Short of two hundred developers, students, professors, IT professionals, and interested community members crowded Olds-Upton Hall’s largest lecture hall on January 30th for software freedom activist and programmer Dr. Richard Stallman’s talk on computing freedom and privacy.
Stallman launched the Free Software Movement in 1983 with his announcement of the GNU Project, a massively collaborative project with the intention of giving computer users free software by developing an operating system that fulfilled the movement’s goals. Since its inception, the movement has grown and affected nearly all areas of technology. Every day, billions of computer users interact with the movement’s impacts, and millions of individuals and companies use GNU/Linux, software created and inspired by the movement’s principles.
Free software, sometimes referred to as libre software, is that which “respects the users’ freedom and community,” according to Stallman. To be considered free, software must exhibit what the movement deems as the “four essential freedoms”. In short, the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software.
Stallman began by asking the audience to think about the software that they use every day. “Who gives the instructions to the computer? Not you!” he announced, continuing, “rather, [it obeys] its real master,” alluding to consumer software giants like Amazon, Apple, Fitbit, Google, and Microsoft. “Either the users control the software, or the software controls you.”
He then discussed the dangers of proprietary “nonfree” software—such software is not only immoral but also prone to security backdoors, exhibit a propensity to spy on users, and enforce abusive usage restrictions.
Stallman’s message is clear: nonfree software is, by its nature, unethical and malicious, with proprietary programs being “an injustice [that] should not exist.”
The philosophy extends beyond software, where “any work—recipes, reference works, educational works, and typefaces—whose purpose is to be used for a practical job should be free.”
Stallman admits that the avoidance of proprietary software presently comes at the cost of convenience.
“Most value convenience, not freedom, but it is my duty as a citizen to refuse, no matter how convenient [using proprietary software] may be,” he explained, encouraging the audience to adopt the exclusive usage of free software and break free from proprietary software’s restrictions. Noting that the audience was largely comprised of professional or soon-to-be professional programmers developing proprietary software, Stallman urged the audience, “quit or let them corrupt you.”
For Stallman, adhering to the free software philosophy means sacrificing amenities of the digital age.
“I would rather miss all the movies in the world than surrender to digital handcuffs,” Stallman declared, referring to the controversial implementation of Digital Rights Management in media during the last several decades.
Stallman observes privacy as a fundamental human right fundamental to the success of democracy, and is thereby highly critical of software, institutions, and services that violate user privacy.
“Human rights depend on each other,” Stallman explained, continuing, “if you lose one, then you [compromise] the others.” Therefore, companies that “track and trap users” when providing their services, like Amazon, Lyft, Netflix, Spotify, and Uber all remain unused by Stallman.
Moreover, Stallman has forgone carrying a mobile phone, as “a mobile phone is Stalin’s dream; it records conversations around a person and tracks everywhere a person goes.”
Educational institutions play a critical role in shaping the future of freedom, Stallman asserts.
“Schools have a social responsibility to teach independence, ethics, and the values of freedom and cooperation. Therefore, students, instructors, parents, and communities must campaign and demand that schools stop teaching proprietary software and start using free software.”
For millions of college students, young adulthood is the time during which lifelong beliefs are forged. The Index asked Stallman to explain how he arrived at his philosophy.
After graduating from Harvard in 1974, Stallman conducted research at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where he “lived in a free software community.”
“When [the community] died, I had experience with proprietary injustices, and realized this would be an evil life. But I had lived [a free software life], and knew it was good.” Stallman continued, saying, “I chose to find myself a future that I could be proud of.”
While “Richard Stallman” may not yet be a household name, he has developed fame and admiration amongst technology circles and internet communities.
“I didn’t expect fame, and while I like it, it is sad that most people don’t know what I’m fighting for. People approach me and say they’re my greatest fan—entertainers have fans, [whereas] I’m a freedom fighter looking for recruits.”