Looking into the FSF's BadVista campaign

by Bruce Byfield

BadVista is the latest in a series of activist campaigns launched by the Free Software Foundation (FSF)in the last eight months. It follows the highly successful Defective By Design campaign against so-called Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies, and an unnamed effort to encourage the activist media to make free software part of their agenda. Released on December 15, the campaign currently takes the form of a blog site coordinated by John Sullivan, a program administrator at the FSF. The site features a logo with its name over a quartered flag reminiscent of the Windows logo, but in black and with what appears to be a skull in one corner. So far, the contents is mostly the announcement of the site, an explanation of its purpose, and a news aggregate about the problems and limitations of Microsoft's Vista operating system.

However, according to Sullivan, these pieces of content are only the beginning. Nor, despite the name, is the campaign about Microsoft-bashing so much as protesting the DRM provisions of Vista and advocating free software as an alternative.

"The reason why we launched the site without the whole campaign already there," says Sullivan, "Is that we wanted the site to be a way to organize people and to get their ideas and voices involved. So we're going to be asking people to send us ideas and their reports on their [anti-Vista] activities."

According to Sullivan, the BadVista campaign had been discussed for several months before the launch. "We knew that the Vista release was coming, and that Microsoft would be making a big deal about it and had invested heavily in a marketing campaign. That made it seem like like a good moment to possibly get some publicity for free software. We had heard some of the things that are coming in Vista, and their pretty disconcerting, so we didn't want the moment to come and go without taking the opportunity to let people know about them."

In warning about Vista's restrictive technologies, BadVista parallels the Defective By Design campaign in some aspects. And, in fact, Sullivan says that BadVista will be "coordinating" its efforts with the other campaign. He explains that he sees BadVista as focusing on the operating side of the issue, and Defective By Design on the consumer device side.

Asked whether the campaign is more focused and combative than other FSF campaigns, Sullivan admits, "It is a little bit. But we did try to make clear that this just isn't about Microsoft. "

Early responses

Although less than a week old, BadVista has received no shortage of feedback. "It got a lot of positive feedback from people who agree with us that this is a big moment," Sullivan says. "We got a lot of requests for more information right away, and people wanting different organizations and resources."

"We also had responses in the other direction, as we always do with any campaign from people who are opposed to the idea of free software or don't understand where we are coming from" Sullivan continues. "But I think overall that it's been quite positive."

If Sullivan is correct, then the campaign is already achieving some of its educational resources. "We had a number of responses from people who were not aware of the extent of the DRM restrictions that are included in Vista. And certainly we had people who weren't familiar with free software or operating systems."

In fact, by tapping into some of the general media discontent about Vista, Sullivan believes that BadVista's launch may have won the FSF more mainstream coverage than it usually manages to get. "For example, we were at the top of the Google search results for Vista for a day because of a Google News item," he notes.

However, response within the free and open source software communities was often more mixed than Sullivan suggests. In the comments to news items on such sites as LWN.net, many posters questioned whether the FSF need to bash Microsoft when so many community members already did so on a regular basis. Others questioned whether the negativity implied by the campaign's name was a desirable tactic. Some contrasted the tactic to the FSF's usual approach to opposition -- as typified, for instance, by its reactions to Linus Torvalds' comments about the revision process for the GNU General Public License -- which has been to ignore the comments in public or to issue a restrained response several days later.

Asked about these reactions, Sullivan says, "I think those opinions will change to a large degree as new features on the site come out. Our mission statement also includes the positive effects of free software adoption, and I think people will be happy to see that. But I don't agree with people who think we shouldn't speak out about things that infringe on the freedoms that we think users should have. I think that [the campaign] is appropriate for the specific moment. I don't know what other place people can point to that is doing what we plan to do."

Future plans

Sullivan was on holiday when he agreed to talk, but, even so, he remains upbeat about plans to expand the campaign. He would like to add a hardware database to BadVista.org, a move that he considers especially appropriate since many people considering Vista have to think about upgrading their equipment anyway, and the requirements of most free operating systems are much lower than Vista's.

However, as though to prove that the goal of the campaign is not simply to attack Microsoft or its new operating system, Sullivan has no plans for any action to mark the general availability of Vista, which is supposed to occur at the end of January. Instead, Sullivan says, "We'll be doing more focus o how we can help with free software installs, and getting together people who are interested in installing free software with people who can help. That way, in January, rather than jumping on the Vista release and going through the problems of upgrading their systems, people can take the time to try free software."

Install fests are also another possibility. Sullivan does not rule out, either, civic actions similar to those used in the Defective By Design campaign, whose orange hazmat suits have become an unofficial trademark of anti-DRM campaigns in major American cities. However, for now, he declines to give any details about such events. "That's something that will happen by surprise," he says.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for the Linux Journal and NewsForge sites.

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