Free as in … ? My LibrePlanet 2016 talk

Below is the talk I gave at LibrePlanet 2016. The tl;dr version:

  • Learning how political philosophy has evolved since the 1670s shows that the FSF’s four freedoms are good, but not sufficient.
  • In particular, the “capability approach” pioneered by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum is applicable to software, and shows us how to think about improving the capability of people.
  • There are a bunch of ways that free software, as a movement, could refocus on liberating people, not code.

I did not talk about it in the talk (given the audience), but I think this approach is broadly applicable to every software developer who wants to make the world a better place (including usability-inclined developers, open web/standards folks, etc.), not just FSF members.

I was not able to use my speaker notes during the talk itself, so these may not match terribly well with what I actually said on Saturday – hopefully they’re a bit more coherent. Video will be posted here when I have it. [Update: video here.]

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Most of you will recognize this phrase as borrowed from the Wikimedia Foundation. Think on it for a few seconds, and how it differs from the Four Freedoms.

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I’d like to talk today about code freedom, and what it can learn from modern political philosophy.

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Last time I was at Libre Planet, I was talking with someone in a hallway, and I mentioned that Libre Office had crashed several times while I was on the plane, losing some data and making me redo some slides. He insisted that it was better to have code freedom, even when things crashed in a program that I could not fix without reading C++ comments in German. I pointed out, somewhat successfully, that software that was actually reliable freed me to work on my actual slides.

We were both talking about “freedom” but we clearly had different meanings for the word. This was obviously unsatisfying for both of us – out common language/vocabulary failed us.

This is sadly not a rare thing: probably many of us have had the same conversation with parents, friends, co-workers, etc.

So today I wanted to dig into “freedom” – what does it mean and what frameworks do we hang around it.

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So why do we need to talk about Freedom and what it means? Ultimately, freedom is confusing. When card-carrying FSF members use it, we mean a very specific thing – the four freedoms. When lots of other people use it, they mean… well, other things. We’ll get into it in more detail soon, but suffice to say that many people find Apple and Google freeing. And if that’s how they feel, then we’ve got a very big communication gap.

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I’m not a political philosopher anymore; to the extent I ever was one, it ended when I graduated from my polisci program and… immediately went to work at Ximian, here in Boston.

My goal here today is to show you that when political philosophers talk about freedom, they also have some of the same challenges we do, stemming from some of the same historical reasons. They’ve also gotten, in recent years, to some decent solutions – and we’ll discuss how those might apply to us.

Apologies if any of you are actually political philosophers: in trying to cram this into 30 minutes, we’re going to take some very, very serious shortcuts!

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Let’s start with a very brief introduction to political philosophy.


Philosophers of all stripes tend to end up arguing about what is “good”; political philosophers, in particular, tend to argue about what is “just”. It turns out that this is a very slippery concept that has evolved over time. I’ll use it somewhat interchangeably with “freedom” in this talk, which is not accurate, but will do for our purposes.


Ultimately, what makes a philosopher a political philosopher is that once they’ve figured out what justice might be, they then argue about what human systems are the best ways to get us to justice.

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In some sense, this is very much an engineering problem: given the state of the world we’ve got, what does a better world look like, and how do we get there? Unlike our engineering problems, of course, it deals with the messy aspects of human nature: we have no compilers, no test-driven-development, etc.

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So before Richard Stallman, who were the modern political philosophers?

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Your basic “intro to political philosophy” class can have a few starting points. You can do Plato, or you can do Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger), but today we’ll start with John Locke. He worked in the late 1600s.

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Locke is perhaps most famous in the US for having been gloriously plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness”. Before that, though, he argued that to understand what justice is, you have to look at what people are missing when they don’t have government. Borrowing from earlier British philosophers (mostly Hobbes), he said (in essence) that when people have no government, everyone steals from – and kills – everyone else. So what is justice? Well, it’s not stealing and killing!

