There is probably no modern house today that doesn’t have a computer sitting inside it. This begs the question, are you in control of the computer or is the computer in control of you? With most operating systems out right now, the second one is the answer. Richard Stallman has been an advocate of the free software movement since 1985 and believes that a program should have four essential freedoms that will allow the user to control it as they wish and do anything they want with it, provided they have the knowledge to do so. A good example is if you have a Windows system, then Microsoft has complete power over your computer Free software, like GNU, allows the user separate controls over the program like studying and changing the source code. Learn why this issue of trust, convenience, freedom and respect is in this space of technology.
On the show, we have Richard Stallman who is a Harvard grad and the creator of the GNU Operating System, a Unix-like operating system meant to be entirely free software. Richard’s a huge name in the technology industry. He’s got the Free Software Movement, and we’re going to talk to him about that.
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Free Software Movement: Ethics and Advocacies with Richard Stallman
I am with Richard Stallman who’s a software developer and software freedom activist. Richard has a bachelor’s from Harvard and was a graduate student in Physics at MIT. In 1983, Stallman announced the project to develop the GNU Operating System, a Unix-like operating system meant to be entirely free software and has been the project’s leader ever since. With that announcement, he also launched the Free Software Movement. In 1985, he started the Free Software Foundation of which he’s president and full-time volunteer. Stallman has spent most of his time in political advocacy for free software and spreading the ethical ideas of the movement as well as campaigning against both software patents and dangerous extension of copyright laws. Stallman officially is a visiting scientist at MIT. It’s so nice to have you, Richard.
You are quite an entertaining guy. I was watching some of your previous interviews and you probably talk a lot to groups that are very tech-savvy. A lot of people listening on the show are leaders and speakers; it’s a different eclectic crowd. There may be some people who aren’t as familiar with GNU, Linux and what the relationship is or isn’t between them. Can you give a background of that because that’s a big part of what people want to hear from you?
In order for people to think about the secondary points, they need to understand the basic issue here which is, “Do you control the software that’s doing your computing or does it control you?” Because it’s always one or the other and that’s the crucial question about software. When users control the programs they use, we call that free software; free as in freedom. We’re not talking about price. That’s a side issue, which I don’t think is terribly important. It’s a detail. Whether the software respects your freedom, including your freedom to cooperate with other users, that is tremendously important.
Free software is software that respects users’ freedom and community. In order for it to do that, the users have to have control over the program. Practically speaking, that means the users have to have four essential freedoms. Concretely, that’s the criterion for free software. Freedom 0 is to run the program any way you wish for any purpose. Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the program source code and change it so it does your computing activities the way you want it to. Freedom 2 is the freedom to make exact copies and give or sell them to others when you wish. Freedom 3 is the freedom to make copies of your modified versions, if you’ve made any, and give or sell them to others when you wish. The first two freedoms, freedom 0 and 1, give each users separately control over that program. When you’re free to change the source code and use it, then you can make it do anything at all if you know how, if you have programming skill either personally or in your organization, when the user is an organization, and that’s essential. It’s not enough because lots of users are not programmers. They do other things.
How do they get to have control of what the program does? That happens through collective control. Meaning that users are free to work together to exercise control over what the program does. These users who could be individuals or organizations or some of each, they are free to cooperate to change the program. This doesn’t have to be a formally constituted group. Whatever users choose to cooperate, they’re a group and they discuss more or less what changes they want. Then some of those users, the ones that know how to program, they implement the desired changes. Then they all get to use that version if they like it and they can also distribute copies of that version to anyone else. This way, if you don’t know how to program or your organization has no programmers, you can still participate in a group that will change the program to make it do what those in the group would prefer.
Let’s start with the basics. What’s GNU and what is Unix?
That question, “What’s GNU?” has had an amusing answer since the very beginning. The name is a joke. It’s a recursive acronym. GNU stands for GNU is Not Unix. What it means is GNU is an operating system which technically and practically resembles Unix. It was intended to be usable with the same sorts of commands as the Unix system, because Unix was a pretty good system and it was widely used. The important thing about GNU is it’s all free software. Thus, when the users are running the GNU system, they have control over their computers and control over their computing. If a program doesn’t come with the four essential freedoms, that means it controls the users, and the developer controls it. Every non-free program that you use gives somebody power over you. Whoever owns or developed that program controls the program and the program controls you. What I recognized was this is a bad way to live. Nowadays, it generates a system of unjust power, power for the program’s developer over the program’s users. Nobody should have that kind of power over anyone else. If somebody has that power over you, that somebody is going to shaft you over and over.
