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Innovation

Parrots and filters with Richard Stallman

Software developer and political activist Richard Stallman is best known for his creation during the early 1980s of the GNU Project, which combined with Linus Torvalds' kernel programming efforts in the early 1990s to form what we today refer to as the GNU/Linux operating system.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor on

Q&A Software developer and political activist Richard Stallman is best known for his creation during the early 1980s of the GNU Project, which combined with Linus Torvalds' kernel programming efforts in the early 1990s to form what we today refer to as the GNU/Linux operating system.

Stallman

Richard Stallman
(Image by Victor Powell, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Stallman also founded the associated Free Software Foundation in the mid-1980s and is the original author of a bunch of popular software projects, such as the Emacs text editor (although it does far more than that) and the GNU Compiler Collection.

In October Stallman will visit Australia to speak, among other events, at the University of New South Wales' Clancy Auditorium in an event being supported by National ICT Australia. We got in touch with Stallman ahead of time for a chat about the government's internet filter project, free software and why he likes to visit Australia for its parrots.

Going back to 2005, there was a strong debate going on in Australia about the potential for individuals and organisations to use the GNU/Linux operating system as a desktop replacement for Microsoft's Windows platform. Since that time, in Australia, the debate has gradually died down, although the maturity of the GNU/Linux desktop and its degree of user friendliness has only increased.

Does this trend disappoint you, and how could the free software community best seek to reverse it?

I have no independent knowledge about this. If you are right, I hope my speaking tour will direct attention back to the question. Freedom for software users is no less important today than it was five years ago.

The definition of free software is that it respects users' freedom. It's free as in freedom, price is not the issue. Specifically, it means that you as a user are free to run the program as you wish, study the source code and change it so that the program does what you wish, and to redistribute copies with or without changes. With these freedoms, the users control the software and control their computing.

Without these freedoms, the software controls the users. Don't let that happen to you!

I launched the development of the GNU operating system in 1984 specifically to make it possible to use a computer without letting the software control you. In 1992, the kernel Linux was freed and filled the last gap in GNU. The GNU/Linux system makes it possible to use a computer and have freedom, but in order to realise this benefit, you need to take care to avoid installing non-free programs.

Should the free software community even seek to reverse this trend, or should it instead focus on other angles of attack, such as on the burgeoning smartphone platform, for example?

Smartphones are computers on which users install software. Just as on a PC or server, the user of a smartphone deserves free software. Winning this freedom is our goal, and it applies to all kinds of computers.

The importance of this was reinforced by a report which investigated many gratis apps for the iGroan and Android, and found that one third of them had spyware. The article characterised these apps as "free", but I presume it meant "gratis". If the programs were free software, users would be able to find and remove the spying and other malicious features.

Android's source code is free software, but in many phones the binaries of Android are not free, because the phones are set up to refuse to run modified versions if the user installs them. This practice is called "tivoisation", named after the product that pioneered it). If the software in Android were under version 3 of the GNU General Public Licence (GNU GPL), users would be guaranteed the freedom to install their own modified versions.

Even when Android is not tivoised, it needs non-free drivers or firmware to run. As far as I know, no smartphone is made that can be run without proprietary software. None respects its users' freedom. The shortest path to making it possible to run a smartphone without non-free software is to reverse engineer those non-free drivers or firmware and write free replacements.

I note that you recently posted on your site that you had no love for former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, "who wanted to impose filtering on the internet". What is your opinion of the internet filtering project, which is still going ahead?

Censorship is an attack on human rights. Australia already practices internet censorship: it prohibits links to forbidden sites. Rudd was proposing to make this even worse by blocking access to those sites. If that plan is rejected, the existing censorship still stands between Australians and liberty.

The government also plans surveillance of Australians' internet use, and is keeping the details secret to "avoid premature debate". Has Australia taken China as its model? Australians should stop being distracted by the minor issue of refugees that come from Asia, and start focusing on the real threat: tyrannical government policies that come from Asia.

Australians' freedom of association has been damaged by laws supposedly directed against "terrorism". Governments must not have the power to arbitrarily label a group as "terrorist" and then punish people for having a relationship with the group. This power endangers anyone that supports a cause the government might like to ban.

If the state suspects some group of terrorism, it should have to prove that in court before it can take any action against the group and its members. If people are to have legal rights, there must be no punishment without trial.

Have you been to Australia before?

Three times, I think, and I've been to most of the major cities. The cities I will see for the first time on this trip are Perth, Hobart and Mt Gambier.

What do you most like about Australia, and what activities are you planning to undertake while you are here?

What I specifically like about Australia is the presence of parrots. I love to see wild parrots, but I really delight in meeting domesticated friendly ones that enjoy my company and attention.

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