This is not just a source for Jefferson to steal from; it is perhaps the first articulation of the idea that every human being (at least, every white man) is entitled to certain inalienable rights – what are often called the natural rights.

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This introduces the idea that individual freedom (to live, to have health, etc.) is a key part of justice.

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Locke was forward-thinking enough that he was exiled to the Netherlands at one point. But he was also a creature of his time, and concluded that monarchy could be part of a just system of government, as long as the people “consented” by, well, not immigrating.

This is in some sense pretty backwards, since in 1600s Europe, emigration isn’t exactly easy. But it is also pretty forward looking – his most immediate British predecessor, Hobbes, basically argued that Kings were great. So Locke is one of the first to argue that what the people want (another aspect of what we now think of as individual freedom) is important.

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It is important to point out that Locke’s approach is what we’d now call a negative approach to rights: the system (the state, in this case) is obligated to protect you, but it isn’t obliged to give you anything.

Coming from the late 1600s, this is not a crazy perspective – most governments don’t even do these things. For Locke to say “the King should not take your stuff” is pretty radical; to have said “and it should also give you health care” would have also made him the inventor of science fiction. And the landed aristocracy are typically fans!

(Also, apologies to my typographically-sensitive friends; kerning of italicized fonts in Libre Office is poor and I got lazy around here about manually fixing it.)

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But this is where Locke starts to fall down to modern ears: if you’re not one of the landed aristocracy; if you’ve got no stuff for the King to take, Locke isn’t doing much for you. And it turns out there are a whole lot of people in 1600s England without much stuff to take.
So let’s fast forward 150+ years.

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You all know who Marx is; probably many of you have even been called Marxists at one point or another!

Marx is complicated, and his historical legacy even more so. Let’s put most of that aside for today, and focus on one particular idea we’ve inherited from Marx.


For our purposes, out of all of Marx, we can focus on the key insight that people other than the propertied class can have needs.(This is not really his insight; but he popularizes it.) I

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Having recognized that humans have needs, Marx then goes on to propose that, in a just society, the individual might not be the only one who has a responsibility to provide those needs – the state, at least when we reach a “higher phase” of economic and moral development, should also provide.

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This sounds pretty great on paper, but it is important to grok that Marx argues that his perfect system will happen only when we’ve reached such a high level of economic development that no one will need to work, so everyone will work only on what they love. In other words, he ignores the scarcity we face in the real world. He also ignores inequality – since the revolution will have washed away all starting differences. Obviously, taken to this extreme, this has led to a lot of bad outcomes in the world – which is what gives “marxism” its bad name.

But it is also important to realize that this is better than Locke (who isn’t particularly concerned with inequality), and in practice the idea (properly moderated!) has led to the modern social welfare state. So it is a useful tool in the modern philosophical toolkit.

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Fast forward again, another 100 years. Our scene moves down the street, to Harvard. Perhaps the two most important works of political philosophy of the 20th century are written and published within four years of each other, further up Mass Avenue from MIT.

John Rawls publishes his Theory of Justice in 1971; Robert Nozick follows up with his Anarchy, the State, and Utopia in 1974.

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Rawls and Nozick, and their most famous books, differ radically in what they think of as justice, and what systems they think lead to the greatest justice. (Nozick is the libertarian’s libertarian; Rawls more of a welfare-state type.) Their systems, and the differences between them, are out of our scope today (though both are fascinating!).

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However, both agree, in their ways, that any theory of a just world must grapple with the core fact that modern societies have a variety of different people, with different skills, interests, backgrounds, etc. (This shouldn’t be surprising, given that both were writing in the aftermath of the 60s, which had made so clear to many that our societies were pretty deeply unjust to a lot of people.)

This marks the beginning of the modern age of political philosophy: Locke didn’t care much about differences between people; Marx assumed it away. Nozick and Rawls can be said, effectively, to mark the point when political philosophy starts taking difference seriously.

But that was 40 years ago – what has happened since then?

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So that brings us to the 1990s, and also to 2016. (If you haven’t already figured it out, political philosophy tends to move pretty slowly.)

