Put down the torch, pick up the scalpel: The Future of the FSF

4 minute read

Despite what many are saying on social media, blog posts, and articles in the tech media, there is no need to disband the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and start over. In fact, doing so may do more harm than good. The primary problem to address here is the FSF board of directors. They have proved untrustworthy and unfit to lead a mission-driven organisation and they must go.

With their latest content-free non-apology, the board of the FSF has clearly and definitively confirmed their dedication to the cultish hero-worship of a man whose documented record for abuse and harassment stretches back decades. Loyalty to a man unfit for leadership wins out over loyalty to the movement these people claim to support. It turns my stomach, this enabling of a man who has fostered a toxic culture that drives thousands away from free software. These are the people entrusted with growing a movement dedicated to improving the world through free and open access to technologies? It’s disgusting.

Ever since the board’s clandestine re-appointment of RMS to their number back in March, free software supporters around the world have repeated one refrain: 🔥Burn it all down.🔥 The urge to lay waste to FSF and start over is understandable. I strongly sympathise with the sentiment, but even as repulsed as I am by the actions of the board I can’t support the dismantling of FSF and if you stop to think about it, neither should you.

FSF is not simply a secretive, corrupt, pandering, self-serving board desperately clutching at the status quo that allows them to pretend they’re important and relevant. No, that’s only the leadership. The organisation itself is composed of a lot of employees who are working hard every day, doing the yeoman’s work of supporting free software (though, admittedly and regretfully, there are fewer of those employees now). They’re not individuals snuck into undeserved leadership positions behind closed doors; these are people who willingly accept a non-profit salary because they believe in the mission of FSF and the meaning of free software. If you “burn down” the FSF, what happens to these people? Are you going to hire them and allow them to continue pursing the mission they believe in?

And what about the work of the FSF? Where does that go? Again, the FSF is not the board of directors. They’re not the ones out there every day trying to steward the GPL, and they’re certainly not the ones providing services to the free software projects that have come to them for fiscal sponsorship. Yet that work is getting done and must continue, for the good of the entire Free and Open Source Software ecosystem. In your rage to dismantle the FSF, would you destroy that ecosystem as well? Would you simply cut these projects loose without fiscal sponsorship or support?

Consider the perspective of these employees and these projects. Since the board snuck RMS back into its membership then allowed a surprise anouncement without notifying anyone in advance, these people and projects must’ve been quite worried about what’s going to happen to them next. Will they have to job hunt during a pandemic? Will they need to scramble to find a new administrative home for their project? I know of at least one project so far that has already started its search. These are people who are doing a lot of good work for the non-profit mission, and who will become collateral damage if you continue demanding that we raze FSF to the ground and then salt the earth.

Put away your torches and your pitchforks and instead grab your scalpels, because we have some cancer to excise from the FSF. That cancer is the board of directors. The leadership of this organisation has proven it cannot be trusted with its task or with the mission of furthering Free Software. It must immediately set up what minimal scaffolding is required to allow the FSF staff to continue doing their work, and then it must step down. They must leave and be banned from ever again holding a leadership position in Free Software. The FSF should install a temporary body of trustees who will completely scrap and re-do the bylaws of the non-profit, then seat a new board of directors, openly elected by and answering to the FSF membership. It also should install a process for independent oversight and auditing to ensure the organisation remains on track with its mission rather than sliding back into its self-serving, navel-gazing ways. As far as where to find trustees to take on this work, I recommend starting with the people who had the strength of ethics to resign from FSF and the board rather than be party to such despicable actions.

Since nearly the entire board of FSF are now men, I feel comfortable putting this in masculine terms that they might understand: Man up, fellas. Grow a pair as well as a spine and do the right thing for a change. Admit you were wrong. Step down. And if you can’t do it because it’s the right thing to do, at least do it for the sake of the Free Software Movement you claim to love so much.