That’s an interesting point because I have seen so many of your discussions about how you want them to have freedom, you don’t want them to have the access through the backdoor situation where they can change the software or access what you’re doing. There are so many people out there that aren’t programmers that just want a computer that’s functionally appealing and they’re not concerned if somebody has software that’s got digital restrictions or anything on them. How do you get through to them the importance of this freedom and why they need it?
After I explain the idea of freedom in general so that they can see philosophically why it’s an injustice for a program to be non-free, then I explain the other injustices that the owners commit intentionally using the power that the non-free software gives them over users. You have to realize that nowadays, the software owners know about the power they’re going to have over users. If they get somebody to use a non-free program, they don’t have to wake up to this later. When they decide to make the program, they probably have a plan involving how they’re going to abuse those users with the control over the software that they know they’re going to have. They mistreat the users by putting in malicious functionalities. In other words, they make the programs malware.
Let’s look at an example that most of your listeners will be familiar with. Microsoft Windows is non-free software. Microsoft controls it and the users don’t. What does Microsoft do with that power? It collects personal data. Windows transmits data about the user to Microsoft servers. It has digital restrictions management. In other words, it’s designed not to serve the user but to stop users from doing what Microsoft doesn’t want them to do. It has several backdoors. One of them is a universal backdoor. Universal means Microsoft can remotely change the software in any way at all, meaning that Microsoft has total power over that computer. If a computer is running Windows, Microsoft has total power over everything that happens in that computer. It can do anything at all to the user. Tomorrow, if it decides to do something nasty to your Windows machine, you are at Microsoft’s mercy 100%. The universal back door was discovered by analyzing reports issued by Windows XP about what it was doing. People deduced that it had a universal backdoor like this. Microsoft refused to confirm that. In Windows Vista I believe it was, Microsoft announced the presence of a universal backdoor but it didn’t use those words. It had another term that sounded much nicer. It’s called auto-upgrade, meaning Microsoft can force your computer to install a so-called upgrade or maybe you’d consider it a downgrade, but whichever one it is, Microsoft can force it in.
Why are you concerned about it?
Microsoft can do any nasty thing.
Why would they want to do something nasty? Can you give a little more background on that?
Because they’ll make money from it. Their reason for doing any of these things generally is that it’s profitable. I’m not claiming that Microsoft’s executives are vicious sadists looking for a way to screw some helpless users. No, they do it if it’s profitable. What difference does it make what their motive is? The point is we shouldn’t let them be in a position where they can do such things.
You won’t use Microsoft. There’s a laundry list I’ve seen on these shows where you’ve interviewed where you don’t use Airbnb, Amazon, Amtrak, Apple, Ebooks, Eventbrite, Facebook, Evernote, Google.
Those are not all similar. There are many things about criticizing about various companies, but they’re not all concerned with non-free software. There are other kinds of things that a company can do. In the case of Amtrak for instance, it’s not about non-free software. It’s that Amtrak requires people to show ID to buy a ticket. That is an injustice. The government should not be following people around.
What would they do with that?
I don’t need to know. They have no business demanding the information, so we should refuse right away at that point. We shouldn’t let ourselves get drawn into a discussion of what they would do with the information about us that they shouldn’t get in the first place. That kind of distraction is the thing that leads people to lose their freedom. If somebody or some agency or organization starts trying to follow you around, it’s a mistake to raise the question of what they say they will do with the data and can you believe they won’t change that policy? Who knows? The fact is, because Amtrak exists in the United States, we know one thing that it will do with that data. It will hand that data over to the FBI on request without even a court order, all of it, because that’s what the Patriot Act requires. Every organization in the US that has data about people is required to hand it over on request without even a court order. I consider this unconstitutional, but worse than that, it’s an attack on our human rights. We shouldn’t ask, “What will you do with this?” We know that they will do something unjust with it at any time if they are told to. We know that we won’t find out if they’re told to. We know they can’t tell us if they already have been told to. We have to recognize that just identifying a person is going too far.
What about post 9/11?
