Come together

A shared passion for software is what drives the open-source movement

The Free and Open-Source Software Developers' European Meeting (Fosdem) in Brussels attracts about 3,000 people every year, and last month marked its eighth edition.

With all the hype surrounding free and open-source tools - the operating system Linux, the web server software Apache, the web browser Mozilla Firefox - it is easy to forget the men (and, occasionally, women) who develop them. It is their shared passion for software that works the way they want it to that keeps this movement going, bringing innovation to computing and the web at a pace that proprietary software developers can only dream of.

The basic freedoms that define free software are thus: the freedom to run a program for any purpose; the freedom to examine that program, to pick it apart and to put it back together again in a way that suits you; and the freedom to share those changes. What this means is that code is not squirrelled away for commercial profit. Instead, it is shared across geographical boundaries, among communities, open to anyone who feels they have a useful contribution to make, be they in Marseilles or Macclesfield.

But sometimes it's nice for everybody to get together and have a chinwag. Entry to Fosdem is free. Donations and sponsorship - this year from O'Reilly, Novell and Sun, among others - cover incidental costs. The venue, the Free University of Brussels, is given over to Fosdem for nothing. It is an excellent space for such a conference.

Each classroom is dedicated to a different project, making sure developers get the most out of their time. Meanwhile, the corridors buzz with stalls promoting initiatives, or showcasing recent developments in established systems, including such graphical interfaces as KDE or Gnome that make Linux attractive to non-techie users.

What struck me most about Fosdem was that, even though the delegates and decorations may have looked somewhat dishevelled, it is organised with pinpoint precision. Strict rules apply: all speakers must attend the talk that precedes theirs, no recruiting except in designated areas, no talks that are not directly about free software. A group of civil liberties campaigners, never too far from the free software crowd, circumvented this last rule by congregating in the sunshine outside.

In corners all around the conference, you could see people meeting in person for the first time. The conviviality increased on the evening of the first day, when the Foundation for a Free Information Infrastructure - the grass-roots movement that campaigned and won against patents in software some years back - hosted an evening of serious beer drinking in the centre of town. Well, free software might be why we were all there, but that didn't mean we couldn't enjoy free beer, too.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it