The new-ish hotness in political philosophy is something called capability theory. The first work is put forward by Amartya Sen, an Indian economist working with (among others) the United Nations on how to focus their development work. Martha Nussbaum then picked up the ball, putting in a great deal of work to systematize it.

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When Sen starts working on what became capability theory, he’s a development economist trying to help understand how to help improve the lives of his fellow Indian citizens. And he’s worried that a huge focus on GDP is not leading to very good outcomes. He turns to political theory, and it doesn’t help him: it is focused on very abstract systems. John Locke saying “life, liberty, property” and “sometimes monarchs are OK” doesn’t help him target the UN’s investment dollars.

So his question becomes: how do I create a theory of What is Just that actually helps guide decisions in the real world? Capability theory, in other words, is ultimately pragmatic.

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To put it another way, you can think of the capability approach as an attempt to figure out what effective freedom is: how do we take freedom out of textbooks and into something that really empowers people?

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One of the key flaws for Sen of existing theories was that they talked about giving people at worst, negative rights (protecting their rights to retain property they didn’t have) and at best, giving them resources (giving them things or training they couldn’t take advantage of). He found this unconvincing, because in his experience India’s constitution gave all citizens those formal rights, but often denied them those rights in practice, through poverty, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, etc.

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And so from this observation we have the name of the approach: it focuses on what, pragmatically, people need to be capable of acting freely.

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Some examples may be helpful here to explain what Sen and Nussbaum are getting at.

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For example, if all men and women have the same formal access to education, but women get fewer job callbacks after college than men with identical resumes, or men refuse to care for children and aging parents, then it seems unlikely that we can really claim to have a just society.

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Somalia, circa 1995-2000, was, on the face of it, a libertarian paradise: it gave you a lot of freedom to start businesses! No minimum wage, no EPA.

But it turns out you need more than “freedom from government interference” to run a business: you have to have a lot of other infrastructure as well. (Remember, here, Locke’s “negative” rights: government not stopping you, v. government supporting you.)

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These examples suggest that answering political philosopher question #1 (“what is justice?”) requires more than just measuring access to resources. What you want to know to understand whether a system is just, you have to measure whether all people have the opportunity to get to the important goals.

In other words, do they have the capability to act?

This is the core insight that the capabilities approach is grounded in: it is helpful, but not enough, to say “someone has the natural rights” (Locke) or “some time in the future everyone will have the same opportunity” (Marx).

(Is any of this starting to ring a bell?)

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Capability approach is, again, very pragmatic, and comes from a background of trying to allocate scarce development resources in the real world, rather than a philosopher’s cozy university office. So if you’re trying to answer the political philosopher’s question (“what system”), you need to pick and choose a few capabilities to focus on, and figure out what system will support those capabilities.

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Again, an example might be helpful here to show how picking the right things to focus on can be important when you’re aiming to build a system that supports human capability.


If you focus on only one dimension, you’re going to get things confused. When Sen was beginning his work, the development community tended to focus exclusively on GDP. Comparing the Phillippines and South Africa by this number would have told you to focus your efforts on the Philippines.


But  one of the most basic requirements to effective freedom – to supporting people’s capability to act – is being alive! When we look at it through that lens, we pretty quickly see that South Africa is worth more energy. It’s critical to look through that broader lens to figure out whether your work is actually building human freedom.

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This is, perhaps, the most contentious area of capability theory – it’s where writing is being done across a variety of disciplines, including economics, political philosophy, sociology, and development. This writing has split into two main areas: the pragmatists, who just want to figure out useful tools that help them improve the world, and the theorists, who want to ground the theory in philosophy (sometimes as far back as Aristotle).

This is a great place to raise Martha Nussbaum again: she’s done the most to bring theoretical rigor to the capability approach. (Some people call Sen’s work the “capability approach”, to show that it is just a way of thinking about the problem; and Nussbaum’s work “capability theory”, to show that it is a more rigorous approach.)