That changed nothing because it was a side issue. We’ve changed topics. We’re now talking about whether we should throw away vital human rights in the name of protecting us, which is a separate question from free versus non-free software, I want to point that out. I think this issue is very important too but maybe we should stay with the free software issue.
You say free software is different than open-source. Can you explain the difference?
That’s not exactly the way I’d put it. The idea of free software is fundamentally different from the idea of open-source. First I should explain what open-source means and why it exists. I started the Free Software Movement in 1983. By 1998, we had the GNU/Linux operating system and lots of people and companies were using it, so free software was getting some attention and popularity. There were people in the community who didn’t want to raise the issue in terms of right and wrong. They wanted to forget about that aspect and present it as nothing but another option. They didn’t want to say that it was morally better or anything about morality. They didn’t want to talk about justice or injustice or human rights. They just wanted to say, “Here’s something you might like.” They wanted our ideas of justice to be pushed aside and not discussed anymore, so they coined another term, open-source, which hadn’t been used before. That was their opportunity to construct a different discourse based on different values. It didn’t say that anything was wrong. It only said, “You might find this way of doing things preferable.” Where we say, “If you develop and release a program, it is morally incumbent on you to respect users’ rights to change it and redistribute it,” open-source supporters only say, “If you develop and release a program, please consider whether it’s in your practical interest to let users change and redistribute it.” For instance, if you let them, then they might improve the code quality. That might be a valid argument, but it’s a much shallower argument. It’s not based on deep values. As a result, it isn’t going to stand up very strong and support strong conclusions.
It’s interesting because I teach a lot of courses that are ethics-based and since ethics is subjective, you’re saying this is values-based. Whose values are you using for this?
You will judge based on your values, but I can’t make an absolute moral statement. That doesn’t mean I’m going to limit myself to saying, “My opinion is,” because that’s soft. If you see somebody, say, threatening to start a war between the US and Iran, you don’t have to say, “In my opinion, starting that war would be unfortunate.” You can say something a lot stronger than that. You can say it’s wrong. You’re saying it based on your values, but those values are probably shared with lots of people. In fact, the values that the Free Software Movement is based on are shared by lots of people. It’s just that they haven’t seen that there’s an issue in the software field which activates those values. They are not accustomed to looking at software in that way because that’s not their habit. They haven’t been taught to do so.
When you look at what the media normally say, they don’t say, “Think about whether your software treats you ethically.” They’re encouraging people to ignore those questions. When almost everyone you is encouraging you to discuss what’s convenient or inconvenient about a certain program, things like “What does it cost? Is it reliable? Is it fast? Is the interface convenient?” and not talking about, “Does it respect your freedom? Can you trust it?” then most people will follow what the other people around them are saying. How do we change that? I change that by talking to people about these ethical issue, showing them that the ethical issues are there and then they’re going to think whatever they think. I can’t flip the switch and change what they think, but I can show them a reason to think something different.
How much of an impact has your organization made of people buying computers without proprietary software and that type of thing?
It’s substantial but it’s a small fraction of the public. If you look at this on a logarithmic scale, we got about halfway. Clearly, what we’ve achieved is pretty big, with the tens of thousands of useful free programs we’ve got. With the work people have done to make it possible to run many different computers without any non-free software. There are many fields which you can now do with only free software, so we’ve done an awful lot. Yet, clearly, most people are still using non-free software which is a shame.
Where would someone even go to buy a computer that has no proprietary software?
You wouldn’t generally buy it in a store. There are companies you can order one from. If you look at FSF.org/Resources/HW, you’ll see the Respect Your Freedom Certification we have. We’ve certified various products including some computers. Not only the whole operating system including the drivers is free, but also the initialization software is free.
How much functionality are you giving up to have that cost-wise?
There’s no answer to that because you’re asking for an overall answer, and it’s not an overall question, it’s only specifics. How good is the free software in that area? In some, it’s great. If what you want to do is make a website, the free software is great. A lot of important developments were made in free software. A lot of the platforms everyone uses are free software. If you can do that, that’s great. If what you want to do is CAD, we’re lagging but we now have something. If what you want to do is animated video, it’s now getting to be pretty good. Somebody made a live action movie with actors and edited it with free software. Somebody has just agreed to develop a directory in GNU.org about how to compose and make electronic music in free software. Lots and lots of fields are now supported by free software, but in any given area, there might be some features that we don’t have. If you want to be finicky, you’ll find some features we don’t have and you can convince yourself that means you have to run the most popular non-free program. On the other hand, if what you value you is freedom strongly, if you’re willing to make these small sacrifices for your freedom, then you’ll be able to get along okay. Whether people keep their freedom or not, is mainly down to whether they’re willing to make a sacrifice for it from time to time.
