The Road From Here

Lessons of the recession for Free Software

By Ruben Safir President - NYLXS

"When talented people gather together for the purposes of developing opportunity for members great things can happen."

With the current recession and dot com crash of late 2001, the heyday of the GNU/Linux based IPO's and rosy optimism is being replaced with the starry eyed reality that much of the accomplishments of the late 1990's seems to be replaced by high unemployment among free software people, and an ever aggressive confrontation from the marketers of proprietary software and hardware products. Many of the organizational models within both the Free Software community and her sister movements, such as "Linux User Groups" and 2600 efforts, have served very well in bringing Free Software into the public eye. Rick Moen's FAQ on the traditional setup of a LUG, and it's core activities, have developed the foundation for GNU/Linux advocacy and Free Software placement broadly in homes, schools and businesses. The development of Installfests, monthly technical meetings, stamtish drinking sessions, and the spirit of voluntaryism in developing software for practical use has achieved much. But it's a model which is reaching it's maximum capacity to effect change, and we need to start to graft new methodologies onto this model for the sake of preserving the freedom to innovate, compete, and to educate in the digital age.

One of the important lessons in the Jewish tradition comes comes from the collective work called "Teachings of Our Fathers", which says, "Without bread there can be no Torah". The fundamental concept here is that for individuals to strive in freedom for their advancement and improvement, an economic foundation has to exist for the basic necessities of living. Economic freedom and political freedom are linked together in a duet. Economic freedom can not be achieved without political freedom, nor can political freedom be achieved without economic freedom. We must have both.

The importance of political policy, and digital freedom is directly tied to the economic fortunes of businesses and individuals. This truth is known by every businessman in the world. Global Corporations have pored millions of dollars into political campaigns flushing the Halls of Congress with money and idonating huge somes of money into the major political parties of the United States, all in the hope of effecting favorable legislative change for their industry or individual companies. Open Secrets lists the 100 largest contributers to political campains, and the list is sprinkled with Fortune 500 companies inlucing Microsoft, Philip Morris, AT&T AFG, BellSouth, Lockheed Martin, Bristol-Myers Squibb, AIG, UPS, Pfizer, Time-Warner and more, and this is in addition to the donations by individuals who represent corporate interests. A total breakdown by industry looks as follows:




Misc Business




Lawyers & Lobbyists








Energy/Nat Resource












These businesses are funded, and can pour money and staff into the pursuit of their legislative agendas. In addition, their full time legal teams effectively use litigation as a political and business tool. The result of this common practice has been a series of serious blows to the Free Software movement which is now facing political annihilation. This is resulting in a negative economic impact to Free Software developers and end users, and trouble in the general economy. It's time for Free Software people to go on the offensive.

People with a technical inclination, by their nature, prefer to stick with technical experimentation, and to leave marking and political strategy to others. This needs to change if they expect to maintain the freedom to do development. Late last year, we started a new experimental organization which we hoped will develop new modalities for Free Software advocacy. Many of the things which have been doing have been widely successful, and we are encouraged by the initial results. The organization is called NYLXS, and when we started it, we started with a number of premises which have helped us succeed. The first premise was, NYLXS is not a LUG. Attracting large numbers of folk for dog and pony shows was not the goal of NYLXS. Instead, we are trying to address current issues in an effective manner. We try to conduct ourselves in a business like fashion.

Three major areas of activity have been targeted by NYLXS. These activities need to be also targeted by other organizations. We need to move forward with political lobbying, targeted business development, and organizational funding. Let's now examine the a specific plan of action so that other organizations can emulate them.

Currently, Free Software organizations are short on cash, but do have great potential to mobilize volunteers. One of the primary missions which Free Software organizations need to undertake in order to foster freedom, is to emulate that great and wonderful political organization, Tammany Hall. Tammany Hall was very effective at at three core political tasks, organizing volunteers, delivering votes, and acting as a provider for jobs and contracts. The key to the success of Tammany Hall, aside from the obvious graft, was the bonds built by the organization between it's members and the leadership. These bonds were built through tireless advocacy of it's membership, and the doling out the financial rewards with political success. Tammany carefully chose it's battles and functioned top down when putting people on the street and getting people elected. Nothing is as effective as targeting political candidates in their bedrooms. All politics are local. Targeting key members of Congress to become fast adopters of pro-Free Software issues can be effectively organized by Free Software groups throughout the country. We must focusing attention on elections and constituencies on the grass roots level.

The problem is, that this requires real work, and true voluntaryism. It's not fun. Going from door to door, and pamphleting supermarkets requires persistent effort, and can be a humbling experience. But it can be done, and it will demonstrate to elected officials that we can be determinant in getting people elected and unelected, We can even running candidates as needed and put individuals into office. After the destruction of the World Trade Center a local NYC advocacy group, New Yorkers for Fair Use, had members in the street, and was very effective at getting pro-digital freedom issues heard. The very next week after the attach on Manhattan, NY Faiuruse was going door to door with it's "Save the Libraries" campaign. That campaign targeted members the House Judiciary. If NY Fairuse was able to organize this effort, straight through that disaster, your organization can likewise do the same.

A key component to being effective in this level of organization is the need to develop leadership. Leadership development must become a core component of all Free Software organizations, and the leadership of these organization absolutely must commit themselves to the identification of future leaders. Have in place a system for mentoring new pools of members. Leadership training needs to be built into all LUGs and Free Software organization in order to propel the groups forward into the future. It's a good idea to establish a committee within your organization to direct this activity.