I have bad news: there is no one way of doing this. Some approaches can include:

  • Local nuance: What is valued and important in one culture may not be in another; or different obstacles may exist in different places and times. Nussbaum’s work particularly focuses on this, interviewing people both to find criteria that are particularly relevant to them, but also to attempt to identify global values.
  • Democracy: Some of Sen’s early research showed that democracies were better at getting people food than non-democracies of similar levels of economic development, leading to avoidance of famines. So “what people prioritize based on their votes” is a legitimate way to understand the right capabilities to focus on.
  • Data: you’ll almost never see a table like the one I just showed you in most political philosophy! The capability approach embraces the use of data to supplement our intuitions and research.
  • Old-fashioned philosophizing: it can be perfectly appropriate to sit down, as Richard did, and noodle over our problems. I tend to think that this is particularly important when we’re identifying future capabilities – which is of course our focus here.

Each of these can be seen as overlapping ways of identifying the best issues to identify – all of them will be useful and valid in different domains.

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Shared theme of that last slide? Thinking primarily about people. Things are always a means to an end in the capability approach – you might still want to measure them as an important stepping stone to helping people (like GDP!) but they’re never why you do something.

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There is no one right way to pick which capabilities to focus on, which drives lots of philosophers mad. We’ll get into this in more detail soon – when I talk about applying this to software.

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Probably the bottom line: if you want to know how to get to a more just system, you want to ask about the capabilitiesof the humans who are participating in that system. Freedom is likely to be one of the top things people want – but it’s a means, not the end.

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So now we’ve come to the end of the philosophy lecture. What does this mean for those of us who care about software?

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So, again, what do political philosophers care about?

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The FSF’s four freedoms try to do the right thing and help build a more just world.

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The four freedoms are negative rights: things no one can take away from you. And that has been terrific for our elites: Locke’s landed aristocracy is our Software as a Service provider, glad the King can’t take away his right to run MySQL. But maybe not so much for most human beings.
free-as-in-what- - 49This brings us to our second question – what system?

Inspired by the capability approach, what I would argue that we need is a focus on effective freedom. And that will need not just a change to our focus, but to our systems as well – we need to be pragmatic and inclusive.

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So let me offer four suggestions for free software inspired by the capability approach.

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We need to start by having empathy for all our users, since our goal should be software that liberates all people.

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Like the bureaucrat who increases GDP while his people die young, if we write billions of lines of code, but people are not empowered, we’ve failed. Empathy for others will help us remember that.

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Sen, Nussbaum, and the capability approach also remind us that to effectively provide freedom to people we need to draw opinions and information from the broadest possible number of people. That can simply take the form of going and listening regularly to why your friends like the proprietary software they use, or ideally listening to people who aren’t like you about why they don’t use free software. Or it can take the form of surveys or even data-driven research. But it must start with listening to others. Scratching our own itch is not enough if we want to claim we’re providing freedom.

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Or to put it another way: our communities need to be as empowering as our licenses. There are lots of great talks this weekend on how to do that – you should go to them, and we should treat that as philosophically as important as our licenses.


I think it is important to point out that I think the FSF is doing a lot of great work in this area – this is the most diversity I’ve seen at Libre Planet, and the new priorities list covers a lot of great ground here.

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But it is also a bad sign that at the new “Open Source and Feelings” conference, which is specifically aimed at building a more diverse FOSS movement, they chose to use the apolitical “open” rather than “free”. That suggests the FSF and free software more generally still have a lot of work to do to shed their reputation as being dogmatic and unwelcoming.

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Which brings me to #2: just as we have to listen to others, we have to be self-critical about our own shortcomings, in order to grapple with the broad range of interests those users might have.

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At the begining of this talk, I talked about my last visit to Libre Planet, and how hard it was to have a conversation about the disempowerment I felt when Libre Office crashed. The assumption of the very well-intentioned young man I was talking to was that of course I was more free when I had access to code. And in a very real way, that wasn’t actually true – proprietary software that didn’t crash was actually more empowering to me than libre software that did crash. And this isn’t just about crashing/not-crashing.

