Free Software (and Freedom) in Kosovo

At the weekend, I spoke at the Software Freedom Kosova 2014 conference. Here's some background to the conference from its Web site.


At the weekend, I spoke at the Software Freedom Kosova 2014 conference. Here's the history from its Web site:

Since, an initiative to promote the plenty fold benefits of free software had not been undertaken until then, on September 2008, James Michael Dupont started an initiative to gather interested parties in the organization of the first Free and Open Source Software in Kosovo.

The virtual event attracted around 600 people and this served as an incentive for a group of close-knit partner organizations to be built and start putting the conference into action.

On March 22nd 2009, the first general assembly of what came to be called FLOSSK was held. The assembly set the aims and goals of the organization: focusing in gathering all IT and non-IT people interested in creating a single movement in creating a Free and Open Source Software community in Kosovo.

The fact that this is the sixth FLOSSK conference held in a country that only became independent in 2008 - the same year as the first conference - gives a hint of the determination of the free software community there. And that was very much my impression during my brief stay there: lots of young people full of energy and a belief in the power of free software, and a desire to see it used more widely.

As well as being a good idea in itself, that's particularly appropriate for a country still trying to recover from the short but obviously destructive war that took place in 1998 and 1999. Kosovo has very limited funds for advanced digital infrastructure, and it has no established software industry. That makes free software the obvious solution, both in terms of saving money, and in helping to kick-start home-grown software companies. Fortunately, what Kosovo does have is plenty of enthusiastic young hackers who are completely at home in the world of open source and related areas like open content and open data, which augurs well for the future.

My talk was called "Free software's golden age", and it reviewed how free software has essentially conquered every aspect of computing bar one - the desktop, of course. Perhaps even more importantly, the open source development methodology that was created by Linus, largely by chance, based on Net-based collaboration, has now been applied to many other fields: open content, open access, open data, open science, open hardware - pretty much open everything.

But that rather begs the question, highly pertinent for young hackers just starting out in their coding careers: what's left? After all, one of the biggest motivations to write free software is the knowledge that you are working on something big and important. If all the big and important challenges have gone, that's a problem.

However, I suggested that although it may well be true that the obvious big projects are mature now, in the light of what Edward Snowden told us last year, we certainly have a huge new task that needs addressing: putting back into everyday computing the security and privacy that the NSA and GCHQ have systematically undermined. We know how to do that. Snowden himself said:

"Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on."

The begs the question: what exactly does "properly implemented" mean? And for that, we have the guidance of Bruce Schneier, who wrote:

"In the cryptography world, we consider open source necessary for good security; we have for decades. Public security is always more secure than proprietary security. It's true for cryptographic algorithms, security protocols, and security source code. For us, open source isn't just a business model; it's smart engineering practice."

So today's challenge for hackers, I think, is putting that advice into practice by writing a new generation of free software programs with strong crypto baked in as a matter of course. That means strong crypto in connectivity software (more things like OpenVPN, TOR, Commotion); in communications programs (MailPile, Cryptocat, RedPhone), and in content applications (FreeNet, GNUnet).

As I concluded, the power of the open source methodology has given us a world where openness is increasingly the default. Now we need to go back to Richard Stallman's original vision, and use free software to give us a world where something much more precious, and much more difficult to gain and keep - *freedom* - is the default.

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