Episode 2: Pirate Praveen

Pirate Praveen is one of the oldest members of the Indian free software community. He is a Debian developer, a grassroots activist, a free software advocate and a pirate.

In this episode, we talk to Pirate Praveen about the roots of his free software activism and why he believes so strongly in these principles.


Hi Praveen!

We know each other for a very long time since the FSUG in Bangalore, but I guess we have been out of touch. So this recording which we are doing today is trying to understand what motivates people to do what they are doing, and how software freeware is a part of that life, and how they keep going with whatever principles and values they believe in. … To start with, how would you define your work? What is it — what is your work about?

So I work on like creating packages for Debian that is like to make installation of a software easy. If you want to like compare probably, most people are familiar with using Android or iPhone. For Android, they have the Google Play Store. For iPhone, they have the Apple Store where in you just search for your application, and then just say click install, and then it becomes installed. So in the same way for free software distribution Debian, I take the software available in the source code format and I make the Debian packages and put it in the Debian repositories. So for users, they can just search for the software, and click ‘Install’ and it gets installed. So I make an installation and management of software easy for users.

Why do you do this? What is the motivation behind doing what you do?

So I always like the, you know, doing things together like collaboration and community. And so free software is the natural thing and actually like the only thing, like in proprietary software, you have no choice. You can just use whatever they give. You cannot build something on top of that or you can make — you cannot make any changes. So, basically, it’s about the community spirit, building something together for yourself and for your community.

So give us some background of your activist like what sort of movements are you involved with? And what is it that is common to all of those movements that you relate to which is why you work in this?

Yeah. So, initially, like I was more or less, you can say, I was shy and not much into, you know, different issues or like activism or anything. But in college, like I was doing engineering, I was introduced to free software in the lab, we had the free software. So I started using them, and then, you know, in that time itself, I somehow liked it and then with my classmates itself, we used
to have debates. So that time I had to defend why free software is better, but in those days, free software did not have so much features or even, you know, it was like the first one we had was just the terminal, the monochrome display wherein you log in to a remote machine and just use it. That time I didn’t even know that there is a graphical interface and, you know, even then I used to support this thing, but later when I saw okay, there is graphics also, I was so happy.

But then it continued, and in those interactions with free software community, like some of them were also involved in other social issues like, especially, Honeywell Aravind. So he used to share about other issues, other activists, other struggles. And then slowly, I started also interested in these
issues. And then while I was in Pune, I got in touch with an activist group called Lokayat. So they also used to be involved in many of these social issues. So I also used to go to their meetings and their campaigns and all. And nowadays I am mostly active with Indian Pirates. It’s we are trying to use, trying to take the values that we learn from the free software community, especially, transparency, and collaboration over the Internet using tools of the Internet and use that for creating a political platform to propagate the values like social justice, human rights, all those issues, but the difference is the structure, even though many of the organization, they share the goal or the
values with us, the main difference is our structure. We are transparent, and we are more like a direct democratic thing. All the members are on the equal level, because all these things were like enabled by technology, but free software, it showed us, okay, this can be done in more areas.

So the values of like direct collaboration and open communication, this encouraged us to take those values, like we saw okay, Debian out in the free software community. We understand you can collaborate over the Internet and do things together without somebody having the leader, you know, they tell you what to do, just blindly following someone. You could all discuss and decide what is best and then do that. So all of these, but I did not see that in other organizations or other fields of societies. I wanted to take these values and apply them to the other areas of society. So Indian Pirates is one of the like one of like my — yeah, mostly active. And also in free software, I mostly focus on adding more web-based software to Debian like Diaspora and GitLab.

So are you able to make a living out of these activities? Does focusing on a variety of these things enable you to earn a living or do you have to — is there a conflict in earning a living and being an activist and a developer?

So initial days I did some of the crowdfunding campaigns wherein I would promise I will work for one or two full months on this particular project. Basically, most of it was packaging Diaspora, GitLab. And then GitLab itself there is a company that develops GitLab. So they started sponsoring my work, and even now they sponsor my packaging work. So it’s like it’s a flexible work. I just, for example, I will ask them okay, I am going to work for next one month as in like this many hours, but that hours I could work it in like one actual month, two months, three months whatever, whenever I feel like. So that supports my living, and other times I — so it’s like if I have some event or some activity, I go
there. When I don’t have any events, I start working on packaging and I get paid for that.

That’s very interesting. I mean, that’s a very interesting approach. It minimizes the compromises that you have to make, right? So do you find any challenges in sharing these value systems with people around you, your friends and family, because everyone might not believe in the same things?


So how do you handle that?

Friends and family, I think they don’t have much problem as such. They keep trying to bring me to the mainstream line of work, you know, work in a company, that kind of thing, but to some level, it’s fine. They just say, but when they realize I am not going to change, they just leave it at that.

