SHA2017 is on today (it started over the weekend and ends tomorrow) and it is a hacker conference and camp.

Most of the conference videos are up on Youtube and they are very informative and fun. There are a lot of good talks. I’ve picked a few to showcase here but you should check out the whole playlist of SHA2017 videos.

Decentralize! Self-hosting in your own home using Sovereign

In the Decentralize! talk, the software Sovereign is explored and shown to be a good way to set up your own personal cloud and host your own services and data. Sovereign is a set of playbooks that can be run to install the software on a server that you run. It’s similar to the Freedom Box project.

The software you can self-host with Sovereign is:

  • Dovecot, Postfix and Roundcube for email servers and a webmail interface
  • Jabber/XMPP messaging server with Prosody
  • RSS reader
  • VPN server with OpenVPN (FreedomBox also can do this)
  • Git code repository hosting

Building Businesses that we can buy into and believe in

In this talk, Liz Steininger explains how technology is not neutral and how, if we want to build a business that we can buy into and believe in, we have to keep this in mind and build technology that furthers our ideals. She mentions a talk given by an EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) member who elucidates the digital colonization that happens where social networks are dominated by American-centric viewpoints that are pushed to other countries.

What I love about this talk is that she comes right out and says that we should build tools and play the same game as the big tech companies; for example why should Facebook be so influential and act as a gatekeeper for news and social networks? Why aren’t we building, using and promoting the alternative social & news networks that will promote our ideals such as Mastodon Social?

What’s more is that she applies this idea to the business models. When a new startup is formed, it should think critically about the ideals that support and what is incentivized by the business model. Most startups are in the business of gathering mass amounts of users and user data that they can sell to advertisers. Can this be avoided, minimized or should we let our ideals fall by the wayside in the maximum pursuit of profit?

Steininger asks these questions about finding a business model that founders should ask themselves:

  • what are you trying to incentivize?
  • what should people pay for? or what is acceptable to pay for?
  • who should be paying?
  • what should be free? what is your cost of free?
  • who should not be paying?
  • what value do you bring?
  • what are your risks for corruption? how can your incentives stray?

Social Enterprises as a Tool for Activism

Dr. Melanie Rieback presents the ways in which social enterprises can be more structured and what dangers lie in store for them along the way. One of the dangers she highlights are social organizations that are dependent, that rely too heavily on government subsidies or on donations. She suggests that subsidies and grants can disappear and they’re an unreliable source of funding to build sustainable social organizations (such as nonprofits, charities, NGOs, foundations).

Another issue she points is how to talk to companies to make them change their behaviour. During the presentation, she points out that companies are not very responsive to lobbying and protesting.

Rieback states:

[the only way] for these big companies to listen is if you hurt them financially

and how do you hurt them financially?

build something better.

and asks whether business, if repurposed, can be part of the solution. Corporations have a lot of freedom, at least in the United States, to be set up in all sorts of ways and to pursue their goals.

Corporations as vehicles for ideals

Rieback asks, why can’t activists (or hackers or open source enthusiasts or free software advocates) set up a corporation to match and align with their ideals?

I want to point out that this is exactly what Loomio and Igalia have done; they are both co-operatives, Loomio produces software that is open source and Igalia is a consultancy and they both incorporate democratic principles in their organizational structure and processes. So it is possible! Difficult but possible, and my opinion is that most new startups are just unaware that it is possible to set up a democratic corporation, and that most activists are too allergic to the term “corporation” to give it a try.

The limitations of charities, nonprofits and NGOs

An important point that Rieback brings up is that charities, nonprofits and NGOs are restricted in the amount of commercial activities that they can engage in. This is something that the Krita Foundation ran into as a problem. The Krita Foundation sells training videos and books but the government tax inspector stated that this was outside of the range of activities allowed for the foundation. This is precisely the danger that Rieback points out. Corporations on the other hand can pursue new products, services and lines of business with very little restriction.

Case Studies: Elon Musk, Buurtzorg, ROS (Radically Open Security)

Elon Musk is used as a case study by Rieback, which is really awesome. Elon Musk has done a lot for ecological sustainability through the work done in Tesla and SolarCity. Electric cars and solar power are two sustainable alternatives that would not have gotten off the ground if they were attempted in the form of charities, NGOs, or foundations. Rieback points out that with the success of Tesla and SolarCity, the dependence on oil that the world has could be drastically reduced or even eliminated. This would completely change the political climate.

The other case study is Buurtzorg, a home healthcare organization. Rieback contrasts Buurtzorg with the typical bureaucratic pyramid structure of healthcare, and the way that nurses are treated like machines and patients are treated like numbers. Buurtzorg decentralizes healthcare with localized circles that operate on similar or the same principles which eliminated overhead and allowed nurses to treat patients like people.

Rieback also explores how her own nonprofit computer security company, Radically Open Security, works and their principles. They’ve been successful and release their tools as open source. One very cool piece of success is that they were mentioned in CIO Magazine as the Most Innovative IT Leader for 2017; this kind of success shows that it is possible to run a company that is based on principles of openness and open source.

Common Objections to forming your own open source company

People listening to the presentation may have these common objections:

  • but we need to pay our bills!
  • hard to get funding
  • not scalable
  • won’t our competitors steal our IP?
  • customers won’t accept it

These are basically all excuses as to why a business needs to stick to a traditional business model. Rieback addresses each objection very well, and my own way to address it would be to point to MySQL which not only scaled and paid their bills and had many customers, they also were able to get funding. What’s cool about ROS (Radically Open Security) is that they’re able to pay their employees the market rate and charge their customers the market rate, and they’re also able to donate 90% of their profits to other charities and foundations. So again, it is possible to run an open source company that makes money, pays well, and then ultimately encourages more open source to be developed and aligns with the founders’ ideals. One of ROS’s goals is to use their profits to create a fund to fund community projects. This is something most corporations do not do but ROS is able to do it because they’re set up in a way to promote their ideals.

Check out the other SHA2017 Videos!

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT OTHER SHA2017 CONFERENCE VIDEOS

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