'Social inertia the main obstacle'

Interview with Richard M. Stallman, founder of the GNU project and free software campaigner. (Published in the issue dated March 9, 2012.)

Published : May 28, 2021 00:00 IST

Richard Stallman.

Richard Stallman.

RICHARD M. STALLMAN has been an indefatigable campaigner for the cause of free software for nearly 29 years now. Stallman founded the GNU project in 1983 and established the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985, and was the brain behind the GNU General Public Licence one of the first instances of a copyleft' licence which has revolutionised the perception of ownership and intellectual property rights(a term Stallman despises).

GNU (a recursive acronym for GNU's not Unix) programs in combination with the Linux kernel have a variety of software packages and tools that are being used by millions of people all over the world and have wide-ranging applications ranging from governance, education and health care to animation. The central idea of the free software is that users should be free to run any version of a software program for any purpose, modify the source code and create a new version and distribute the program.

In India, organisations such as FSF-India and the Free Software Movement of India (FSMI) have been active in spreading awareness of the ideology and practical benefits of free software. The FSMI is an umbrella organisation of 16 regional and sectoral movements and aims to bridge the digital divide based on free software and mobilising the underprivileged. Stallman was in Chennai recently to deliver a lecture at IIT Madras on Free Software, Freedom and Education organised by the Free Software Foundation, Tamil Nadu, which is a part of the FSMI. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline :

There are many in the academic community and industry who use terms such as Open Source, FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and FLOSS (Free/Libre/Open Source Software) while referring to free software. How exactly do you differentiate them?

Let me explain the differences and relationships between these terms. I launched the free software movement in 1983 for freedom for users of software. The idea was that users deserve to control their computing. Proprietary software subjugates users. It's an injustice and should not exist. So we wanted to develop a free software specifically to enable people to escape proprietary software. The first thing we did was to develop a free operating system called GNU.

As GNU, in combination with the Linux kernel, had some success in the 1990s, there were many people who did not agree with the free software movement or who had not heard its ideas but used free software only for practical purposes. So, in 1998, these people coined the term open source and they set up a different discourse raising different issues. They did not raise the issue in ethical terms at all or say it was a matter of the good vs evil ways to distribute software. They said the issue was only about practical benefits. So these are two philosophies which differ at the deepest possible levels namely values.

Then there were those who wanted to study the practical methods of the community and to avoid choosing a side between two political camps; some of them began using FLOSS, a name that gives equal weight to the two names. Others use the term FOSS, and they tend to direct attention mainly towards open source. In addition, there is nothing to indicate that the term free is used here as in freedom. So people end up thinking it is free as in gratis. So if you want to use a term like that, use FLOSS not FOSS. However, I do not want to be neutral between these two political stands. I want to call attention to freedom. Therefore, I don't say FLOSS or FOSS. I say free, libre, swatantra software.

I know how to say free as in freedom in quite a few languages and I know how to say gratis in quite a few languages too. So I can make the difference clear to as many people as possible.

Often students or even activists ask what is so special about a name as long as you are using the same product.

A name has a meaning. You use a different name and it has a different meaning. Besides, it's not just about using the same program. I do not like to refer to free software as a product. A product is something you make to sell. I think of the GNU system as something that we make so that we can live in freedom.

So I don't normally call it a product. But if others do, it reflects the philosophical way they look at the question. They think of it as merely something they can get from somewhere and use. And, that's true but that's not all of it. However, that is all they might be aware of.

So they would not know why it matters. When they see there is an idea of free software and that people who advocate open source do not agree with that idea, they will see why there are different names here; they are different names for different uses.

The GNU project is almost 30 years old. What do you think has been its biggest success?

Our biggest success is that there is now a free operating system and that in various machines you can more or less replace proprietary software. That's our success. In fact, that was what I was aiming for at the beginning. But, in fact, we have gone beyond just having a free operating system because lots of people use one and lots of people are contributing to it.

What do you see as the main challenges for the GNU project?

There are several. A lot of computers can't run with free software either because part of the hardware specs is secret or because these computers are tyrants and they won't allow users to choose their own software. So those are the main direct obstacles.

At a deeper level, the biggest obstacle is social inertia the fact that so many people use proprietary software and by doing so pressure many others into using the same proprietary software; the fact that many social institutions that are influential push people to use proprietary software. And often, that is because proprietary software developers have made deals with them. Thus, when Microsoft and Apple and AutoCad make deals to put their software into schools, they know what they are doing. They are planning to purchase schools' influence as part of their end-plan, which is to maintain their colonial empire.

Liberation of cyberspace


In one of your essays, you have written that the interest in free software is growing faster than the awareness of the philosophy it is based on and this leads to trouble. Why is this so?

Our goal was the liberation of cyberspace. We would like everyone to use free software and only use free software because then they will have freedom. However, the goal is not how many people use a particular set of software. It is how many people have freedom. And that goal is long term.

We are not aiming to maximise the number of people who have freedom a year from now. We are aiming to liberate cyberspace, and that will take more than a year. All things being equal, it is probably better if more people use free programs a year from now than fewer. But that's not the whole goal. But people who develop programs have a tendency to take that as a goal. They think, I want to have as many people using my program in a few years from now and they seek more users by doing things that hurt users' freedoms. And because in the long run having freedom depends on demanding freedom and valuing freedom, anything that suggests to others that freedom is not the goal will mean less freedom.

