Free Software – Free Society?

Interview with Richard Stallman*

Richard Stallman, you are a pioneer of the Free Software Movement. What was the idea behind that movement?

Our aim is to get rid of non-free software, replacing it with Free Software, that respects our freedom. I think, most Free Software supporters also support certain human rights such as freedom of speech, they are against censorship – but we have had people campaigning against censorship long time before I was born! One does not have to hold any particular political stands to support the Free Software Movement, people do not entirely lean agreement on other political issues.

Where do the beginnings of the Free Software Movement date back to?

In the seventies, I was working at the Artificial intelligence Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I experienced what it was like when people shared their software as well as when they refused to share. Sharing is deeply related to the principles of scientific cooperation – something we pointed to when sharing our software with others. Even if the source code of our operating system at AI Lab was different – it ran on assembler on a certain machine – the spirit of cooperation in which we had worked was later on applicable. In September 1983, I announced the GNU Project, and in January 1984 I quit my job at MIT to start writing GNU – an operating system and an extensive collection of computer software, which is wholly Free Software. That means, that the users have the freedom to execute, copy, distribute, investigate, modify and improve it.

Why should Free Software be used by everyone? Are there certain requirements for that?

Users should not be under the power of proprietary software, not to be exploited, spied on, restricted, controlled and attacked, addicted and lied to by those owners. One does not necessarily have to have high levelled computer skills to use Free Software, also people, who do not have a hacking background are able to use it!

It is often said that GNU/Linux is a complicated operating system with complicated software ...

Of course, the average user is not going to change code by himself, but he can join with other users. Those, who cannot program, can do other work for the Free Software community. But there is even something more important at stake. In general, one can notice what people talk about computing. They focus on the short term, such as: Is it convenient? Is it easy? This is the way that people have been thought to evaluate everything in computing – and I disagree with that. I urge people to ask first of all: Does it respect my freedom? Is it mistreating me, is it giving someone power over me? Freedom is worth fighting for! It makes sense to sacrifice your convenience for freedom, but it does not make sense to sacrifice your convenience for a little convenience...

In terms of the political, one’s freedom ends where it restricts the freedom of others. General Electric and the Pentagon are using GNU/Linux as well as NGOs...

They are welcome to! Would it be better, if they were using Windows or MacOS? They have the freedom to use it like everyone else does and so they use it, there is no requirement to pay permission. Some organizations and people do things that we consider evil, but we cannot try to end evil by restricting the use of our programs. What would we have gained if we made General Electric use Windows?

This would also change the policy of GNU/Linux...

Exactly! It would destroy our community and gain nothing. This is the reason why we reject licenses, that try to limit the use of a program to ethical activities only. We would reject those licenses, regardless of the details.

In your talk, you also mentioned that IBM could legally integrate the code of Apache in its own proprietary webserver. How is that possible? Could you tell us more about the different General Public Licenses (GPL) Free Software is dealing with?

Under Apache's licensing terms, IBM did not have to make any particular kind of deal with Apache. This has to do with the advantages and disadvantages of various free licenses. A weak license like Apache’s says you can do that, a copyleft license would have told IBM, that it can’t do that. A weak license is a free license that is so permissive, that it even allows the material to be converted into non-free. For example, in Creative Commons (CC), the license CC-BY is a free weak license. CC-Share-Alike, for example, is a free copyleft license, but it is not a weak license. It was implementing the idea of copyleft I first had around fifteen years ago.

What IBM did, was lawful, it is only permitted by the license of Apache. But it is not morally legitimate, because non-free software is never morally legitimate! This is something that tends to trip people up. They tend to think, that putting free code into a non-free program is a bigger evil – but it’s a more ironic evil. Actually, a non-free program is the same evil, no matter where the code comes from. However, I may be able to block it if I forbid the use of my code in a non-free program. I can’t stop you from writing a non-free program, but I can stop you from including my code in it. I wish I could stop you from writing it, I wish I could convince you to give up on the idea, I wish you would not write it and I wish I could convince everybody to refuse to use it. I could try to convince people, but I can say it’s illegal to use my code in your non-free program – with a copyleft license.

Today, nearly everyone around the world uses a smartphone – something you deeply refuse...

Every smartphone has the potential to spy on people, that’s the reason why I call it a spyphone. Even the old-fashioned non-smartphones do spy on the user in the basic ways – they track the user’s movements and they also can be converted into listening devices. I refuse to carry a portable phone, instead, I use a landline phone and when I am on the way, I use portable phones that are not mine. It is not necessary to have one, the usual way I communicate with people is by email.

What would you recommend to protect online privacy?

Data once accumulated will be misused in any way. One of those forms is that the state collects data and uses it against you – if you are perhaps a dissident, a whistleblower or a journalist. We need to prevent the collection of data, that is most sensitive, most susceptible to hurting people with. It calls for laws – and that’s what we’re going to work for! I don’t claim for all the political methods that might succeed, but we have to stop focusing on protecting one’s privacy individually and start organizing to protect everyone’s privacy by forbidding systems of massive surveillance. Surveillance is the foundation for tyranny and to prevent this, we have to prohibit massive surveillance!

Interview, conducted on Friday, 07. June 2019, FH Technicum

*Ungekürztes Original-Interview, gekürzte und übersetzte Fassung erschienen in: AUGUSTIN No. 487 - 08/2019 (Print-Version), S. 8 – 9

Mein Statement zur Epstein-Affäre findet sich hier