Career One: High Tech
My political career was rooted in my time in the Linux world
[ Continued from Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 ] My first practical political experience came through my involvement in the world of free software. I stumbled into a career in the community when I was only 18, and spent many years organising, reforming, and leading projects without ever being a software developer myself.
I started using Linux on ishmael, my high school computer science club shell server, in late 1995. On April 14th, 1998, I mostly abandoned Windows on my computer, while still in high school, in favour of running Debian, a flavour of Linux, on my desktop. I had bought the desktop a few months earlier for somewhere north of $2000 from Gerald Ho, the same tech my family had been using since getting the Osborne 17 years earlier, using up a significant portion of my summer earnings.
It was expensive because I wanted to ensure all the hardware would be Linux-compatible before that was really a thing. At first, I dual-booted between Windows and Debian, but in the summer of 1999 between high school and university, after setting up a massive and expensive new 17 GB hard drive, I inadvertently set my audio device to “/dev/hda” instead of “/dev/dsp” - if you know, you know - and reinforced the error by playing a sound file as root, wiping out my partition table and the Windows, by then Windows 98 SE, partition with a .wav file.
Using the information from an email I had sent to a friend in which I had shared the partitioning of my drive, I was able to salvage the partition table and my Debian install but not Windows, and never reinstalled it on my personal computer.
As I learned how to use Linux, I became increasingly active on IRC, which stands for ‘internet relay chat,’ an early ancestor to instant messengers and group chats. IRC is structured as a distributed but not quite decentralised system, generally using multiple servers around the world for a specific network and hosting users who congregate on “channels” or message each other privately.
I joined a network called OpenProjects.net in the summer of 1998 as “cdlu”, which stood for ‘confused Debian Linux user’, and learned that in the world of volunteer tech support, the best way to get help was to be seen to be helping others first. I spent a lot of time in a channel called “#debian” - twitter did not invent the hashtag - helping new users with problems I could, and getting help with more difficult challenges.
One day in February of 2000, a user came in using the moniker ‘roblimo’, who I immediately recognised as Robin Miller, a journalist in the tech world best known as an editor on then-leading tech news site Slashdot.org. His nickname came from the fact that he also ran a limo business in Baltimore.
The names of the major characters in the 1999 movie the Matrix – neo, trinity, cypher, etc., would have been IRC handles, if that helps explain the concept of ‘cdlu’ and ‘roblimo’.
I immediately struck up a conversation with him.
He told me of a new project he was working on called NewsForge. It sounded like an interesting project, and so I offered to volunteer. He asked me for a writing sample and I directed him to a lengthy comment I had written on a story on Slashdot a few days earlier. After reading it, he told me he was indeed looking for help – and that he would pay.
It was through that chance conversation on IRC, a direct ancestor of social media, that I started contract work as a newsfeed editor for NewsForge.com a few months later, in June of 2000, before my 19th birthday. The now-defunct website was intended as a combination original content producer and outside news aggregator in the free/libre and open source software (FLOSS) world, part of Massachusetts-based Andover.net, which owned a series of tech sites including Slashdot, ThinkGeek, and freshmeat.net, among others. Shortly after I joined, it changed its name to the Open Source Development Network, then the Open Source Technology Group, got purchased by Silicon Valley-based VA Linux, which created and became Sourceforge, then became Geeknet, and long after my departure, was bought out by GameStop. I usually describe the whole mishmash as having once worked for Souceforge, the most recognisable of the many names it had while I was there.
My first task, long before the advent of Google News or even RSS feeds, was to go to any news websites that ever talked about matters of even vague interest to the FLOSS community, read the source of their news pages, and write regular expressions to extract their news stories and automatically dump them into a submissions bin to see which ones we wanted to link to. Robin dubbed the system “NewsVac” and my title therefore became “NewsVac Editor”.
Once the site was launched, the public could also submit stories to the submission bin, which would be given precedence over the automatic submissions. The week was divided into five shifts to ensure 24-hour coverage, and I chose the weekday graveyard shift, ensuring that breaking tech stories would be posted through the night and starting a two-year period of living almost exclusively at night.
Real-world politics became less important as I focused on my unexpected career and my involvement in the wider FLOSS movement best known for the Linux operating system.
Even in this period, I spent a few days volunteering for Brenda Chamberlain, the incumbent Guelph-Wellington Liberal candidate in the 2000 federal election, where I met Marva Wisdom, who years later became centrally important to my early professional political development.
I became heavily involved in the Linux community, co-founding an IRC network called the Open and Free Technology Community at the end of 2001 to support FLOSS development as a fork of OpenProjects.net.
OpenProjects.net was the largest IRC network in the FLOSS community at the time, run by a charismatic and overbearing Texan named Rob Levin, whose Internet handle, and to the tech world his identity, was “lilo”. Like most IRC networks, it was structured around volunteer labour and donated server capacity to function. Toward the fall of 1999 I was invited to join the staff as a volunteer administrator, or in IRC parlance, an “oper”.
Some time in mid 2001, lilo - Rob Levin - lost his unrelated real-world job. He decided to start using the IRC network he managed to fundraise, sending “Global notices”, essentially an alert to every user on the platform, requesting donations to keep the service running. He then took the entire proceeds as his salary. Many of the volunteers on the staff of the project were deeply uncomfortable with this, but the domain name “openprojects.net”, and therefore the identity of, and access to, the project belonged to him, so our options were limited.
Wanting to democratise the process, six staff members got together and created a private channel - essentially a chatroom - called “#iamacow” with the password “andigomoo”. Our motivation was simple: we needed the project to not be dependent on any single person. It was important to the wider volunteer-oriented ecosystem of the FLOSS community and having someone spamming for money flew in the face of our purpose and our values.