I’m interested in the background of how you got to this point. What got you so interested in the freedom that we were losing and what was your background before creating GNU?
During the 1970’s, I worked at the artificial intelligence lab at MIT. My job was system hacker, meaning that I would think of features to add to the system and add them and also fix bugs. I was doing this for the users at the AI lab and also the users at another related lab, the lab for computer science. Today, those two labs have merged. It’s called CSAIL. During the ‘70s, they were separate but they used the same free software operating system that had been written by the hackers of the lab. I wasn’t there when the system was first started. I think that was in ’69, I joined in 1971, but my job was to keep on making it better. I even got an award for some of the things I added to the system. In that world, basically you could fix a bug at anything, anyone was welcome to come fix a bug, anyone was welcome to add features. Mostly it was done by a certain group of people who were the hackers and we all knew each other. Some were employees, some were MIT students who just like to hang around and help improve the software because it was so much fun. That was what taught me to love the freedom of being in a community where we were working together to make things better for everyone.
Then that community fell apart in the early ‘80s. It would be too much of a digression to talk about why. Look at the last chapter of the book, Hackers, by Steve Levy for that information. In any case, the community was gone. It had collapsed. The computer that our free software had run on had died, and that model was getting obsolete. For modern computers, there was no free software. I was faced with the loss of everything I loved. I had to choose what kind of future I would have. The easy road would have been to accept proprietary software and probably be paid to develop more proprietary software, and I would have hated my life and felt ashamed of it for the rest of my life.
Money obviously doesn’t motivate you.
Money can’t make up for the things I want.
Is that freedom?
Freedom but more generally feeling good about what I’m doing, feeling that what I’m doing is something I can be proud of, something that should be done, rather than something that shouldn’t be done. I’d be ashamed of that.
Where did you get this ethical responsibility training? Was this something your family was big on?
Not directly. When I was growing up, my parents probably never saw a computer back then. There weren’t that many computers around in the 1960s. I eventually did get to see a computer in an IBM lab that let me hang around and write programs. My parents taught about right and wrong in other areas but not in this one. They had some influence on me in regards to the other issues of life, but it was comparing myself what life was like in the AI lab using free software and cooperating with people versus what life was like in other places that used computers with proprietary software and kept saying, “We refuse to cooperate with you.”
I had an experience where I wanted to add a feature. There was some software we were using which was not free. It was the software to control a Xerox laser printer that Xerox gave MIT. Xerox gave a few of these out to various universities. It was the first time anyone outside Xerox got to have a laser printer. It was a very nice printer but got a lot of paper jams and was jammed a lot of the time. It was controlled by a special computer also made by Xerox running entirely proprietary software. I wanted to write something so that when the printer got jammed, it would inform the time sharing system on our main computer, which was free software, and then I would make that, inform all the users that were waiting for a printout, “The printer is jammed. Go fix it.” I had already done this for our old, slow printer that was like a laser printer but didn’t have a laser. This feature, I knew, was very effective in getting people to fix the printer as soon as it jammed, but I couldn’t. I was blocked completely from even trying because it was non-free software and we couldn’t change it. Xerox had not given us the source code. Then I found out somebody had a copy at another university.
One day I was there, I went to his office and said, “I’m from MIT. Could I have a copy of the printer software source code?” I expected, as part of a cooperation of our community, that he would give me one. He stunned me by saying, “I promised not to give you a copy.” I was shocked, stunned and disgusted, so I turned around silently and walked out of his office. I realized that nothing I could say would change his mind. I wasn’t willing to give him one more word. I shunned him from that second. Because this rankled, I kept thinking about it, because I realized he had not just refused to cooperate with me, it was the whole lab at MIT that he had refused to cooperate with in the ways that were normal in the community. He had betrayed us, but not just us, everyone else too.
