Interview: Dr Richard Stallman

The self-styled global crusader for computer users’ freedoms is in town – and ever-ready to challenge the orthodoxies of software dictatorship.

Using one of his nicknames for computer products that, in his view, trample on software freedom, Dr Stallman says: “This appears to be an iBad. It has malicious features. It is designed to restrict the installation of applications. So, if you value your freedom you should get rid of this. Apple is a pioneer in attacking the freedom of the users. It should be illegal. The fact that it’s legal doesn’t mean we need to accept it”. Stallman, as anyone who knows of his reputation will be aware, is a man of strident opinions.

He is sceptical of any software that cannot easily be modified by a user: “Someone who controls software is going to use it to abuse you. Every once in a while we see someone make a pioneering increment in the level of malice. Apple was the first to turn its consumer products into a jail. And now Microsoft has done it also.”

Stallman enumerates four freedoms, beginning at number zero, that software should provide for it to be considered ‘free’, rather than encumbered. “Freedom zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom one is to be able to study the source code as you wish. Freedom two is the freedom to help others by providing exact copies of the software to them. And freedom three is the freedom to make and distribute modified copies. “These four freedoms enable the users to defend themselves against these malicious features,” is one of Stallman's keynote claims.

Why should software be singled-out for a specific set of freedoms? It is a matter of practicality, he argues: “You can’t modify hardware very much, so the question of whether you are free to do so is unrelated to practical issues. And you are free to modify hardware to the extent that it is feasible. So if you have wooden furniture there are many things you can do with it.

“On the other hand,” he adds, “changing a computer chip is practically impossible, whether it’s forbidden theoretically or not. There is malicious computer hardware, but we can’t fix it by modifying it.”
With software, in contrast, Stallman says, change is possible – and it is crucial: “With software there are two possibilities. Either the users control the program, or the program controls the users. The latter is an injustice. Software does what it is programmed to do and it may have malicious features. That is quite common by the way: most computer users are the victims of malicious features.”

By being able to change source code, independent programmers can take out features that they consider malicious, as well as adding functions that they want the software to do. This does not force everyone to learn programming to be able to consider themselves in control over their computing, in Stallman’s view, as the modified copies will work their way around the world, and users “will certainly prefer the version that isn’t malicious”.

This defence is only possible with free software, Stallman claims: “It is not possible with proprietary software. I don’t think there is a perfect defence against malicious software.” Even in a world where only free software is allowed, there is nothing to prevent a vendor or independent programmer from inserting malware into the source code in the hope that it will not be uncovered; but Stallman counters “With free software the users have a defence and that is better than no defence. There may be malware that was put in intentionally or there may be bugs. But the users will be able to help themselves and help each other. You are inevitably dependent on the society around you. But that is very different from dependency on proprietary software. If you are a non-programmer, you are not dependent on one entity.”

Stallman believes the DIY philosophy of free software is more effective than better legislation over proprietary software. Although the French government has told Apple it could not impose restrictions on users that the company uses on its iPod and iPhone products, Stallman does not believe countries have the will or ability to limit companies’ activities.

“Governments are more on the side of companies who are trying to rule us,” he avers, pointing to laws designed to prevent users from breaking “digital handcuffs” such as copy protection, “and no-one can prohibit mistakes.

Nowadays, he observes, we live under the “corporate empire”: “Governments bend over backwards to let companies keep secrets. Patent law supposedly exists to discourage trade secrecy. Now, however, you find governments supporting the practice of trade secrecy. All the parties pretend to be democratic, but on each issue they do what business tells them to do. They get us to tolerate policies that shouldn’t exist.”

The effect of economic globalisation has been to convince governments that they have to encourage companies to remain in a country, rather than being able to tell them how to operate, Stallman argues: “Companies already rule because the state is not legitimate. The effect of globalisation of business power is to weaken democracy”.

The Free Software Foundation started by Stallman in 1985 has built-up a following that has done what governments are not willing to do, he says: “We have created an island of freedom in a world where most computer users don’t have freedom. Complete success would be to liberate all the users. But at least it’s a start. Overall, I would say we have been moving towards more freedom.”