So if your main concern is how many people use your program in the short term and maybe you make a site to distribute add-ons to your program and let people give non-free add-ons, you basically kill the idea that freedom is a goal. So, there you are not contributing to educating people about freedom. Your program might be free and it may be useful but you missed an opportunity to support the valuing of freedom.

Censorship is tyranny


One major advantage of free software is the possibility of localisation. How significant a feature is it?

Localisation is one purpose for which users can change free software. That they can do so is one of the consequences of the freedom for which we developed free software. Although, to be honest, I would be the wrong person to answer this question as I have no need for localisation.

The recent SOPA(Stop Online Piracy Act)/PIPA (Protect IP Act) controversy in the United States and the ongoing court case in India against Internet giants such as Facebook and Google have had people drawing parallels between the two instances. How far is it accurate?

Now what India is doing is very different. Here, we are talking about explicit, undisguised censorship. Censorship is tyranny and the worst kind of tyranny is the censorship of ideas. And it is based on the idea that some people are not to be offended, that others don't have the right to say anything that offends them. Now, this is an injustice in itself because nobody can have that kind of privilege and it's tyranny even to give somebody the kind of privilege that forces people to keep quiet. Freedom of speech means the right to criticise and even offend anybody. Whatever your views are, people have the right to say that's drivel! Governments are slowly turning themselves into tyranny and that's a worldwide tendency.

There is, of course, the issue that some of the arguments being raised against censorship in India are by Internet giants who have earlier collaborated with governments in deleting offensive content or do not have that good a record when it comes to users' privacy.

When it comes to the fight against censorship, I am happy to see anyone join in. When we are fighting a difficult fight and someone shows up to help, it is a mistake to say, Their help is not pure and it's not good. It is help and if it helps win that battle, we should not reject it. Now, that does not mean that we should pretend they are pure; they might be hypocritical or inconsistent but at least they helped us that day.

You have been a vocal critic of the risks of social networking. What are they and can there be an alternative?

I do not use any social networking and I won't because it is inconvenient for me. All I will do is point out some of the things that are bad about existing social networks. First of all, social networking sites should not encourage people to think that they have any privacy. If you put something on a social networking system and you let some people see it, any of them might publish it. And it's not the fault of the social networking system, it's just the nature of it. However, an ethical social networking system ought to remind users frequently that this is possible and if they were embarrassed by something that might appear in a newspaper, they should not put it in that system.

Now there are other bad things that are being done actively. For instance, surveillance collecting information about what people do even as they do not know this information is being collected; not letting people get back all their data, etc. Facebook does other nasty things, such as use people's faces for paid publicity. It also distributes video and flash. Facebook is a platform for other services, and some of them are bad for other reasons. I would recommend that people use a peer-to-peer social networking system so that there is no central server and, thus, nobody collecting a lot of information about people and passing that on to Big Brothers.

The issues of censorship and government restrictions on free speech have larger implications on demands for transparency from the government.

I do not demand transparency. I campaign for freedom. Transparency is useful, but I see that as a smaller thing compared to stopping the really horrible things we know the government is doing, such as torture, imprisonment without trial, killing people arbitrarily, launching wars of aggression. Sometimes we need investigation to find out what is going on, but often they are happening right in front of us.

Human rights almost dead


I was also referring to a case like that of Bradley Manning (a U.S. soldier who was arrested in May 2010 in Iraq on the charge of having passed classified data to WikiLeaks), where civil society in America seems quite powerless to do anything about it.

Well, [President] Obama is very hostile towards whistle-blowers. Obama protects torturers, so I am not surprised that he does not want people to know what is happening. But there is nothing much that people can do. Perhaps, if millions of people stand up and say Bradley Manning, if he is guilty, is a hero and deserves a medal,' then Obama might listen. But the number of people who say it is quite small. So support for human rights is weak in the U.S. too.

For instance, a law was passed about a month ago permitting imprisonment without trial. All that the state has to do is to call a person a supporter of Al Qaeda; it obviously does not have to prove this. It can put the person in prison and that person has no rights at all. And Obama supported this. Almost everyone in Congress voted for this Bill. What this means is human rights in the U.S. are almost dead. They are partly still in existence, just drifting along. But whenever there is an opportunity to attack them, they get attacked. And most Americans apparently support this. They do not appreciate their own rights. They must be telling themselves, Nobody would ever call me an Al Qaeda supporter. They must be telling themselves, Nobody in my government would ever lie.

It seems government policy in the U.S. is curiously bipartisan on this issue.

Yes, it is surprising. And there may be something behind that. I cannot say for sure. But, apparently, in the case of this law, in the Senate it was the Democrats who were in favour and in the House of Representatives, it was the Republicans. I cannot say why this happened at this specific point of time, though.

The Occupy Wall Street movement tried to organise a sustained protest against such tendencies. Do you think it could be the origin of a viable solution?

I cannot really say. There are a lot of things that could work but how to make them work is the hard part. A lot of people try things and sometimes, they work somewhat. But things often keep getting worse. Occupy Wall Street tried medium-sized protests, camping in places. But the government took this as an opportunity to say that camping in places as a protest is not allowed. Basically, that's now prohibited in the U.S. I'm afraid that this move will turn out to be the main effect. It became an opportunity for the U.S. to further ban protests. And, this is what it has done because the government does not advocate democracy or human rights. It works for the mega-corporation. A lot of what the protesters condemned was the government subservience to mega corporations. And if the government can reduce the possibility of protests, that will be considered a victory by our government.

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