves a lot about how to put our work and our tools in service of the most pressing problems of our times. Some of them, like climate change, are not directly related to the issues we have been working with historically. Do you have any tips, thoughts, or reflections on the way we should go?
Zoë Kooyman: I think one of the most important things is not to get too distracted by everything that’s happening. Because a lot is happening: climate change, artificial intelligence, challenges to education, threats to democracies, and so many things. It’s really important to understand how new developments relate to your organization and to your message, and then find a balance between carrying that message as part of your activism, or being carried away by it. Footing in all the different streams of thought and movements that are going on will be detrimental to any message. I’m saying this to you as I’m saying it to myself as well. Focus is a challenge for a lot of organisations that have a social justice goal.
The FSF, for example, could start talking about the right-to-repair on a daily basis, and it would be really valuable since we strengthen each other’s fights. The right to repair is rooted in the same aim for freedom as the free software movement. But there is a real risk that the message of free software would get lost in that debate. That’s why an organisation really needs to consider how best to stay true to its message. It has happened in the past for FSF with the whole “open-source” idea. The FSF had a choice to go along with the open-source movement and integrate our freedoms into that discussion, but we stayed true to what we believe is right. For us, it was not about economical gain or security through community, for example – those are all benefits of good free software, and they are highlighted in open source, but they are not the answer necessarily to us. Our answer is freedom. I believe that has been a strength of the FSF over the years, and I think that’s something that all organisations could reflect upon and decide what message we want to bring across that could help some of these vitally important developments progress, how can we support them, but stay true to our core message at the same time.