The Free Software Foundation reveals how RMS was re-elected and its future

For an organization that's all about being open, the FSF was quite quiet about how Richard M. Stallman was readmitted to a leadership position until now.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) re-admitting its founder Richard M. Stallman (RMS) to its board in late March caught everyone, including FSF members and staff, by surprise. Many -- both outside and inside the FSF -- objected to RMS's return. Weeks later, RMS offered a defensive non-apology apology for the words and actions that led to his resignation from the FSF. But how RMS returned to the FSF remained a mystery… until now.

We knew that the FSF Board of Directors had, over the objections of at least two members, voted him back. But he was also elected by the voting members. Who were they? It certainly wasn't the rank-and-file FSF members. They were as startled by Stallman's re-emergence as everyone else.

Now, in a note from current FSF President and Treasurer Geoffrey Knauth, the FSF has revealed the "voting members" are, for all intents and purposes, the board of directors. The single exception, Alexandre Oliva, is a former board member. Their only job is to nominate and elect the board of directors. 

So, RMS was returned to the board of directors by a few long-time friends and associates. While it was two groups legally, it was essentially a single clique of RMS supporters.

The reason for this setup was to qualify for a tax exemption. Since then, that reason is no longer a legal requirement, so the board of directors is considering changes to the FSF's governing structure. One change -- the appointment of an FSF staff member, Ian Kelling, to the board -- has already happened. 

This came about because "the staff has wanted more access to the board. In the aftermath of the March 2021 controversy over the election of Richard Stallman to the board, the union formally asked to have direct staff participation." 

There are no term limits on board members. From time to time, voting members have removed board members, but the FSF hasn't revealed how this happened or when. RMS was not removed from the board. Stallman resigned in 2019 in the backlash for his support of the late Marvin Minsky, AI pioneer and associate of notorious billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The FSF also stated: "Board members are not compensated for their work as board members." 

Looking ahead, the board will rewrite the FSF's bylaws, including the role of the board of directors. This is being done to make sure the FSF stays true to its mission of user freedom regardless of changes in the board, members, or hostile courts. In particular, the FSF wants to secure the future of the various GNU General Public Licenses (GPL).

The board also wants to strengthen its board evaluation procedure as it recruits new members. The FSF board won't be doing this on its own. It is seeking a consultant to help revise the organization and its bylaws. 

Some board members, besides Knauth, are planning to leave the FSF board. The FSF knows well that it needs "to attract a new generation of activists for software freedom and to grow the movement." So, the FSF is looking for new board members who will adhere to the "Foundation's firm belief that users are entitled to control their computing, individually and collectively, and therefore to control the software that does that computing" and "uphold the integrity of copyleft and the GNU licenses."

The GNU Project itself, while still organizationally tied to the FSF, is no longer largely financially supported by the FSF. Instead, its work is "done mainly by volunteers and the Foundation mostly promotes free/libre software in other ways." The GCC Steering Committee has removed RMS from its membership

Despite the numerous objections to the FSF's bringing Stallman back to a leadership role from both inside and outside the organization, Knauth stated: "The FSF is in good financial health." Of the FSF's revenue, "direct corporate support accounted for less than 3% of FSF revenue in its most recently audited fiscal year." 

Much of the FSF's financial support comes from individuals, many of these are associate members. "At this moment," Knauth said, "the FSF has more associate members than at any time in its history." The pandemic, of course, hurt the FSF's finances, but "conservative financial planning over the years provided the FSF with sufficient reserves to weather these difficulties."

From the outside looking in, the FSF also noted that the charity rating organization Charity Navigator recently gave the FSF its eighth consecutive four-star rating and, for the first time, a perfect overall score.

As for Stallman? He's remained quiet since rejoining the FSF board. According to the FSF, "He still gives talks on free software, in his personal capacity, and when he does so, he sells merchandise from the FSF shop, recruits volunteers for FSF and GNU, and raises donations for FSF. He is the primary author and editor of two books sold by the FSF." 

How long he'll continue to keep a low profile remains to be seen. 

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