In short, it needed to be democratised.
After months of trying, it was clear that lilo was not going to budge, and in the spring of 2002 we set up our own servers and looked for a name. Daniel Dent, only 12 years old at the time, living in the vicinity of Vancouver and going by the handle ‘ddent’, suggested “Open and Free Technology Community” and registered ‘oftc.net’ as a domain name. Possession is 9/10ths of the law, as they say, and we were off to the races.
But having ddent, or anyone else, own the domain name flew in the face of our purpose. Democratisation of the Internet is not something that is easily nor often achieved, and we wanted to do it properly, with a constitution and a legal entity to hold our most important asset: the domain name.
We looked around for options, and concluded that the best vehicle would be a New York based 501(c)3 charitable non-profit named Software in the Public Interest (SPI). SPI had been created four years earlier to manage the assets of Debian, a distribution of Linux that was and remains popular in server environments, and on top of which the very popular desktop Linux distribution Ubuntu is built. Most of us were somehow involved in Debian already, anyway, and it seemed like a good fit.
We resolved early on not to accept financial donations. We created the project on the basis that money should not be a factor, relying on donated hardware, network, and time, and our volunteer base grew rapidly even in the absence of any kind of public admission that we existed. We held our first election using a Borda-count preferential ballot around April of 2002 and I became the project’s founding chair, with the second election set for October of the same year and, initially, every 6 months thereafter. David Barclay Harris, ElectricElf to us, of nearby Fergus, Ontario and I sat down together at Fergus Burger and drafted out a constitution for the project, which we tweaked and had approved by the volunteers that had so far gathered.
We did not intend to launch the network to the public until our domain name was protected and our constitution enforceable, but the appetite for the network was growing rapidly. The irc.linux.com pointer was switched to us and on or around June 22, 2002, we accidentally launched, growing to 400 users by day’s end.
OFTC approached SPI about holding our assets on the basis that SPI should hold the domain name in trust, there to enforce our constitution but otherwise not need to be involved. On July 2nd, 2002, SPI’s volunteer board of directors adopted “Resolution 2002-07-02.iwj.5: Supporting The Open and Free Technology Community” and oftc.net was quickly handed over, to be held in trust as per the plan, where it remains today.
That summer, I bought the rooming house I had been living in in the south end of Guelph from my landlord, taking on my housemates as my tenants and convincing the local credit union that that made it viable. I was laid off from NewsForge as the first tech bubble burst on July 25th, 2002 on the very day I signed the papers to buy the house, which had the effect of changing my priorities.
Not seeing a lot of employment opportunities in tech given the bursting bubble and the heavy reliance on volunteering in the part of the community where I had the most experience, and being freshly equipped with the need to pay my first-ever mortgage payment, I looked for short term solutions and applied to the local school bus company and Guelph Transit to be a driver. The minimum age for a bus licence was 21, and I had turned 21 four days after getting laid off.
I managed to flub both interviews with some degree of prejudice. The school bus company paid $41 per day for a split shift, and at that of course only on school days. It would be hard to make a living like that, and my disappointment at learning that was not well-concealed. My interview with Guelph Transit was somewhat better, but coloured, given that it was a driving job, by locking my keys in my car that morning and being late for the interview as a result. I was not offered either position. I survived on rent income from the overcrowded rooming house I had bought and the fact that I had dropped out of university, leaving me with few real expenses.
At the end of 2002, still laid off but remaining on good terms and in touch with roblimo, I wrote two articles. The first rather long-windedly described the democratic vision on which we had built OFTC, written for Linux.com, and was a significant factor in being the only one of the five editors laid off to be recalled in January of 2003. The other was about building an on-board camera for my model trains for Slashdot.
It came as a bit of a shock when OFTC joined SPI to defend its democratic principles, and discovered a tired, nominally democratic institution wrought with dysfunction and governed by a somewhat self-contradictory and outdated set of by-laws of its own.
While elections were mandated annually for seats that came with three year terms, there was no clear structure to it, and most of the Board members had been there for a while. The FLOSS world is, by its very nature, full of deeply principled people, with an extremely high incidence of high-functioning autism.
Several of us “contributing members”, as the by-laws defined us, got to work campaigning to hold elections, and then campaigning in those elections. I ran in 2003 and lost, and then won a board seat in 2004, getting re-elected in 2007 and 2008, when I resigned to run again to improve the seat balance on the split three year cycles, and did not run again when my term was up in 2011 in order to pursue my new career in federal politics.
While I served nearly eight years on the board, my key contribution to the project was to provide a structure for elections to take place starting in the summer of 2005. It provided for annual elections for terms lasting three years, and a clear timeline for when and how nominations could be received and votes cast and who could vote, within the confines of the by-laws. It used a multi-winner Condorcet voting system for the ballots, ensuring fair results. It served as the structure for the elections of the organisation until it was finally replaced with Scottish-STV voting and modernised in 2017.
In September of 2006, Rob Levin - lilo - was killed by a car while riding his bicycle. The sudden and unexpected change in leadership allowed for a period of détente between openprojects.net, by then renamed freenode to court the Free Software Foundation, and OFTC. We exchanged advisors and looked for ways for the two projects with shared objectives but different values to work together, but were never able to bridge the philosophical gaps, or overcome lilo’s ghost, leaving the two to continue on their divergent paths.
I was laid off by Sourceforge a few days before Christmas, 2008, along with my entire team, including roblimo, when linux.com was sold to the Linux Foundation during that year’s economic crisis. Being in Canada, I was a contractor not an employee, and found myself jobless without severance or EI going into the holidays. But my nearly nine years with the team had given me vast experience I would lean on later in technology, leadership, reform, and even electoral systems.