But when I talk to people, new people, I think one of the biggest challenge I see is the most people are, you know, they are not willing to take even small discomfort or go beyond their convenience. If you look at the early days of free software, when we started to get it install on your thing itself was not very easy. The technical challenges were so much, but now technically, it’s not very challenging because like Diaspora or something you have to just visit a website, say sign up, just give your username and then start posting or for Matrix, you just select one app from Play Store. Anyone could do it. But that even those small like an inconvenience may be compared with WhatsApp or Facebook. People
are not willing to go through. Even those people who are convinced by free software, those who already use free software in their desktop, or they understand the philosophy, even among the communities they don’t do, but that to some extent okay, you want to interact with your friends or other society. You
might have to use those mediums, but among ourselves, if you are not even trying to do that, that makes me very sad. Okay. I can understand someone in your family, your — someone outside okay, you might have to post something on Facebook, but with your own group, internal discussion group, you’re still using WhatsApp or Telegram, it’s like okay. That makes me very sad.

We’ve had very vibrant communities in the past. We had a vibrant user group in Bangalore. There were so many small user, I mean, small in the sense there were so many user groups in Kerala also. But maybe these groups have all died out. Why do you think that’s happened over the years?

I think, in those days, I think getting support for installation, for troubleshooting, these groups served that purpose, but now that purpose is solved as in like you can get these things online. So I think maybe we have to re-engage or find a different set of goals or different purpose for this user groups and meetings. These are important for community building and so we need to reinvent ourselves probably, reorganize or–

You also work with many students.


You know, something about your work with students, what do you do with them?

Yeah. So, mostly, I try to mentor them into contributing to free software. So we try like if it’s a new institute, we try start with a Linux installation phase wherein we tell them how to install, help them.

Who is we?

The community. In Kerala, still there are some people who are active.

Would you like to mention some of the names?

Yeah. Nowadays like Kannan, Ambadi, Mujeeb, Ranjith, Manoj, Suraj, lot of people are there. So we still organize a lot of activities, but the local groups are still not very active. It’s like 5, 10 people across Kerala, but still we go to some places. We try to organize something. So local events are not much happening in the sense like — but I think in Trivandrum, they are very active. They do lot of stuff in Trivandrum.

What is your outlook about free software usage on the community at large in India? Where do you see things going? What do you think are the important issues that people should care about?

I think, these days I think two areas I think are important. One of them is the hardware that works with complete free software, especially, the wireless drivers and now these days even the BIOS level we have to care, I mean, be careful, because of the Intel ME and stuff like that. So even much, much deeper level we want free software. So that is one challenge because we can’t get it easily such devices that runs 100% free software. For example, laptops, like you could get the Purism Librem, but it’s very expensive right now, and then you have to import it from outside. So it’s a bit challenging. So to have these devices that work with 100% free software available locally that is one big
challenge. And the good news, I think, I was talking to the CEO of Purism, Todd Weaver. So he is also in talks with some of the governments other local groups wherein they can have a manufacturing or at least assembling in Kerala or India, and then they could ship it. And if they get some — and other thing is the bulk manufacturing problem. If they are manufacturing it in like 500 or 1,000, that
numbers, the price is going to be very high. So if they get big orders, like 10,000, 50,000 laptop, then they could get the price to very, very [indiscernible 00:13:45] level compared with other big companies like HP or Dell. And what I heard, I think some of the deals is happening, so probably we
would see the prices coming lower, and the access. So that will be a good thing. The other thing is the Internet communications, or probably social media, or the communication technologies wherein we should be liberating ourselves from the corporate control the platforms who just want to extract the maximum personal data from you and monetize it, control you do all kind of thing. So we have been trying to promote self-hosted solutions like Diaspora and the Matrix and yeah, slightly people are adopting it, but it’s very, very slow.

So, finally, what advice would you have for people? How can they start caring a lot more about these things because they might not have faced the same problem or same challenges which you have? They might not be so sensitive or they might not have had the wide experience that your [line 00:14:53] might have. So for a very young person or a person who’s not initiated in this line, what advice would you have so they can start caring about these issues, like you just mentioned two very important issues? How–

Yeah. Probably, I think we could. We will have to be more creative about explaining the importance of freedom and privacy, all these things. One of the important tools we could use maybe about history, in the whole human history, how human race faced different challenges, especially like maybe different experiences of the case of even Hitler wherein he used surveillance and other technologies to profile people and use those information against them or even our own like Indian, the emergency wherein all the civil liberties were taken out. The challenge is to tell them about the history, and I think that is also another challenge with our education system. History is just like some years or some wars, some kings. People don’t really understand the importance of history. I think, history is a very important tool for us to tell someone to convince someone that in like human race, we have faced even bigger problems, or problems may be at the same level, or those things we have solved. So those, many of them are like very given up as in like you can’t change anything, like that is the biggest challenge. But I think history will help in overcoming that, not only like the old thing or even other thing, probably, even at the same time, the controls and situation happening in China or Saudi Arabia where the government controls everything on the Internet, we could take the news and situations from there and use that as a way to show them what happens when we lose our freedoms.

Thanks a lot. Would you like to share your contact information so that people could know more about your work or get in touch with you?

Yeah. Sure. They can send me an e-mail at praveen@debian.org or they could contact me on poddery.diaspora. My ID is praveen@poddery.com. And that is also the same address they can reach me via Matrix. So @praveen:poddery.com.

And lastly, have you really changed your name to Pirate Praveen?

No, not officially, but in all online presence, I use that name.

Very interesting. So people ask you questions about that.

Yeah. So that is also another way is because this is something strange. What name is this? So they will ask like what is pirate? Then I get to talk to them about the pirate movement about free software freedom and everything.

Great. Thanks a lot for your time.

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