Another aspect of running the political arm of a Free Software group is the development of a social services for your organization. Your group is dependent on the loyalty of it's members. This loyalty is best earned through a program of membership services. What services should your organization provide is dependent on your location. Mentoring, internship, job banks and resource networking, are all areas which can be formalized as a functions of your membership. People who work for your organization need to feel part of the family and the leadership must actually cares about their individual well being. In this time of high unemployment among talented free software people, your organization has a huge pool of untapped assets waiting to be exploited for the benefit of the larger group. Workshops, educational programs, business planning, and Job searching can all be implemented at a minimum cost to the organization. Often, nothing more is needed than a schedule, and a kitchen table in providing valuable help to membership. When talented people gather together for the purposes of developing opportunity for members great things can happen. People often need help with surprisingly simple tasks like resume writing and a url to put resumes oneline or advertize services. State and local governments will often fund educational programs and job placement efforts, and leaders need to organize their efforts in getting state funding for such programs. Clients of Free Software consultants can often be huge potential resources when they are happy with the work of Free Software people. They can provide evening space for classes, projectors and white boards. Services such as accounting for your organization, or helping to develop publicity channels should be sought out. It's absolutely key that your political arm provides these level of social services to develop the necessary loyalty for the hard work of door knocking. Members must come to see themselves as real stake holders in the outcome of digital rights legislation. Both members and client enterprises, may those enterprises be government, businesses or schools, need to feel empowered through an associate with your organization and Free Software. Your job as a Free Software leader is to build these bridges through education and member services.

As more people become indebted to your organization for work, business and personal development, the broader your reach will become in influencing political campaigns and IT buying decisions. One of the key social services which a Free Software organization needs to provide is the ability to target local industry for a complete Free Software desktop and server solutions. It can't be stated firmly enough how important it is for local Free Software groups to join together, identify local industries, and to build complete functional business environments. Let's look at the accounting industry for example. A group of 4 dedicated leaders from your organization should meet, and call accounting firms to make an appointment with the partner or employee who in the firm who is responsible for IT purchasing decisions. Sit down with that individual and your group to identify all the current software being used by the firm, and also determine what additional software needs they may have which are not currently being met.

After obtaining this information, your job is now defined and the work cut out for you. You now need to produce a plan for filling all the needs for the firms desktop and server use. And I mean ALL of their needs. No company can covert it's desktop platform to Free Software, or GNU Linux, unless every need that they have is met. Your job is to assemble a desktop and server solution which can fill all the needs.

So for an accounting firm, it's not good enough to just have accounting software, but they also need a programs which track employee activity and creates bills for clients. They need to tract document movement, to handle their faxing needs, and to provide their standard office applications. If any part of their needs is missing, then company can not move to a free software platform or entrust their business too you.

Once the organization has produced a complete solution, it can demonstrate that product for the whole industry, and share the development with fellow members. It's likely that members will need to be matchmakers between free software developers and the targeted industry. They may also need to develop some pieces of the system themselves. And they will have to be prepared to develop a comprehensive training program for the new platform. Training and support can be distributed to working members of your organization on a paid basis, as a social service of your organization. Use your organizations Public Relations engine to promote your efforts, your members and your solutions. Be prepared to sell the concept of Free Software to businesses and unchain them from licensing fee structures and restrictive agreements which impair the organizations ability to adapt to the changing needs of the industry.

Another area to explore, is federal, and local Free Software government opportunities. The federal government's bizops site needs to be carefully combed everyday for potential bids. The process of forming a bid and identifying possible opportunities is daunting to individual consultants without experience in handling this process. Businesses have full-time staff people who handle this process and fill government contracts. Local organizations need to develop similar in house expertise, again, offering this service to working members and building loyalties. Government contract are especially important in recessionary times like today, and can feed a lot of Free Software families. This would be a good thing(TM).

This paper has outlined many new avenues of activity for Free Software Organization and GNU/Linux user groups. It's very different than the sort of activities which LUG's normally perform. And key to producing this level of organized activity is funding. Free Software groups need to start funding their activities from within. And several means are available to them to accomplish this task. NYLXS, as a case study, has had considerable success with it's educational program. While charging cut-rate pricing on classes, at $200 - $300 a course, NYLXS has developed a comprehensive Free Software education program which successfully enlarges membership. This also serves the role of organizational fund raising. It's success depends on the volunteer efforts of it's membership. They have also started to build videotape assets for sale, ISP networking services, and an on-line curriculum. Teaching accomplishes two goals of Free Software organizations. It provides a foundation of future membership and it generates revenues to fund activities. It can also be funded by the local and state governments as part of their unemployment and training programs. If targeted well, it can draw membership from the untapped pool of minorities and women into the Free Software field.

Funding for necessary political and business activities can also be generated by annual dinners, sponsored workshops, journal publication, and public speaking. Membership dues, while not a great fund raiser itself, should be used to determine the membership of Free Software groups. Since so much work is being done by the organization, membership efforts must focus and committed members. A nominal charge for membership sets a bar for entry into the organization, and shows a commitment by the individual to the organization. It's your goal to build the organization one committed member at a time. Each individual brings to the organization a potential, it is your job, as a Free Software leader to develop that potential for the benefit of the individual and the organization.

In regards to funding lobbying and business endeavors for Free Software, one of the long term goals of your group should be to acquire a permanent location to hang your hat. Having a permanent location gives to you a powerful tool in attracting students, new members, and addition income generating opportunities. It gives you a permanent teaching space, a place for demonstrations and meetings, space for conferences with local politicians and a rental possibility for other groups. In short, you need a clubhouse for your club.

GNU/Linux user groups and Free Software organizations just have to do more. More is what is required of you wish to protect your freedom and survive the economic downturn. We simply are not doing enough to protect our interest. Nor can we expect to protect the the freedom of a larger society increasingly dependent on digital information. Proprietary software vendors demand the control of all digital information, and the prevention of free competitive markets. The road is laid out before each and every one of us, and it is up to us to choose the proper path.