Stallman: Free software battling for hearts and minds

Interview: Richard Stallman on the ethics of free software and fighting the mega-corporations...
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

Interview: Richard Stallman on the ethics of free software and fighting the mega-corporations...

Richard Stallman founded the free software movement nearly 30 years ago

Richard Stallman founded the free software movement nearly 30 years ago and is still campaigning for it todayPhoto: redjar

Imagine a world where you can tailor software to do whatever you want and pass that code on to other people who can change it again for their own use without any restrictions.

This is the world of free software that former MIT developer Richard Stallman and his supporters have been campaigning for since the 1980s.

Stallman founded the GNU project in 1984, which effectively launched the free software movement. As well as wanting to create a new Unix-like operating system, Stallman sought to promote freedom and ethical practices in the world of software development.

The addition of the Linus Torvalds' Linux kernel to the GNU project in 1992 formed the GNU/Linux operating system, which is now used by millions of computer users all over the world.

The GNU project was followed by the establishment of the Free Software Foundation in 1985, set up to promote freedom for computer users and defend the rights of those who use free software.

Stallman also pioneered the concept of copyleft, a licensing model in which programs can be freely used, modified and extended by others. The widely used GNU General Public Licence, published by the Free Software Foundation, is an example of a copyleft licence.

Nearly 30 years after founding the free software movement, Stallman is still campaigning for greater adoption of free software and against software patents and what he views as excessive copyright laws that restrict users.

Speaking to silicon.com, Stallman outlined the importance and progress of the free software movement but also the major obstacles that remain.

Free software vs open source: a difference in philosophy

One of the fundamental problems faced by the free software movement is that many people don't appreciate how it differs from open-source software, according to Stallman.

"The difference is tremendous and deep because it's at the level of values. Free software is software that respects your freedom and the social solidarity of your community. So it's free as in freedom. Price is just a side issue which we're not talking about. So think of free speech not free beer to understand what we're talking about," he explained.

The four freedoms that define free software are: to run the program as you wish, to study and change source code so it meets your needs, to redistribute exact copies to others and to distribute modified versions as you wish.

If a program fails to meet any of these criteria, it is "non-free proprietary user-subjugating software" because the restrictions imposed mean it controls the user rather than the other way around. The program is therefore an...

...instrument that creates "a system of unjust power" in which the program owner controls the user, according to Stallman.

"So this is a matter of whether we get to live in freedom or not. Proprietary software is an injustice. If you want to live in freedom, you need to escape from it and that's what this is all about. The purpose here is the liberation of cyberspace," Stallman told silicon.com.

It's these ethical values that separate free software from open source. When the open-source movement coalesced in 1998, its proponents wanted to drop the ethical issue completely from the agenda, according to Stallman. In fact, coining the term 'open source' was an expression of that desire.

"[Open-source supporters] present this not as an issue of ethical versus unethical ways to distribute software, or freedom versus unjust power, but instead as a development methodology with which they say you can typically develop more powerful, reliable software. So they have discarded the ethical value of the free software movement and adopted purely practical convenience values," Stallman said.

Many open-source software licences qualify as free software but there is a significant proportion of licences that are too restrictive in terms of reuse or how much code can be modified to truly count as free software.

In addition, Stallman pointed out that open source often only considers the source licence. That limitation means executable code often can't be replaced by the user, making it proprietary. Stallman said many smartphones running Android fall into this category.

How far has the free software movement come?

When Stallman set up the GNU project, the only way to make current computers useful was to use proprietary operating systems. This situation has now changed significantly.

"Now there are free operating systems and there are free graphical interfaces and there are free office suites and free web browsers and free thousands of other things. So we have come a long way and there are lots of things you can do with a computer while maintaining your freedom. It's a difference like night and day," Stallman said.

Stallman added that the uptake of GNU/Linux is going "pretty well" with tens of millions of computers estimated to be running it around the world. However, he stressed that...

...the adoption of GNU/Linux is merely a secondary concern and a "means to an end" for freedom.

"When I launched the development of the GNU system, I explicitly said the purpose of developing this system is so we can use our computers and have freedom, thus if you use some other free system instead but you have freedom, then it's a success. It's not popularity for our code but it's success for our goal.

"As you can see, most users of computing still don't have freedom. So although we've achieved a tremendous amount, we have a long way to go until we have liberated all of cyberspace."

Free software in education and business

Despite the progress that has been made by the free software movement, Stallman says practical and philosophical obstacles remain.

Richard Stallman believes schools should not teach using proprietary software

Richard Stallman believes teaching with proprietary software should never be tolerated in schoolsPhoto: Shutterstock

Looking at practical challenges, Stallman said schools teaching with proprietary software is a major problem because it goes against the social mission of schools to "educate good citizens of a strong, capable, independent, co-operating and free society".

