Q&A: Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation

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Q&A: Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation

Stallman discusses his views on free versus proprietary and open source software, social networking sites and privacy issues.

As founder of the Free Software Foundation, how would you define free software?

Free software means software that respects users' freedom. More specifically it means you as a user have these four essential freedoms:

1) To run the program as you wish.
2) To study the source code and change it, and thus make the program
do what you wish.
3) To redistribute exact copies when you wish – this is the freedom
to help your neighbour.
4) To distribute copies of your modified versions when you wish – this is the freedom to contribute to your community.

With these four freedoms, we users have control of our computing, both individually and collectively. A free program develops democratically under the control of its users, whereas a proprietary program develops under the dictatorship of its owner and imposes that owner’s power on its users.

The choice before you is the choice between freedom, co-operation and democracy on one hand, and subjugation, isolation and exploitation on the other.

You are keen to dissociate yourself from the open source community. Could you explain how it differs from free software?

The licence criteria of open source are almost the same as those of free software, because they were derived indirectly from ours. The big difference is at the level of philosophy and values.

The free software movement's main values are freedom and co-operation. Proprietary programs that forbid co-operation or that cannot be changed by users are a social problem. Our goal is to put an end to that problem.

In the 1990s, there was a philosophical split in the free software community between those of us who wanted freedom and those who only appreciated the practical by-products of free software. In 1998, the latter group invented the term "open source", previously unused in this sense, as a way of talking about the field without alluding to any ethical criticism of non-free software. They associated the term solely with their practical values.

The ideas of open source have motivated some developers to release useful programs as free software. I appreciate those contributions to the community, but I don't agree with the open source philosophy or the values it is based on.

What influenced your decision to champion the free software movement?

During the 1970s, working at the MIT AI Lab, I was part of a large free software community that included universities and companies. At the AI lab we used an operating system that was free. Living the life of the free software community, I saw how good it was.

Commercial pressure, together with the obsolescence of the mainframe PDP-10 [Programmed Data Processor model 10], eliminated our community in the early 1980s. The prospect of using proprietary software for the rest of my life was so ugly that I decided to create another alternative.

In 1983 I announced the plan to develop a Unix-like operating system that would be 100 per cent free software. I dubbed it GNU for GNU's Not Unix.

Why do you think the different terminology - open source, free software, proprietary, GNU/Linux - is so important?

"Free software" and "open source" are the names of two different political viewpoints within the free software community - the community built by the free software movement. As a leader in the free software movement, I want my efforts to promote the movement and spread our ideas of freedom.

Thus, I decline to participate in activities labelled open source. People who agree with that stand are free to support it. I disagree with it, so I don't.

I note that Shane Coughlan from the Free Software Foundation collaborates with Google’s Open Source team. Does the FSF ever collaborate with projects that carry the 'open source' banner?

Shane is in FSF Europe, and I don't know what he does, but I can tell you what our policy is. We co-operate on technical matters with free software projects, when it seems useful, regardless of the developers' philosophical stand on the ethical issue of free software.

Would you label programs such as OpenOffice and Firefox free software?

OpenOffice is free software, and has been ever since it appeared under that name.
Firefox is a strange case, since initially the sources were free software but the binaries released by the Mozilla Foundation were not free. They were non-free for two reasons: they included one non-free module, Talkback, for which sources were not available (even to the Mozilla Foundation); and because they carried a restrictive EULA [end-user licence agreement].

I think these two problems have both been corrected, so maybe the distributed Firefox binaries are free software today.

What are your views on location monitoring applications, such as Yahoo's Fire Eagle?

If you want to tell some friends where you are, that's fine, but you shouldn't pass the communication through a server belonging to a company that you certainly cannot trust. This program may offer a command called "Delete Previous Locations", but you don't know what the server really does if you use that command. This is an example of one of the major bad trends in use of the internet: the tendency to direct communication between users into commercial servers.

What are your views on social networking sites?

I have never used one so I am not really in a position to have much of an opinion. I don't see anything wrong with sharing some information and photos with your friends. I've heard rumours that Facebook hands over the "private data " to the CIA, but I do not know if it is true.

Do you believe notebooks like the Asus EeePC are championing the cause of the FSF?

Not entirely. The EeePC comes with a variant of the GNU/Linux operating system, but it's a very bad one: it contains lots of non-free software. In fact, the machine demands that the user agree to an EULA before it will even start up. I received an EeePC as a gift, but I could not run it because my conscience will not let me agree to the EULA. Finally, I asked someone to install a free GNU/Linux distro so the machine could be used.

Who can be held liable when problems arise with free software?

We free software developers do our best to avoid liability for any bugs, just as proprietary software developers do. Free software gives you something much better than the chance to sue someone if there's a bug. It gives you the chance to hire whoever you wish to fix it. If you want a rush service, there is probably someone who will offer it to you, for the right price.

Why do you spend so much time focusing on pushing free software use in places such as Venezuela and India?

That question may give people the wrong idea: each year I give more talks in the US than in Venezuela or India. But I do spend a lot of time travelling and giving speeches in many countries.

Venezuela, like Ecuador, has an official policy that government agencies must migrate to free software. In India, three states are migrating the public schools to GNU/Linux. I wish that the US could show that much interest in the freedom of computer users.

Do you think public authorities should be leading the way with free software?

Every public agency has a duty to maintain its control over its computing, as a matter of sovereignty. Using a non-free program means giving the program's developer control over that computing. Thus, public agencies must reject proprietary software and move to free software. Venezuela and Ecuador are on the right track.

Should charities such as Computer Aid International, which distributes second-hand PCs and laptops worldwide to developing countries, only be transporting GNU operating systems, even if this means fewer schools get computers?

You can put GNU/Linux on almost any machine, so sticking to free software isn't likely to mean a significant reduction in the computers they donate. But, for the sake of argument, let's imagine that were not so. When people talk about the "digital divide", they implicitly suppose that using computers is good and not having them is bad. But is it a good thing to give people computers with Windows or other proprietary software?

People who use proprietary software surrender to the power of the program's developer. It's a social problem, which we should try to eliminate - not spread. Distributing computers with Windows is spreading dependency, leading society down the wrong path. It's better to go slowly to the right place than go quickly to the wrong place.

How does the use of free software fit into the tough economic climate? Some argue that the recession is an indictment of the capitalist system - is this a fair view?

[Free software fits in] just the same as it did before. In good times and bad, you deserve freedom. I consider the recession an indictment of the deep corruption that is rife because companies have too much political power - unjust copyright laws are another result of the same basic problem.

Clearly there's a cost saving element - but how about the people that had jobs with commercial firms, but are then made redundant because customers decide to go with free software instead and no longer need support from commercial suppliers?

This scenario seems to be based on a misconception. Migrating to free software doesn't reduce the market for support. Users that bought commercial support when they used proprietary software generally continue wanting commercial support when they switch to free software. One of the advantages of free software is that it permits a free market for support.

But there's something more fundamentally screwy in this scenario: confusion about values. It seems to presume that users will - or is it should? - let a company have unjust power over them for the sake of increasing that company's income. When you are collecting for this perverse form of charity, you can count me out. I see no positive value in a program that requires people to cede their freedom as a condition of use.

I certainly won't use it myself. I launched the GNU Project in 1983 specifically to make it possible to get away from proprietary software. Now that I have escaped, I am not going back. I hope to see the day when nobody is employed in developing or promoting proprietary software.

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