It is a partial reversal of a trend that Stallman encountered after he arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1970s, an environment where free software was the norm rather than the exception. Although computer systems such as IBM mainframes typically ran proprietary software, smaller systems made by DEC would ship with an operating system that, as Stallman recalls, did not even start up displaying a copyright notice: something that is now normal practice: “It was free software. Then free software mostly disappeared. Most users were easy suckers for proprietary software. They thought of software only in terms of what job it could do. But for some of us, we lived our lives through the software we worked on. Not having freedom in that was repulsive.”

As the hacker community around MIT drifted away from its original principles and the institution decided its own computers should run proprietary operating systems, says Stallman: “I realised the only way to have a free software community was to construct one. Without that I would be miserable for the rest of my life. And I would also be ashamed of myself because it was doing work that was not ethical and was serving to subjugate people.”

Software that uses the ‘copyleft’ licences developed by the FSF, such as the GNU development tools and the Linux operating system, have made it possible to build a new generation of computer systems that run what Stallman calls free software. His own (slightly grubby) white laptop is an example: “In this system the operating system is free, the applications are free, and the BIOS is free. It didn’t come with a completely free operating system, so we replaced that.”

Other devices – such as mobile phones – are beginning to run free software. “Android is an interesting step in that direction,” according to Stallman. “It doesn’t in general get us all the way there. The situation with Android is rather complicated. The source code of Android is released as free software. However, any real phone comes with non-free applications as well. It may have non-free drivers. And often the phone is a jail. The users have to struggle to replace the executables of the supposedly free software. An executable is not free software if you have to struggle to replace it and not have it really work. In these cases the source code is free but the executable may be not be even though the executable may be the result of compiling that free source code.”

Once the product lets you replace it then the executable would be free software. “We are just beginning to get the germs of freedom in phones,” Stallman observes, pointing to an example based on Android called Replicant that so far can only be installed on the HTC Dream handset “which they haven’t made in some years”. The group behind Replicant is working on a version that will run on the newer Nexus One, and the HTC Wildfire.

Fans of other phone-software platforms, such as Meego, built using free or open-source software, who worry about Google’s influence on Android may be surprised by Stallman’s recommendation; but he is focused on results.

Says Stallman, “There is plenty that is wrong with Android. It is not the case that all Android users are using their computers in freedom, but it is a major push towards that. That less of the system may be non-free in Meego than in Windows 7 Phony is not relevant. There is a very clear, sharp line. A non-free program is not acceptable if you want to live in freedom I evaluate a system whether there is non-free software in it. If it isn’t acceptable, as such, I ask could it be the base of making something acceptable? And Android has already served as the base for making something acceptable. It may be that the work to be done to get from Meego to a completely free system may be less than starting from the iBad system or Windows Phony, but it’s big enough that nobody’s done it. In the case of Android somebody has done it.”

One of the big problems with putting together a phone that could be considered free, judged by Richard Stallman’s principles, is that the code for the drivers that control the hardware is frequently not available in source form. The drivers may even configure and control the circuitry itself, as companies take advantage of the growth in transistor count to make chips programmable and, therefore, more flexible. The hardware manufacturers dislike releasing this code, because it is so closely tied to circuit designs that they want to protect.

“That’s tough on them,” says Stallman. “We should not cater for companies’ desire to keep secrets. We have to recognise that we have enemies and enemies don’t deserve to win. When their interests are set against our freedom their interests don’t matter. We have to fight them, and find one that will cooperate and endorse that one and boycott others until we push them into respecting our freedom.”

For Stallman, what constitutes reprogrammable hardware is largely a matter of how it is exposed to a user rather than actual implementation. A read-only memory (ROM) soldered to a circuit board is not something a user would ever be expected to replace. However, an increasing amount of consumer hardware uses programmable processors or reconfigurable logic that can be used for later upgrades, very often applied by the user through a network connection or a USB port.

“If it’s not normal to install a program then maybe we can ignore it. If it behaves like a circuit, we can treat it like a circuit. If it takes the form of a program for users to install, it is unethical to not have the source code,” says Stallman.

As the universe of software-based products expands, what happens when a job calls for something that runs code that does not conform to Stallman’s four freedoms? “I don’t think there is a job that needs to be done so badly that it is worth giving up my freedom for,” Stallman says, “and if there were one, I know what I would need to do and I would have to go do it. You can use it as an excuse – or you can make it better.”

The remaining Richard Stallman - Free Software Crusader lecture dates are: 2 March – Preston; 3 March – Dundee; 5 March – Sheffield; 7 March – London; 8 March – Brighton; 10 March – Paris.

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