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Ed Snowden reminded us this morning that Android is freely-licensed, but that doesn’t mean it gives them the capability to live a secure life.

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Again, here, FSF has always done some of the right thing! You all recognize this quote: it’s from freedom zero. We often take pride in this, and we should!

But we also often say “we care about users” but only test what the license is. I’ve never seen someone say “this is not free, because it is impossible to use” – it is too easy, and too frequent, to say “well, the license says you can run the program as you wish, so it passes freedom zero”. We should treat that as a failure to be humble about.

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Humility means admitting our current. unidimensional systems aren’t great at empowering people. The sooner we admit that freedom is complex, and goes beyond licensing, the quicker we can build better systems.

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The third theme of advice I’d give is to think about impact. Again, this stems from the fundamental pragmatism of the capability approach. A philosophy that is internally consistent, but doesn’t make a difference for people, is not a useful philosophy. We need to take that message to heart.

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Mako Hill’s quantitative research has shown us that libre code doesn’t necessarily mean quality code, or sucessful projects. If we want to impact users, we have to understand why our core development tools are no longer best-in-class, and fix them, or develop new models to replace them.

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We built CVS, SVN, and git, and we used those tools to build some of the most widely-used pieces of software on earth. But it took the ease of use of github to make this accessible to millions of developers.

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If we’re serious about spreading freedom, this sort of “post-mortem” of our successes and failures is not optional – it is a mandatory part of our commitment to freedom.

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I’ve mentioned that democracy is one way of choosing what capabilities to focus on, and is typically presumed in serious analyses of the capability approach – the mix of human empowerment and (in Sen’s analysis) better pragmatic impact make it a no-brainer.

A free software focused on impact could make free licensing a similar no-brainer in the software world.

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Dan Gillmor told us this morning that “I came for the technical excellence and stayed for the freedom”: as both he and Edward Snowden said this morning, we have to have broaden our definition of technical excellence to include usability and pragmatic empowerment. When we do that, our system – the underlying technology of freedom – can lead to real change.

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This is the last, and hardest, takeaway I’ll have for the day.

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We’ve learned from the capability approach that freedom is nuanced, complex, and human-focused. The four freedoms, while are brief, straightforward, and easy to apply, but those may not be virtues if our goal is to increase user freedom.

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As I’ve said a few times, the four freedoms are like telling you the king can’t take your property: it’s not a bad thing, but it also isn’t very helpful if you don’t have any property.

We need to re-interpret “run the program as you wish” in a more positive light, expanding our definitions to speak to the concerns about usability and security that users have.

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The capability approach provides us with questions – where do we focus? – but not answers. So it suggests we need to go past licensing, but doesn’t say where those other areas of focus might be. Here are some suggestions for what directions we might evolve free software in.

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Learning from Martha Nussbaum and usability researchers, we could work with the next generation of software users to understand what they want, need, and deserve from effective software freedom.

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We could learn from other organizations, like UNICEF, who have built design and development principles. The graphic here is from UNICEF’s design principles, where they talk about how they will build software that improves freedom for their audience.

It includes talk about source code – as part of a coherent whole of ten principles, not an end in and of itself.

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Many parts of our community (including FSF!) have adopted codes of conduct or similar policies. We could draw on the consistent themes in these documents to identify key values that should take their place alongside the four freedoms.

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Finally, we can vote with our code: we should be contributing where we feel we can have the most impact on user freedom, not just code freedom. That is a way of giving our impact: we can give our time only to projects that empower all users. In my ideal world, you come away determined to focus on projects that empower all people, not just programmers.

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Ultimately, this is my vision, and why I remain involved in free software – I want to see people who are liberated. I hope after this talk you all understand why, and are motivated to help it happen.
Thanks for listening.

Further reading:

Image sources and licenses (deck itself is CC BY-SA 4.0):