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Maximilian Ehlers
on 11 March 2019

FOSDEM 2019, a recap

On the 2nd and 3rd of February FOSDEM took place in Brussels.

If you have not heard of it, it is a conference that revolves around free and open source software. Participating is free and it takes place in the rooms of the University Libre des Bruxelles.

As part of the Linux community, a team at Canonical that open sources its own code and who are avid users of free software, we of course wanted to participate, hoping to get some fresh ideas and an overview of the current state of affairs.

Warming up

After arriving in Brussels on Friday, we attended the pre-drinking event. It was clear that this crowd was different from usual conferences.

With little money and commercial driven focus, FOSDEM is organized by people, who in turn are motivated by an idea of open knowledge rather than fat pockets.

And there are a lot of them – filling out the entire Delirium bar (which is huuuuge) plus the surrounding streets with people who appreciate Belgian beer.

Let the talks begin

The next morning, after having a massive breakfast, we headed over to the University for the keynote, which, surprisingly, was an introduction into something I had not expected: The cost of convenience using proprietary software and the shame it evokes in some community members.

The first message I perceived was

“Take a step back, and allow the use of some proprietary software for yourself, while working on alternatives, to help people in not having to have to go through the same troubles.”

One example of this is Google Maps, which is such an integral part of a lot of daily activities, but should probably have a comparable alternative.

Another big part of the talk was inclusion and how free software can aid it.

For example, imagine a pregnant woman younger than 30, with one peculiarity. She has a pacemaker, a device that runs proprietary software, usually intended for an older population.

She was one of the two speakers and told a story of how her pacemaker mistakenly caused electric shocks to run through her body during the pregnancy. The pacemaker’s coders had either not anticipated her use case, or could not find enough data to support it.

Had the code been readable by community members, they might have been able to contribute to it, making it more stable and possibly include fixes for a diverse range of people and use cases in the process. Similar to Wikipedia, collective knowledge can grow beyond something we could do alone, or as a business.

After this somewhat unexpected and intriguing kick-off, I went for talks that were a bit more technical in nature.

I am not going to give an exhaustive write up, but rather share some key takeaways I found were insightful and perhaps useful to the community.

Three takeaways

1. Think about accessibility from the start

In October 2016, the European Parliament accepted a directive on the accessibility of websites and mobile applications provided by public sector bodies (Directive (EU) 2016/2102). New public sector websites in the EU will need to conform by 23 September 2019, all public sector websites will need to conform by 23 September 2020, and all public sector mobile apps will need to conform by 23 June 2021.

FOSDEM 2019: Open Educational Resources on Digital Accessibility for Building Your Own Courses

This is a great move and something all web developers should have on their radar, as this might slowly trickle over into the business world.

To educate ourselves and others on these topics, MOOCAP has developed a few courses, and released them for free to educate people.

Spending some time to review their materials can help us to build a better web and avoid major code restructuring later on. (This talk goes into a bit more depth on this.)

2. Online Privacy for the average user

It is becoming increasingly apparent that our Internet use is constantly being monitored, which, as shown in an MIT study, influences users’ behaviour and makes the Web a less trusted environment.

People and companies are working hard to fix this. DuckDuckGo presented its privacy essentials, which are engineered in the open and can improve the protection of online identity in an approachable way.

On a more technical side Daniel Stenberg talked about his implementation of DNS over HTTPS. DNS being one of the last insecure components in our modern network infrastructure, is finally getting a more contemporary solution.

You can find the talk here. In summary, by implementing DNS over HTTPS, the resolving of IP addresses from domain names will be encrypted, ensuring that eavesdropping on what websites you access becomes a lot more difficult. Firefox is already capable of doing this, albeit with a bit of manual setup.

The only flaw apparent to me, is that the initial call to the first DNS server still has to be done unencrypted, which could possibly be intercepted and altered. I would be more than happy to be proven wrong on this.

3. Supporting common use cases

A lot of talks gave updates on project statuses, with some going very deep into technical topics. However, one thing that stood out to me was the focus on integrating the general user into free software.

We have to find defaults and easy to use tools that improve all our lives, and share them. One example that illustrates this well is the talk by Jon ‘maddog’ Hall.

Probably one of the most influential people of the last century, he gave, in addition to a wealth of interesting stories, an example of gaming on Linux.
We all love Linux and try to make it better.

For the normal PC user though, it does not matter that they get the most secure platform with the best productivity software – if their beloved game does not work.

Regardless of your view on games or use cases for the computer, helping to support the uses cases of normal PC users and the developers who provide them will only strengthen the ecosystem as a whole.

Coming to an end

In addition I would like to give a special mention to the OpenDesignCollective. Design and UX are a cornerstone in making good software for people, and seeing more of these awesome and talented people in a space, where a lot of programmers are still the predominant audience, is great!

And that is about it. Of course there were so many things happening that I could not possibly recount them all here.

We had a lot of fun, talking to smart people and hearing interesting stories. You leave with a good feeling, knowing that our world is (em)powered by these people.

If you are in Europe, you should most definitely give it a try next year.

And If you want some more content you can check out some of 2019`s talk recordings. Also why not choose a free software project you like, and try to dedicate an hour per week to it, you can even ask your manager to be able to do this on the clock.

Final thoughts

Now let me leave you with what might be a polarizing opinion and my final take away from FOSDEM.

I believe that certain things are totally fine to be paid services, such as the Games example. Supporting those efforts is not evil, nor does it destroy the free software movement. In the end someone has spent a lot of time on them.

What should not be behind a paywall though is the access to the fundamentals on which those things are developed, and which allow anyone to develop their own ones. Big players in the industry have caught on to this and contribute back, since those technical foundations are foundations that we share as a human race. Sharing them openly and making them accessible allows for more innovation and helps to maintain projects in a world with evermore increasing perspectives and demands. Companies should empower the Free software community, and the Free software community should, while being cautious, be understanding and provide some leeway to old enemies and perhaps make some new friends.

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