Building the open web with Micky Metts of Agaric

Micky Metts: building the open web

This interview is with Micky Metts of Agaric, based in Boston, Massachusetts, who is active in both the co-operative and free/open source movements. I wanted to talk with her about the connection between those worlds, the benefits of free software and the difference between free and open source software. Here’s a summary of the first part of our discussion – the main points are in bold.

Agaric is a co-op with 6 owners / workers. They met via the Drupal community, and they have overlapping skills – project management, outreach, client management, developers etc. They build websites for groups with similar aims and goals. They work only with free software (Drupal is free software).

Free software = a free society. Everyone is free to use it, modify it as they see fit. It’s the basis of a great sharing society. Corporate software developers / sellers have tried to spread the word that Linux and free software is difficult to learn and just for geeks / programmers. It’s not true – it’s not that much different from corporate, proprietary software (apart from who owns it). It’s really easy to use, it’s free, and it doesn’t require anti-virus software.

Inertia means that most people don’t bother to switch. Micky travels round and gives talks and presentations to other groups, telling them that it’s not just about Edward Snowden – everybody’s freedom and privacy is important. She also sends around links to the various social media groups she’s in, including Social.coop, an instance of Mastodon, which is similar to Twitter, but the members own the platform – it’s a co-op. The members all pay $1-3 per month, which might be a barrier for some people. People don’t really feel the pressure yet, to become private citizens, and don’t really understand the underlying concept of freedom. They use Windows, or a Mac, and think that they’re free to do anything they want. But most people don’t understand the ‘back doors’ in the system.

The free software is not about money. It’s not about that kind of free (although it is gratis) – it’s about personal freedom. People have been used to following orders from dictators like Microsoft or Mac. (‘computer says no’), but the free software movement wants us all to be in control.

Micky gave a talk at the LibrePlanet conference earlier this year, about how to avoid the Orwellian 1984-type nightmare in the digital world. She’s put together a resource section on their website, to help people get free software, and she wants to stress again that it’s really worth doing, and isn’t difficult. There are so many reasons not to allow a few giant corporations to control all the important sectors of society, if we want to live in real democracies.

Some schools in the States are running completely on free software, and they’re teaching kids about it, and they’re actually managing some of their schools’ software themselves, including adding things to it. However, some schools insist that parents spend $500 on an iPad for their children. Corporations are getting into schools, because they know that if they hook kids young, they can possibly keep them for life.

Micky’s group wrote to local newspapers to ask why they’re supporting corporate giants, and the father of one child replied ‘I don’t think my child needs to be using free software, because Apple knows what’s good for them’. Talk about turkeys voting for Christmas! But of course, it’s a game that corporations play, to control the way people think, and especially young people.

There’s a difference between free software and open source software. They’re the same in terms of code – the difference is political. When the free software movement started, it was all about the community – about sharing software, music, art etc. The open source movement started in retaliation to that – they didn’t want any ethics attached. Big business coined the term open source, and it turned into a ‘software war’ that most people don’t even know about.

People who care about real freedoms, and about sharing and community, should be using the term free software rather than open source software. Micky thinks we need to come up with a better term that means the source code of software can be altered by anyone, and that can never become proprietary.

There’s not much emphasis in the co-operative world in the UK on using free software. They don’t seem to find it that important. Micky thinks that this is because of confusion about what the free software culture is. There’s no one defining ‘anthem’ that everyone gathers under. Also, a lot of people in co-operatives are not particularly techie, and may not know very much about free software. When they discover it, they’ve already got everything set up on corporate software, and are too busy (or think they’re too busy) to switch. Agaric tries to get co-ops when they start, to help them set up with free software.

Agaric has posted a blog listing all the free software that business and individuals might need. Agaric uses them all on a daily basis (as does Lowimpact). They’ve had lots of emails from grateful people – it’s a ‘living’ blog, and it’s constantly updated to reflect changes in existing software or new software.

I asked Micky how we reach critical mass, so that free software becomes the norm, rather than something unusual. Maybe they could use both for a while so that they can see that it works. Agaric are talking to local computer shops and specialists, so that they understand free software and actually sell laptops with Linux on them, rather than Windows. She says it’s a tough job. It’s not about buying a computer with Windows on, then replacing it with Linux, because then you’ve given Microsoft money when you don’t need to. It’s much better to buy a computer that either already has Linux, or is blank, and you can install Linux yourself.

Micky thinks that it’s ‘tragic’ that most people are forced to give money to Microsoft when they don’t need to and don’t want to. It’s the same when someone says that they’re an ‘Apple person’ – what does that mean exactly? That they’ll buy anything Apple brings out, that they’ll do what they say? That they associate themselves with a multinational corporation bent on making as much money out of them as possible?

I asked whether there was a non-corporate alternative to Google Drive etc. and she said that yes, there is – NextCloud, which is entirely compatible with Google products. That was one thing I wasn’t sure about, although I already use Libre Office, a free package that we’re very happy with, and which dovetails with commercial products. There’s information about NextCloud in the blog article mentioned above.

NB: Here’s more info about difference between free / open source, from Richard Stallman, founder of the the Free Software Foundation – https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html

And here’s another – https://www.digitalocean.com/community/tutorials/Free-vs-Open-Source-Software

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