He had promised to refuse to cooperate with anyone whatsoever. He had signed a non-disclosure agreement. What this taught me was non-disclosure agreements have victims. They are not things that are like, “It’s a little bit of annoyance but that’s the way it is.” No. You are hurting someone. You’re doing wrong to people. Non-disclosure agreements have victims. They are a betrayal and they are wrong, when they concern generally useful technical information. I don’t mind if somebody won’t tell me who his customers are, or maybe there’s even an ethical reason not to tell me, but in any case, it’s not sabotage. When you refuse to share generally useful technical information, you are sabotaging society and you’re betraying other people that you ought to cooperate with in that way. Then I connected this with a Chinese novel I read. It’s an old famous Chinese novel called Three Kingdoms. It’s a historical novel with a lot of characters that were real people. One of them was an evil emperor named Cao Cao. He said, “I’d rather betray the whole world than have the whole world betray me.” I realized that Cao Cao only talked about betraying the whole world. That researcher had actually done it.
You’re a visiting scientist at MIT still, correct?
Right, but that was in 1980 or so. I was employed by the MIT AI lab as a system hacker. The point is that the norms of our community said, “When people wanted some source code, you would give it to them.” He refused. He had made this agreement to get something for himself on the condition of denying it to us. That is betrayal too. I came to the conclusion that a non-disclosure agreement for generally useful technical information is an immoral act. Signing one is an immoral act, and therefore I have never done so, to my knowledge.
In the modern time at MIT, you’re dealing with a lot of people that are using proprietary software, I would imagine, at MIT?
I have nothing to do with their use of proprietary software. I should point out that while I’m a visiting scientist at MIT, my work is not for MIT. That’s a way of letting me have an office.
What kind of work do you do there?
It’s a mistake to associate my work with MIT. I have an office. It’s nice to have this office here. I can borrow books from the library, I can buy health insurance through MIT. My work is the GNU Project and the Free Software Movement and the Free Software Foundation. I talk with people who are running proprietary software. I may not know that they are. I don’t hate people because they’re victims of non-free software. I feel sorry for them. I hope they’ll change their minds. I may try to convince them, but I don’t bang on them over and over to get them to change. The point is that I don’t participate in supporting or assisting in any way in the use of non-free software.
How much of your day is occupied by your work with GNU.org?
It might be eight or nine hours a day. The rest of what I do for work is maintaining my personal website, Stallman.org where I post political notes about other issues.
You’re mostly spending most of your time with this type of thing in your day. You’re working on this, you’ve got political interest. You’re a fascinating guy to me. Just personally, do you have other hobbies or are you completely focused on this?
I do have some, although some of them I can’t do anymore. I can’t do folk dancing anymore because of injuries. That made me sad but that’s been a long time. It’s been almost twenty years.
How did you get into folk dancing?
A group started up in the dorm where I lived and a friend said, “You should give it a try.” I thought I wouldn’t be able to do it and the friend said, “Until you try it, you don’t know.” We were doing international folk dances.
What other hobbies do you have?
I don’t do it very much anymore but I used to play recorder. I used to play Balinese gamelan music. If you’ve never heard Balinese gamelan music, you should listen to it. Listen to Javanese gamelan music too. They’re played with basically the same set of instruments but the style of the music and the spirit is totally different. It’s amazing. Going back to open-source, open-source can be understood as a way of co-opting our work and disconnecting it from our ideals. It was pretty effective too because most of the people in the community at that time, 1998, agreed with the open-source values, not the Free Software Movement’s values and political conclusions. Pretty soon, the main media, including the main tech media, were saying always open-source and never free software.
What happened was they started describing me as an open-source supporter, meaning misrepresenting my views. You might as well call Bernie Sanders a Republican. I’ve seen articles that called me the father of open-source. I sent a letter to the editor saying, “If I’m the father of open-source, it was conceived through artificial insemination using stolen sperm without my knowledge or consent.” Then I present the name and the ideas of the Free Software Movement, which is the serious point in the letter, but I like starting with a joke. The point is I’m constantly trying to explain to people that, “No, open-source is not what I stand for. I started this whole thing and I started it for different reasons and it’s about your freedom.” That’s what’s important here. The open-source people say that if you make something, what we call free software, it will have practical benefits. I’m happy if it has practical benefits to you too but that’s a monstrous understatement of what’s at stake.
I have another question on this GNU/Linux combination thing. They talk about Linux being the kernel. Can you explain what a kernel is exactly?
