When community service providers fail

I'm starting a new blog, and instead of going into the technical details on how it's made, or on how I migrated my content from the previous ones, I want to focus on why I did it.

It's been a while since I have written a blog post. I wanted to get back into it, but also wanted to finally self-host my blog/homepage because I have been let down before. And sadly, I was not let down by a for-profit, privacy invading corporation, but by a free software organization.

The sad story of wiki.softwarelivre.org

My first blog that was hosted in a blog engine written by me, which was hosted in a TWiki, and later Foswiki instance previously available at wiki.softwarelivre.org, hosted by ASL.org.

I was the one who introduced the tool to the organization in the first place. I had come from a previous, very fruitful experience on the use of wikis for creation of educational material while in university, which ultimately led me to become a core TWiki, and then Foswiki developer.

In 2004, I had just moved to Porto Alegre, got involved in ASL.org, and there was a demand for a tool like that. 2 years later, I left Porto Alegre, and some time after that the daily operations of ASL.org when it became clear that it was not really prepared for remote participation. I was still maintaing the wiki software and the OS for quite some years after, until I wasn't anymore.

In 2016, the server that hosted it went haywire, and there were no backups. A lot of people and free software groups lost their content forever. My blog was the least important content in there. To mention just a few examples, here are some groups that lost their content in there:

  • The Brazilian Foswiki user group hosted a bunch of getting started documentation in Portuguese, organized meetings, and coordinated through there.
  • GNOME Brazil hosted its homepage there until the moment the server broke.
  • The Inkscape Brazil user group had an amazing space there where they shared tutorials, a gallery of user-contributed drawings, and a lot more.

Some of this can still be reached via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, but that is only useful for recovering content, not for it to be used by the public.

The announced tragedy of softwarelivre.org

My next blog after that was hosted at softwarelivre.org, a Noosfero instance also hosted by ASL.org. When it was introduced in 2010, this Noosfero instance became responsible for the main domain softwarelivre.org name. This was a bold move by ASL.org, and was a demonstration of trust in a local free software project, led by a local free software cooperative (Colivre).

I was a lead developer in the Noosfero project for a long time, and I was also involved in maintaining that server as well.

However, for several years there is little to no investment in maintaining that service. I already expect that it will probably blow up at some point as the wiki did, or that it may be just shut down on purpose.

On the responsibility of organizations

Today, a large part of wast mot people consider "the internet" is controlled by a handful of corporations. Most popular services on the internet might look like they are gratis (free as in beer), but running those services is definitely not without costs. So when you use services provided by for-profit companies and are not paying for them with money, you are paying with your privacy and attention.

Society needs independent organizations to provide alternatives.

The market can solve a part of the problem by providing ethical services and charging for them. This is legitimate, and as long as there is transparency about how peoples' data and communications are handled, there is nothing wrong with it.

But that only solves part of the problem, as there will always be people who can't afford to pay, and people and communities who can afford to pay, but would rather rely on a nonprofit. That's where community-based services, provided by nonprofits, are also important. We should have more of them, not less.

So it makes me worry to realize ASL.org left the community in the dark. Losing the wiki wasn't even the first event of its kind, as the listas.softwarelivre.org mailing list server, with years and years of community communications archived in it, broke with no backups in 2012.

I do not intend to blame the ASL.org leadership personally, they are all well meaning and good people. But as an organization, it failed to recognize the importance of this role of service provider. I can even include myself in it: I was member of the ASL.org board some 15 years ago; I was involved in the deployment of both the wiki and Noosfero, the former as a volunteer and the later professionally. Yet, I did nothing to plan the maintenance of the infrastructure going forward.

When well meaning organizations fail, people who are not willing to have their data and communications be exploited for profit are left to their own devices. I can afford a virtual private server, and have the technical knowledge to import my old content into a static website generator, so I did it. But what about all the people who can't, or don't?

Of course, these organizations have to solve the challenge of being sustainable, and being able to pay professionals to maintain the services that the community relies on. We should be thankful to these organizations, and their leadership needs to recognize the importance of those services, and actively plan for them to be kept alive.