Bit Prepared II: Richard Stallman Meets the World Scout Bureau

by Marco Fioretti

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) promotes computer users' rights to use, modify and redistribute free (as in freedom, regardless of price) software and documentation. All around the world, national and international organizations exist that independently take their inspiration from the writings of Baden-Powell, who started Scouting in 1907.

What could Baden-Powell have in common with FSF? Nothing, except a few essential ethical principles. In "Bit Prepared, Part I, I wrote, "[GNU/] Linux and the whole FLOSS movement do appear as the soul of Scouting made software: the first, if not only, kind of IT technology that should to Scouts, or used by their leaders".

After writing that article, I was contacted by the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM), an umbrella body that brings together Scout organizations from more than 150 countries. Implementation of the WOSM policies adopted by the World Scout Conference largely is delegated to a professional body, the World Scout Bureau (WSB). I asked the WSB and FSF if they would be to have representatives meet on-line to discuss my theses and to find out if and how WOSM should use products and practices from the free software movement in its activities.

The initial feedback from both organizations was encouraging. Richard M. Stallman, founder of FSF, said, "[The Bit Prepared article] is very interesting.... You may succeed in starting something very useful with this." WOSM never had addressed itself directly to the question of adopting particular IT policies at a world level, but according to Ray Saunders, WSB Director, Information Technology, "the synergy between the ideals of Scouting and the principles under-pinning the Open Source community is indeed evident." Starting from there, I engaged Richard and Ray in the e-mail interview that follows.

Marco Fioretti: What is free software?

Richard Stallman: Free software is software that users are free to run, study, change and redistribute. It means that you are free to adapt it to your needs and free to help others by sharing it. By contrast, non-free software prohibits cooperation.

Fioretti: In the "Bit Prepared" article, I listed some affinities between the philosophy of Scouting and that of the Free Software movement. What do you think about them?

Stallman: That such similarities should exist does not surprise me, because ideas of self-reliance and the importance of helping your neighbor circulate in our society and will pop up in various places. However, I think it was a good stroke of insight on your part to notice this particular similarity.

Ray Saunders: I think we can all agree that the good practices evident in the Free Software community seem to me to be entirely consistent with the method and ideals represented in Scouting today.

Fioretti: Does the WOSM currently recommend the use of any specific software product?

Saunders: No, for the very reasons that are stated in your introduction above.

Fioretti: What are the criteria currently used by the World Scout Bureau when choosing software for internal use?

Saunders: We try to select the most appropriate software according to our needs and, of course, our means. Cost is a very important criteria for us. When we spend money, we are spending our members money. The World Scout Bureau primarily but not exclusively uses Apple Macintosh computers. As we migrate to Mac OS X, the possibilities for us to use open source and free software are now much wider than they were just a couple of years ago. As a result, open source and free software solutions are now actively being considered alongside the commercial products we currently use. We are already upgrading some of the commercial software we used previously to open source or free software alternatives. [Editors' Note: Other success stories of Scouts using free software can be found in the comments to "Bit Prepared" posted by Ray and Gino Lucrezi of Global Scoutnet.

Fioretti: Do the Free Software Foundation and GNU recommend the usage of only the software they produce? If yes, why? If not, how does one choose to adopt any software program, regardless of its origin?

Stallman: It's not who was the developer, it's whether he respects your freedom that matters. If you want to live in freedom, you've got to reject software that tramples your freedom. You shouldn't stand for software that keeps you helpless or forbids helping others. When a program is free software, that means you and others can see what it does. So you can listen to other people in the community who have studied it and used it and thus decide whether you want to use it. If you really are concerned about what the program does, you can read the code yourself.

Fioretti: Many national Scout organizations have Merit Badge systems that aim to help young members learn practical skills in a variety of disciplines. Software and Internet already are proposed as Merit Badge subjects in many associations. Is there any policy requesting that the candidate must know the difference between proprietary and free software? At least to know when and how it is right and legal to copy and redistribute programs?