"Just as schools shouldn't hand out tobacco with lunch, they shouldn't teach proprietary software because that's teaching dependence and that's contrary to the social mission of the school," he said.

Stallman added that proprietary software is "knowledge withheld from the students" and should never be tolerated in schools.

"Also, because schools must teach the spirit of goodwill, the habit of helping others around you, every class should have this rule: students, if you bring software to class you may not keep it for yourself. You must share copies with the rest of the class, including the source code in case somebody wants to learn - because the class is a place where we share our knowledge."

The use of free software in schools will also help people who have the potential to be good programmers develop their skills due to the freedom it gives them to modify and distribute it.

Several states in India have moved schools to use free software, while Ecuador is another country cited by Stallman as leading this kind of change.

In the business world, most companies use proprietary software in some shape or form but Stallman aims to change this status quo by campaigning for people to make small gestures – such as refusing to open Word documents - that demonstrate the problems with proprietary software.

He said the best thing to do when you receive a Word file is...

...reply to the sender explaining that you're not going to read the file and it should be re-sent in "a format that isn't bad for society".

"Through the practice of sending Word files, Microsoft turns the network effect to its advantage. If someone is sending Word files, that somebody is saying to everybody else 'be a Microsoft user'. Well, that's a bad thing to say. Those people should stop doing that. Every time someone sends me a Word file, that's an opportunity to influence that person, so I do my best and it's been years since I even tried to look at a Word file," he added.

Barriers to free software adoption

Another obstacle is that many devices don't work without proprietary software or, even if they can run something like GNU/Linux, require proprietary drivers.

Stallman said pressure needs to be exerted on technology companies to publish specs for these drivers. "If they just publish the specs and tell the purchasers of their products how to use those products, then there are people in our community who will write free drivers," he said.

Legal restrictions - such as those censoring free software for playing DVDs in the US and much of Europe - are also limiting adoption of free software.

"Basically, software that can break digital handcuffs is censored. Digital handcuffs - or the malicious features found in proprietary software to restrict the user - are fundamentally evil. They are a nasty practice and our governments, by taking the side of the perpetrators of that nasty practice against the public, have demonstrated how they have betrayed the public to the empire of the mega-corporations. Those governments are governments of occupation set up by the empire."

A lack of awareness in the technology community

The obstacles to the free software movement aren't all from outside forces. People in the technology industry don't think about software in terms of freedom, according to Stallman. The influence of open source means there is less awareness of free software as a concept.

"So what open-source supporters tell them is that this is a development methodology for getting better quality code. So they think the only thing at stake is the quality of code and how convenient the program is. No one ever said to them they deserve some kind of freedom, that they should control the software they're using, control the computing they're doing," he said.

This mindset means people don't...

...then feel resentment when using proprietary software but look at it in terms of convenience.

"So they'll give up their freedom for convenience. Now I think that's an act of folly. But these people have never posed themselves the question of whether they deserve any kind of freedom in using software."

This preference for convenience was seen recently when the German Foreign Office moved from Linux to Windows XP because of implementation issues. Stallman said this illustrates the weakness of open source as an idea, despite its prevalence in the technology community.

"It can sometimes convince people to switch to software, almost all of which is free, but it doesn't teach them that there's something basically wrong with the proprietary software so whenever they see a practical, convenient, short-term advantage in proprietary software, they might switch to that."

Stallman believes governments should promote free software

Richard Stallman believes governments could do much more to promote the ethics and use of free softwarePhoto: Shutterstock

The view of convenience outranking ethical considerations can only be changed through education and explaining to people how open-source and free software are different "at the deepest possible level - the level of values", Stallman said.

The role of governments

The British government has spoken extensively about a desire to use more open-source software and, since much of this will fall into the free software category, Stallman said this is a practical step in the right direction.

However, he added that more can still be done and governments should do this as part of their mission "to arrange society for the wellbeing and freedom of the citizens".

"This [mission] is something that most states today have forgotten about because they are actually mainly serving the mega-corporations and their empire, and their attitude towards the citizens is, 'Let's do as little as we need to do to keep them in line so we can get away with exploiting them'. Because of this, I don't expect a UK government dominated by either of the major parties to care about anybody's freedom."

Stallman also criticised the UK's Digital Economy Act for proposing to punish people unjustly: "And punish them for what? For sharing with other people, which is good. So this law makes visible the spirit of divide and rule of the corporate empire. This law is an act of betraying the country to serve the corporate empire."

When asked how this situation can change, Stallman said: "Well, Egypt shows us one way it can change."

"I'm not saying it would need to happen - maybe there's an easier way, maybe it doesn't have to be so dramatic - I don't know though. What I'm saying is that's at least one possible way."

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