In an operating system, there is one component called the kernel, which starts the other programs and keeps them separate from each other so they don’t get in each other’s way and it allocates the machine’s resources to each of those programs. The kernel is the lowest level part of the operating system. All the other parts of the operating system are running above that. It’s one of the major essential components of the operating system and that’s a component we didn’t have in 1991. GNU was almost finished but we didn’t have a kernel. The initial necessary system was almost finished then but what was missing was a kernel. In 1990, we started developing a kernel. We hired somebody who was smart to write the kernel for us. Unfortunately, I chose a design that in hindsight I would say was too elegant and advanced and made it a research project and it took six years to get a version of it running. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait. In ‘91, Torvalds developed Linux. In ’91, Linux was not free software. He was using a license that was too restrictive that didn’t adequately give people all four freedoms. In ’92, he changed to a free software license specifically the license that I had written, the GNU General Public License.
Why do we hear the word Linux more than GNU?
Because people are confused. In 1992, other people put GNU together with Linux. Essentially, they used Linux to fill the last gap in the GNU system. The result was the combination of GNU and Linux and it was mostly the GNU system but also had Linux in it. You ought to call it GNU something or other, because otherwise you’re giving no credit to the main developers. People started calling that combination Linux, which is ambiguous. The kernel’s name is properly Linux, and the combination; a lot of people call it Linux also. When someone says Linux, you can’t actually tell what they’re talking about. If they’re not wizards, they don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t know that the kernel is just a piece of the whole system that you might install on a computer. They say Linux for both meanings, and they don’t know that they’re speaking in a confused way. What you can install on a computer is the GNU/Linux combination which includes Linux, the kernel, and it includes the GNU system.
Did you have a relationship with Linus Torvalds or did he do this separately from you?
We’re not friends at all. He’s an open-source person. He doesn’t believe in the idea that computer users deserve control over their computing.
How do you fund what you’re trying to do? Where does that come from?
Mostly from individuals’ donations.
That keeps you feeling like you’re on the right path?
I know I’m on the right path. I don’t need other people to agree to know that what I’m doing is the right thing because I can see the effects of having or not having freedom. Even if nobody else wanted the freedom, I still want it for myself. I couldn’t advance it as fast if I were alone. Even if you don’t want freedom, I still want freedom for me. I hope I can help you have freedom but I can’t force you to take it. If you don’t want it, you can throw it on the floor and I can’t stop you. I don’t try to stop you.
I had Georges van Hoegaerden on my show and he’s a deep thinker. He’s very much into that we need to define what freedom is, because it’s not defined in the constitution and what’s going on about that. It was interesting to see his perspective about freedom. Are you as free if you can’t use credit cards or you can’t go on planes or you don’t have a cell phone?
I can use credit cards but since I know that that would result in companies getting information about me that they shouldn’t have, I choose never to use a credit card except to buy airline tickets. The only reason I use them to buy airline tickets is that they demand my ID. I would also use the credit card to rent a car, but I basically don’t do that anymore.
If some people are getting your credit card information, is that as bad as everybody getting it or is it okay because it’s just some people getting it?
I don’t want companies to get it and I don’t want the credit card companies to know what I buy.
Do you ever do prepaid things? Are we talking on your cell phone or somebody else’s?
I don’t have a cell phone. I won’t carry one because a cell phone does two intolerable things. First of all, it tracks where you are all the time. Second, it has a universal backdoor in the modem processor. That’s what connects to the cellular radio network. With that universal backdoor, they can remotely convert it into a listening device that listens all the time and transmits all the conversations. You can’t stop it by trying to turn it off because there’s no real off switch.
I imagine you’re not into Alexa at all. What do you think of that kind of technology?
I was once in a house where they had an Alexa device and I switched it off because I don’t trust Amazon to not spy on us.
I know that with Tesla sometimes you download software to fix certain things within the car. Things are getting to be a lot more connected. Is it becoming harder for you?
It’s bad for a car to be connected. A friend of mine bought a Nissan LEAF. I urged him to check whether it had a cellular modem in it and it did so he disconnected that. That cellular modem would have tracked his car everywhere.
Why is it so important to you that they don’t know where you are?