Saunders: Any such policy would be a matter for the national Scout organization proposing the merit badge to its members. I would hope that in the face of today's reality of pirated software, the issues surrounding copyright and licensing would be addressed in some form within the relevant requirements. That approach certainly would provide ample opportunity to raise awareness about the differences to which you refer. It also should improve knowledge about the availability of open-source and free software solutions to the wider community.

Fioretti: Do you have any suggestions or comments regarding the merit badge requirements list proposed in the "Bit Prepared" article?

Stallman: I think they look fine.

Saunders: There are a couple of places I might want to substitute "discuss" with "demonstrate", but they represent a good starting point for any national Scout organization thinking of introducing or reviewing a computer merit badge scheme today.

Fioretti: Should a Scout association decide to try or switch to free software or at least free formats and protocols, where can it find help from the free software community?

Stallman: Look in for our list of over 3,500 ready-to-use free software packages that run on GNU/Linux. If you're considering using a program that isn't in the directory, can help you judge whether a license qualifies as free. If you live in a city, there are people in the city who know how to use GNU/Linux. There probably is a user group there. If you approach them asking them to help your troop switch, they probably will be glad to help. [Editors' Note: Two on-line lists of user groups can be found here and here.]

Fioretti: Ray, what about support from within WOSM, besides Global Scoutnet?

Saunders: I'm not aware of Scout-specific resources addressing directly this topic. Perhaps your readers can inform me otherwise? There are a number of software applications related to Scout activities, developed by Scouts and made available to other Scouts to use, though not always free. Some are listed at David Jansen's InterNETional Scouting and Guiding Pages. The UNESCO's Free Software Portal also is a very helpful starting point.

The Jamboree on the Internet (JOTI), an annual event during which Scouting experiences are exchanged and ideas are shared, contributes knowledge to the world brotherhood of Scouting. During JOTI, as many as half-a-million Scouts from all over the world make contact with one another using the full range of operating systems and software, much of it using open-source software. Certainly there's the opportunity within that event for a bit more research on these issues. This year's event runs October 16-17.

Fioretti: Will there be a specific forum devoted to these issues as part of JOTI? If yes, could I or Richard participate to represent the free software community?

Saunders: Not as far as I am aware this year, but it's a good suggestion for the future. Full information about this year's events can be found by following the links from our Web site.

Fioretti: Ray brought some interesting Scout documents to my attention. Strategic Priority #7 of the current World Scout Strategy says, "Effective communications are vital to all aspects of Scouting.... Modern technologies offer Scouting many new techniques for doing this, more effectively, more efficiently and at a lower cost". Eduardo Missoni, WOSM Secretary General, also said in his speech at the 2004 European Scout Conference, "According to our principles and values, we will be in the front line in exploring and adopting open, universally accessible and appropriate technologies". Richard, were you aware of this? What do you think?

Stallman: One could interpret this as meaning free software, but one also could interpret it in other weaker ways.

Fioretti: I agree, but the statements above seem to match perfectly the recommendations I made at the end of "Bit Prepared". For example, all Scout organizations should make sure their Web sites are viewable with any browser and, above all, don't accept or distribute documents in proprietary formats, as Richard suggested some time ago.

Saunders: I welcome the campaign. Internationally agreed standards should not be subsequently enhanced to commercial advantage, which often renders the results incompatible with standards-compliant browsers. We need to check our own sites from time to time and ensure that we are achieving maximum accessibility for users based on the agreed standards, not the modified versions created largely by proprietary products and tools.

We must distinguish here between good and bad practices in the field of proprietary formats. For example, I would describe a proprietary format for which the proprietor provides freely available reader software (such as Adobe does for its proprietary portable document format .pdf) as an acceptable practice. As a result, I am happy to distribute and receive documents in that format. My core sensitivity is that the recipient of any item I send should not have to go out and purchase a proprietary product in order to read my content.

Proprietary products using open standards for their file types also sit comfortably in my portfolio of acceptable solutions. You get what you pay for and can migrate to another product with relative ease, because the content you have produced is not locked-in to the creative tool.

Stallman: A zero-price but secret reader program still would take the user's freedom even if it did not take the user's money. What makes the PDF format open--thus, not proprietary--is its documentation is public and, aside from the newest features that mostly are not used, it is not covered by patents, so anyone can implement it. I use free software to use PDF files.

