When we speak of Free Software (FS), we are speaking about the freedom it gives users, as all supporters of the FS movement understand (or, at least, are expected to know). And freedom of software cannot exist in isolation. It depends on other freedoms, such as freedom of speech. People in the Free Software movement have been speaking against proprietary software and other things related to software such as software patents. Free Software enthusiasts have also been speaking against the policies of certain companies that go against the freedoms that FS offers. Thus freedom of speech, freedom to organise, freedom to protest, and so on are basic freedoms of a democracy that FS needs for its growth.
I am writing all this because a recent incident at a conference on Free Software (at CUSAT during November 15-16, 2008) was the venue of an unfortunate incident where the freedom to protest was denied to FS activists. Though I was present at the venue, I was not witness to much of what happened, and, therefore, have to depend on what others told me or wrote in their blogs and in mailing lists. Apparently, this is what happened: The banner on the dais of the main venue, an open air auditorium, had the name of Novell prominently displayed on it, indicating that Novell was the main sponsor of the event. Novell also had a stall in the exhibition that was organised as part of the conference. Now, FS activists are generally aware about the agreement Novell signed with Microsoft so that the latter will not sue the former for alleged violation of their software patents (a very dubious claim since no violation of patents has been demonstrated so far). The FS community is naturally angry with Novell for this surrender to Microsoft. Some of the young FS activists at the conference noticed the prominent display of Novell's name and the virtual absence of other distributions and decided that this would convey the wrong impression to visitors to the conference who may not be aware of the issue with Novell (see the boycott Novell webpage). So they printed out some small posters (A4 size) and pasted them near Novell's stall in the exhibition. So far so good.
Apparently, they pasted one poster on Novell's display at the exhibition. Some Novell personnel at their stall apparently objected to this and said that they would not pay their sponsorship money. This, naturally, upset the organisers and one of them asked the person (Anivar Aravind) who pasted the poster to remove it. Anivar apparently refused and told the organiser that they could remove it. It is also alleged that Anivar threatened that "ten new posters would appear for every poster removed". The protesters moved to the stalls of ILUG (Indian Linux Users Group), Kochi, and Swathanthra Malayalam Computing group, where the posters were displayed with permission of the owners of the stalls. The organisers apparently objected to this also and forcibly ejected Anivar from the venue of the exhibition. They also demanded that a video and photographs taken by a student who was present there be removed from his mobile phone. The student surrendered the phone and requested the organiser himself to delete whatever he wanted to delete. The organiser also took down the name and details of the student who had apparently taken the video. (It is learnt that the videos and photographs that were apparently deleted have been easily recovered from the mobile phone's storage device.) But things did not end there.
Apparently, Arun (Secretary of the Free Software Foundation of India), Vimal Joseph (who works for SPACE, an NGO) and Amarnath Raja (Kerala Chair of IEEE and CEO of Inapp Technologies), an elderly and soft-spoken gentleman, went to sort out the problem. They decided to sit in a convenient rook and talk. Apparently, the organisers who were present there did not want to listen to what these people had to say since they were already in a very agitated mood. Finding that the organisers were not willing to listen to what they had to say, Arun, Raja and Vimal decided to leave. But some of the organisers present there refused to allow them out of the room without settling the dispute. However, better sense prevailed and nothing untoward happened.
Later, the FS activists, including myself, met in front of the main venue (for no other reason than that it was a convenient place) and decided to do a silent protest holding anti-Novell posters. After some time, we saw a van load of policemen arrive, and some of them even came to where we were sitting. Perhaps, this is just a normal security measure since the Chief Minister was expected there, but no one could be faulted if they thought that the police was brought to frighten the protesters. Of course, the police did not interfere or behave in any manner that we would have considered indecent. Some time later, one of the organisers approached Arun and told him that the Registrar of the University was there and we could speak to him if we so desired. Arun accepted the invitation and I was one of the persons who went with him to speak to the Registrar. The person who spoke turned out to be one of the Syndicate members who was also the Convener of the conference. He apparently saw this simply as a law and order problem and said, "We will decide what things can happen in this campus. We will not allow any protests here especially when the Hon'ble Chief Minister is coming" or words to that effect. He also heard our version of what happened and said that the complaint will be looked into. He was quick to point out that he cannot believe that a faculty member of CUSAT would "behave like that". The approach of this person was full of arrogance and all of us were clear that he was simply incapable of understanding the situation and the nuances of the issue. It was apparent where the enquiry would reach. But all of us agreed to stop the protest and disperse. I had to leave immediately, anyway, since I had a programme at Palakkad the next morning.
What seems to have happened is that the organisers had very little idea about Free Software and its culture. As one of the boys there was saying, "We have demonstrated against Microsoft at a conference sponsored by them, and we did not have to face any such problems." Looking at the whole incident, it is clear that a bit of humility or a bit of restraint could have avoided the whole episode. And, maybe, a bit of information. The organisers probably did not know how the FS community sees Novell; otherwise they would have avoided their sponsorship. Having accepted their money, the organisers could have allowed a peaceful protest against Novell. Anivar could have refrained from pasting a poster on the display board of Novell, though I wouldn't consider it a big crime, especially since he is young. It is the older, more mature, people who should have showed restraint and diplomacy in tackling the issue. They should have remembered that Anivar, Arun, Vimal and Raja are people had been invited to the conference, and most of them were organising sessions and/or speaking in the sessions. It is unfortunate that the organisers showed scant respect to the people they had invited. Interestingly, Anivar is apparently a former student of CUSAT and had played a role in bringing Richard Stallman to the University.
The Convener of the conference behaved as though he was "the monarch of all he surveys". His demeanor itself belied his arrogance and the value he had for the Free Software movement. Personally, I felt that I had intruded into a place where I was obviously not welcome. Of course, I would still go there if invited to speak on FS. But I would think several times before going for an FS conference organised by CUSAT, at least for some time to come. It is unfortunate that a conference on software freedom ended with the denial of freedom of speech.