When the government knows too much about people, it can sabotage dissent and it can imprison whistleblowers. That is a terrible threat. The September 11th attacks in the US were a pinprick compared with what can happen as a result of lack of democracy. That’s nothing. In fact, if you look at what the Republicans in Congress just failed to do, they wanted to take medical insurance away from some 20 million to 30 million Americans. How many of them would die next year? You’ve got to arrange these dangers based on how big they are. You’ve got to see things in proportion. People have a tendency to overestimate the danger of something spectacular and underestimate the danger of things that are prosaic. You’ll see a lot of people who can’t think straight once they start thinking about terrorism. They are so terrified especially because the media harps on it so much, that they will say, “Tear up my freedom. Take it away. Do anything. Just keep me safe,” and the measures that are taken don’t keep anybody very safe because a lot of the things that terrorists can do, there’s just no way to predict or stop them. Meanwhile, if you look at something like tracking everybody, what can a state do if it has tracked everybody? Put them in prison for their politics? Infiltrate political dissident groups? Call them terrorists? There are laws that define some kinds of animal rights protests as terrorism.
The definition of terrorism is rather flexible. I think the right definition is making war on civilians. That doesn’t associate with any particular motive. It gets at the real point but you’ll find lots of other definitions. I don’t want to be the victim of a terrorist attack, but I realize that the chances that I would be are tiny. Whereas if we lose our human rights, if the government is too powerful, then we can be crushed by the millions. Also, I know that if we want to have democracy, which means that the people have control over the state, then we need to know what the state is doing. That’s not so easy especially since a lot of times the state doesn’t want us to know what it’s doing in our name. The only way we find out is thanks to a heroic whistleblower. It’s only because of Edward Snowden that we know how much the US government spies on everybody. In 2012, I was against government surveillance but I didn’t think I was a target of any. I was concerned that dissidents would be, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with me personally. It was my civic concerns that made me care. When Snowden showed us how we’re all being spied on, then I knew I’m being spied on too just like you.
Have you talked to him at all about this? Do you go to the White House? Who are you talking to?
Politicians aren’t interested in hearing from me about such things.
Why do you think that is?
The mindset of, “Do anything, take away our freedom, just protect us,” is so strong that hardly any politician dares to question it. I have a cartoon that was drawn for me by an artist which contrasts that with Patrick Henry. Think about it. “I will have liberty or death,” versus, “Take away my freedom, just keep me safe.” Which side do you choose? Especially when you’re looking at such a tiny danger. When you were talking about rebelling against Great Britain, that would put you in real danger. The people who declared independence for the colonies, they might have been killed for that if they lost. Yet, we respond with cowardice to extremely small threats. Nowadays, something that kills a handful of people is enough to make most Americans say, “Take away more of my freedom.” Whereas I’d say, “We just have to run that small risk. Because freedom is so important, we’ve got to fight for it and make sacrifices for it.” That applies to free software too, except that in the free software area, the sacrifices we have to make are just convenience.
This is so fascinating because of the way that technology has changed. I worked with IBM in ’85, on System/36, 38, so I’m thinking back in time of how much has changed since I’ve been in here. If what you’re trying to do is get more people to know about this, does it sometimes feel like you’re shoveling water out of the boat with a spoon because there’s so much coming in because it’s advancing so fast?
There’s no use giving up. If we gave up, we’d lose the freedom we have won. When something is this important, you just can’t give up.
I admire that you held strong to your beliefs and I think that there are a lot of people who would be interested in finding out more about what you do.
I want to say something else. If somebody had told you in 1990, “Here’s a device that will report to a radio system where you are every few minutes and that information will be saved for months and will be instantly accessible to government agencies, locked to government agencies. It can also be switched on to listen to all the conversation around you all the time and transmit that by radio. Then that also can be stocked for a long time,” how would you have reacted in 1990 to that offer?
I’m sure that most people would be surprised and concerned.
Most people would have been disgusted and said, “What do you take me for? Take that horrible thing away.” That thing is a cellular telephone. That’s what it does. Most people, however, didn’t know it did those things when they were offered it. It was offered to them as a great convenience and they decided it was one. They didn’t know what price they were paying in freedom. They got used to it to the point where if they ever did find out what it does, they said, “That’s unfortunate, but I can convince myself not to care very much so that I can go on using it and having the convenience.” I was just lucky. I’m generally slow to adopt new technology because I’ve learned to wonder what the unstated price is. By the time I thought of getting a portable phone, which was I think around 2000, I investigated what nasty software functionalities were in it and other problems and this is what I found out. I reacted exactly the same way you would have in 1990. I said, “This is horrible. What do you take me for?”