Fioretti: Of course, the easiest way to prepare a migration to free software or, at least, to achieve universal accessibility is to switch as soon as possible to free cross-platform programs, such as the communication suite Mozilla and, above all, OASIS office file formats through Doing so would guarantee that every Scout always could access Scout information, that e-mail could be signed digitally according to standards and that Web sites could be generated for the widest possible audience. After these steps, every single Scout or Scout unit then would be free to decide if, when and how to make a complete transition to free software.

Now, let's assume the WSB fully accepts this policy. Ray, may we ask you to explain what procedure the WSB should follow to officially embrace it; if and how it could request or suggest that the national associations do the same; and how official practical guidelines could be provided to facilitate its adoption?

Saunders: We like to talk about learning by doing in Scouting. So my message to any Scout reading this is to make a personal commitment now to get involved and try some free software for yourself, as I have done. For example, I'm currently involved in the alpha test of NeoOffice/J, the great Java implementation of 1.1.2 created by Patrick Luby for us Mac OS X users. It's important that as many Scouts as possible contribute to this process of change from a position of personal experience. So, the first guideline might be best expressed as, "Think globally. Act locally!"

Second, I think it will be important to ensure that the young people attending our World Scout events encounter open source and free software on the computers put at their disposal on those occasions. This already has happened with success during the last World Scout Jamboree in Thailand, for example. I remind you again that much of the annual Jamboree on the Internet already is functioning on open-source software solutions, so that is another area where our young members and their adult leaders can gain practical, hands-on experience using free software.

Third, I think it is essential to be able to demonstrate that the use of open-source software, such as OpenOffice, is a reality in the Central Office of the World Scout Bureau. We have started providing our internal stationery templates in format files, and a number of the team in Geneva already have migrated to using I'm pleased to include Eduardo Missoni amongst those users reporting that they are very satisfied with the experience. So, professionally, we've already begun to play our small part in the process of creating momentum for change.

All these successful experiences then can be used to promote the use of free and open-source software to others, such as the leaders of national Scout organizations and the volunteers serving on the World Scout Committee or on our regional Scout committees.

I believe that taking practical steps, such as these I've outlined above, will create the necessary critical mass required to bring about policy changes inside our national member organizations that, ultimately, can result in them collectively choosing to adopt policies to be promoted at the world level.

Stallman: I have to point out that to contrast free software with commercial software is like contrasting tall people with thin people. Some free software is commercial (developed by businesses), just as some tall people are thin. Copies of free software often are sold for a price; meanwhile, some non-free programs are available gratis.

The issue is not about business and not about price--it's about freedom. Free software respects the user's freedom; non-free software does not. If a program is free, you can "leave it better than you found it" if you so wish, and that's where free software meets the spirit of Scouting.

When choosing any given program, I suggest you verify that it is free software and that it can run on a free platform. MacOS is not free and neither is the usual Java platform. So, if NeoOffice/J depends on them, it cannot be used without limiting your freedom.

Saunders: Using enabling technologies in the short term that allow many more people to try out free or open-source software now may be limiting, in Richard's view, but if it helps more people get on the bus and take a tour for themselves, that should be to the benefit of an organization such as FSF, as awareness and support for free (as in freedom) software grows. And that, I believe, is in everyone's best interests.

Fioretti: I am glad to hear all this for two reasons. The first is, from now on, it will be hard for any Scout to ignore the ideals of free software and the importance of communicating through truly open technologies. The second reason is the approach described by Ray makes it possible for single Scouts or Scouts units to migrate to free software if and when they choose, in the smoothest possible way.

I therefore conclude this interview with four short invitations. The first is to all Scouts: please try the software Ray and Richard mention and contact the closest GNU/Linux user group for help. The second is to all supporters of free software, starting with and Mozilla: send this article and "Bit Prepared" Part I or bring it by hand to the closest Scout group and offer your help to try free software. Next, to make all this easier, everybody who can translate both articles in other languages, please contact me. Last but not least, any other organization inspired by Baden-Powell is welcome to contact me; I am eager to know what you think of free software.

Thanks to Richard and Ray for their time.

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