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The Cost Of Freedom

Keynote SeaGL 2019

Google knows where you were last night. Amazon knows what you got for your birthday. Facebook can spill all the details of your life in a security breach or with a police warrant. They all farm you for your sweet, sweet data. No one bothers to sell you software any more. If you aren’t the product they sell, then they just sell you a subscription to use their tools for a month or a year. The phone in your pocket? You don’t actually own that, either. Even if you bought it outright, the End User License Agreement doesn’t let you do anything too interesting with the hardware. (And breaking that EULA can lead to jail time if you become interesting to the wrong people.)

But what if you choose to use only Free (aka Libre) software and hardware? What then?

You may retain control over your data, the ability to see what’s actually happening under the hood of your favorite technology, but life gets a lot harder. Your friends want to organize events on Facebook, but you aren’t there. You want to watch a DVD, but you have to break US Federal law to install deCSS. You can’t just buy a phone from the store. Hundreds of little interactions that other people take for granted become obstacles to overcome. It may lead you to question whether Freedom is really worth it.

Why is it so hard?

The single answer is: Power.

Those who have consolidated power through the use of technology do not want to share that power because it’s making them a lot of money. This isn’t so different from the situation of Labor Rights or the work of Environmental activists who fight corporate polluters. Owners want to keep their own costs low and profits high, and they don’t care who or what they exploit to get their profits – unless organized people make them.

What lessons can we take f Unions and grassroots organizing to improve our ability to live FREELY with the technology we need to exist in the modern era.


Elior Sterling

Elior Sterling, Geeks Without Bounds

Elior Sterling is a life long proponent of software freedom. He spent the first 15+ years of his career working for companies like Wells Fargo Bank, and a string of startups you barely remember. His ideas about the importance of Libre software and hardware have been refined in the fires of civic and humanitarian projects that affect marginalized people on the outside of the digital divide. He has worked on software projects to improve public water service in Tanzania, environmental tracking in Guatemala, protection of indigenous lands in Ecuador and the US, and the protection of refugees in Jordan and Mexico. In recent years, much of his work has revolved around keeping vulnerable people (and their digital doppelgangers) safe while facing harassment from individuals, hate groups, and governments.