Did you talk to Steve Jobs about this or anybody at the time?
No. I was not particularly friends with Steve Jobs. I didn’t loathe him. I disapproved of some of what he did, but it was the ordinary stuff. It was later with the iPhone that he started to do something monstrous, and that was imposing censorship on applications. That was the pioneering development of the iPhone. The users couldn’t freely install applications of their choice. They could only install applications approved by Apple. Since Apple gave itself this censorship power, it is now compelled to use that power for any tyrannical government that makes the demand. Recently, Apple began blocking all VPN applications for users in China. China banned VPNs and China commanded Apple to stop people in China from installing VPN apps. Apple complied rather than lose all that money. This demonstrates that we shouldn’t allow companies to impose that kind of censorship. It’s too dangerous to people’s freedom.
We mentioned Microsoft and all the work that Bill Gates has done, you say they still have access to what you don’t want to give them to have access to. Do you think he has good motives with what he’s doing?
People who are doing something that is exploitative generally find a way to convince themselves that what they’re doing is good. They may be grasping at straws, but that’s basically cognitive dissonance at work. They don’t want to recognize that what they’re doing is a harmful and a wrong thing, so they find some aspect of it that’s good for some people and they present that as their justification. “By working as part of the structure even though it’s unjust overall, I can shield some people from the potential cruelty that the system would have if not for me.” They say that to themselves and they say that other people. What they don’t realize is most of what they’re doing is enabling the system to be cruel.
Have you ever had a debate with any of these top tech leaders?
No. I might try, but I’m not that good at debating. I tend to get frustrated and angry and then I can’t speak very clearly. There’s no need for me to have a debate because the ideas I disagree with are so familiar to everyone that everyone listening to me is going to think of those arguments anyway. No need for someone else to be present to promote them.
You’ve got some eye-opening things that you talk about and I think a lot of people have become very used to the devices they’ve used. You’re going to have a hard time getting a lot of people to give up what they feel is convenient, don’t you think?
Obviously, not in the immediate future. I don’t try to predict how much success we’re going to have because, first of all, it would be silly. So many things happen that I can’t anticipate, that hardly anyone anticipated, that any attempt to forecast would be fatuous. In any case, it’s useless to give up. Giving up guarantees total defeat. If we keep on fighting, we’ll have an outcome that’s better than total defeat.
How long have you been fighting this battle now?
I announced it in 1983, that’s 34 years.
You are an interesting guy to talk to, Richard. I could talk to you about this all day because this is fascinating. I enjoyed talking to you and it would be nice if you could share your websites and information, unless you had something else you wanted to add. How can they reach you and learn more?
The GNU project has a website, GNU.org. The Free Software Foundation’s website is FSF.org. My personal website where I post humor and political articles and daily political notes is Stallman.org.
Thank you. I appreciate you being on the show. It was nice of you to have this conversation.
One suggestion to people: If there’s some atrocity and television is showing pictures of it over and over, don’t look. You can traumatize yourself by seeing such a thing over and over. Get your news in print. It gives you a bit of emotional detachment from it and it protects you from being traumatized by looking at something horrible over and over.
Thank you for that advice, Richard. I hope everybody takes some time to look at your site. I want to thank Richard for being my guest. He’s a very fascinating guy. He’s definitely motivated to get people to know more about his movement. If you’re interested in finding out more, please check out his sites. If you missed any of our other shows, we’ve got a lot of interesting people that I hope you check out at my website, DrDianeHamilton.com/Episodes. You can listen to past episodes. Until then, I hope you join us for the next episode of Take the Lead Radio.
About Richard Stallman:
Richard Stallman is a software developer and software freedom activist. Richard has a Bachelor’s from Harvard and was a graduate student in physics at MIT. In 1983 Stallman announced the project to develop the GNU operating system, a Unix-like operating system meant to be entirely free software, and has been the project’s leader ever since. With that announcement he also launched the Free Software Movement. In October 1985 he started the Free Software Foundation, of which he is president as a full-time volunteer. Stallman has spent most of his time in political advocacy for free software, and spreading the ethical ideas of the movement, as well as campaigning against both software patents and dangerous extension of copyright laws. Stallman is officially a Visiting Scientist at MIT.
- Richard Stallman
- GNU Operating System
- Free Software Movement
- Free Software Foundation
- Three Kingdoms
- GNU General Public License