Free software and GNU movement founder, Richard Stallman, is a legend in certain IT circles. He spoke to DAVID RAMLI about why he dislikes the PR industry and how pornography with 16-17 year olds isn’t always child porn.
David Ramli: Why did you choose to name your free software system GNU?
Richard Stallman: Because it’s funny. And since we announced the movement in 1983, which was 27 years ago, to call it the new system would be extremely misleading.
DR: The Government’s planned mandatory ISP filter is practically dead now. Should people keep talking about it?
RS: Australia already has Internet censorship and it has censorship of links. Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) made a link to a foreign political website and it got threatened with a fine of $11,000 per day if it did not remove that link. This is censorship and it has to be abolished.
DR: Should there be no censorship whatsoever on Internet viewing?
RS: There should be no censorship whatsoever because censorship threatens human rights. People come up with various excuses for censorship of ideas but censorship is dangerous. We should not pick a solution that threatens society more than whatever other problems are there. You see, censorship is a tool that leads to tyranny. Not every time, but it smooths the path.
DR: So is child pornography not a good enough reason to censor the Internet?
RS: Certainly not, certainly not a good enough reason. There are videos I’ve seen that shocked and disgusted me, but I don’t want to censor them. I do not advocate censorship just because I or you find them disgusting.
Some people say they want censorship of child pornography because making those movies was a crime. Well that may be so, but not always because sometimes when they say “child” they’re talking about people aged 16 and 17, who in parts of the US can legally get married.
But forget that lie for a moment. Consider for instance the collateral murder video that also depicts a crime and it was made by the vehicle in association with the people who were carrying out. Should that be censored around the world? I think that when businesses make child pornography and when it involves real sexual abuse of real children, then they’re carrying out a crime and anyone participating in the business of distributing that film is involved in it. So there’s a reason other than censorship to prosecute any of them.
But those who simply redistribute [child pornography] are in the same position of people who redistribute the collateral murder video. They’re not participating in the crime and there are a lot of films that depict murders except nobody really got killed. And there are a lot of films that depict the harm of animals except none really got harmed so if somebody was really torturing an animal, we would stop it. But depicting that without actually doing it we consider okay…but there’s no need to censor depictions of that.
DR: Are you a supporter of the National Broadband Network?
RS: I don’t really know. I personally don’t feel a need for broadband and in any case the main use people get for broadband is for file-sharing. So the Government attitude is schizophrenic if it’s for broadband and against file-sharing. I’m for file-sharing and I think people deserve the right to non-commercially redistribute copies of any published work.
DR: Should Governments really have a much more active role in distributing and promoting free software?
DR: But is it possible for a society to really work in this way?
RS: Of course, it is. There’s absolutely no reason why the Government should use or distribute proprietary software. If Government pays for the development of an IT solution it should have an invariable rule that goes in the contract that the solution should be provided to the Government as free software and designed to be able to run on a totally free software platform so it doesn’t create an obstacle to eliminating proprietary software from public agencies.
DR: Are you disappointed that free software has taken off as well as it seemed it would in the early days?
RD: As far as I can see the free software community is still growing but I never thought we were going to give all users freedom in a short period of time. Consider that there are so many people using proprietary operating systems and the most common ones have malicious features. These people are victims of software that users don’t control. Our goal is to put an end to that and give them control over their software but we can’t force anybody to use it so we’ve got to teach people to appreciate freedom.
DR: In light of what you’re saying, would Apple be worse than Microsoft because it gives users less flexibility in terms of the OS?
RS: Apple has more power over Apple product users. I would say Microsoft is the biggest enemy of user freedom but Apple may be nastier. The newer Apple products give it control over what the user can install and Apple prohibits free software in the app store. Not only that, there is a known back door that allows Apple to remotely delete applications.
DR: Are you disappointed by the fact that Apple is successful despite the fact that it’s known they do these practices?
RS: This is the effect of the PR industry, which directs people’s attention towards certain issues and away from other issues. It focuses people’s attention on what they can do one by one to improve their lives, but away from what they can do together, organising to improve their lives. It tries to build up the appetite for immediate gratification rather than long term improvement of your life. So it’s no coincidence Microsoft asks people, “Where do you want to go today?” whereas we say, “What kind of life do you want to lead?”
DR: Bill Gates is using his profits from paid software in a very positive way, is this evidence of where it’s a good thing?
RS: Well he’s trying to buy favourable opinion by giving away a certain fraction of the money he squeezed out of people by keeping them helpless. However, it’s not clear if most of what Gate’s foundation is doing is good. I’m told it’s got a lot of money invested in Monsanto, the company that is trying to get all the world’s farmers trapped in a situation where they lose the freedom to copy their plants and animals.
Farmers have been copying plants and animals for thousands of years, but they don’t use high-tech because they save the seeds and plant them or breed the animals. Monsanto wants to put an end to that practice so it’s a threat to farmer’s freedom.
DR: Cloud computing is on the rise in Australia. What do you think of it?
RS: That term is so broad that it’s not useful to talk about. There are many different ways to use the Internet and that nebulous term talks about almost all of them other than email and browsing.
DR: In that case, what do you think of infrastructure-as-a-service as a concept?
Virtual servers are a fine thing as long as you control the software running on it the way you would if you physically had it. But that isn’t always so, for instance Amazon has a service that is almost like and it runs the GNU Linux operating system, but the problem is your can’t compile and run your own version of Linux.
DR: Are you therefore worried about the use of terms like cloud computing?
It’s a marketing buzzword that isn’t useful for clear thinking. I don’t suppose it’s tremendously harmful, but for clear thinking it’s very important to distinguish between remote server rental and software-as-a-service.
DR: Is there a need to simplify language for people that aren’t too tech-savvy, as is usually the trend?
I don’t generally try to do that. I want people to understand the issues I’m talking about, which are not technical really. They’re concerned with technology, but the issues are ethical reasons that are related to technology.
I think we can explain enough of the technology for people to understand the effort and that’s all we need for this process. The idea of the free software movement is that people deserve to control their computing. With software either you control the program or the program controls the users. The first is free software and the second is proprietary software.
DR: There’s a bit of an outcry in Australia over the fact that the Government doesn’t always allow use of open-source software.
RS: Please, please, open-source software is not a supporter and when you talk about the Linux movement, these are people who are promoting the GNU operating system together with a Kernal. But they don’t realise the system is GNU and they think the whole system is Linux and that it was started by Linus Torvald in 1991.
DR: What do you want people to think about?
RS: I want people not to forget the issue of freedom because people who don’t value their freedom tend to lose it. I saw posters on the street saying in Melbourne the police have the right to search anyone anywhere. That’s not respecting people’s freedom. It says it’s so they can search for weapons but suppose they see whatever else they may see when they’re searching. They may take action on that too so they’ve got a license to conduct fishing expeditions. I think that’s scary.