On joining the FSF board
I joined the board of directors of the Free Software Foundation a couple of weeks ago. I've been travelling a bunch since then, so haven't really had time to write about it. But since I'm currently waiting for a test job to finish, why not?
It's impossible to overstate how important free software is. A movement that began with a quest to work around a faulty printer is now our greatest defence against a world full of hostile actors. Without the ability to examine software, we can have no real faith that we haven't been put at risk by backdoors introduced through incompetence or malice. Without the freedom to modify software, we have no chance of updating it to deal with the new challenges that we face on a daily basis. Without the freedom to pass that modified software on to others, we are unable to help people who don't have the technical skills to protect themselves.
Free software isn't sufficient for building a trustworthy computing environment, one that not merely protects the user but respects the user. But it is necessary for that, and that's why I continue to evangelise on its behalf at every opportunity.
Free software has a problem. It's natural to write software to satisfy our own needs, but in doing so we write software that doesn't provide as much benefit to people who have different needs. We need to listen to others, improve our knowledge of their requirements and ensure that they are in a position to benefit from the freedoms we espouse. And that means building diverse communities, communities that are inclusive regardless of people's race, gender, sexuality or economic background. Free software that ends up designed primarily to meet the needs of well-off white men is a failure. We do not improve the world by ignoring the majority of people in it. To do that, we need to listen to others. And to do that, we need to ensure that our community is accessible to everybody.
That's not the case right now. We are a community that is disproportionately male, disproportionately white, disproportionately rich. This is made strikingly obvious by looking at the composition of the FSF board, a body made up entirely of white men. In joining the board, I have perpetuated this. I do not bring new experiences. I do not bring an understanding of an entirely different set of problems. I do not serve as an inspiration to groups currently under-represented in our communities. I am, in short, a hypocrite.
So why did I do it? Why have I joined an organisation whose founder I publicly criticised for making sexist jokes in a conference presentation? I'm afraid that my answer may not seem convincing, but in the end it boils down to feeling that I can make more of a difference from within than from outside. I am now in a position to ensure that the board never forgets to consider diversity when making decisions. I am in a position to advocate for programs that build us stronger, more representative communities. I am in a position to take responsibility for our failings and try to do better in future.
People can justifiably conclude that I'm making excuses, and I can make no argument against that other than to be asked to be judged by my actions. I hope to be able to look back at my time with the FSF and believe that I helped make a positive difference. But maybe this is hubris. Maybe I am just perpetuating the status quo. If so, I absolutely deserve criticism for my choices. We'll find out in a few years.