The outspoken Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

We have Richard Stallman to thank for software that forms the “GNU” part of the GNU/Linux operating system. He is also part of the Free Software Foundation, an organization dedicated to spreading the idea that, in essence, we ought to be masters of our technology, technology being our slaves. He would agree that we ought to resist attempts by commercial interests to make computer enslave us.

It is well-known that computers are being forced to do just that. Software is being made to “call home” through an internet back door, potentially tracking your every keystroke. This is usually through commercial software. But even websites collect enormous amounts of data, down to the IP of the machine you use to surf the web. Indeed, it’s a real problem, and even those who are only mildly computer literate, would seem aware of the fact that somebody “out there” is collecting information on you. The news media will also be glad to give you occasional reminders that you had better watch what you say on Facebook, beware of your web surfing habits, because your boss might find out about it, and you are soon out of a job. Your future employment would also be in jeopardy.

Well, that is enslavement writ large. This is a radical change from over a generation ago. Back then, what you said outside of work was your own business, but now through the magic of software, you could be writing an email to a friend which can now be copied to another location and potentially be used against you. Cell phones are now made to trace your location, even when you are not aware that it is happening. Stallman is right to point out that this is a civil liberties issue, and this ought to concern us.

The Free Software Foundation that Richard Stallman is the head of is precisely about this kind of freedom. It is not necesarily about sofrware being free (as in “free beer”), but more about freedom (as in your inherent rights as the owner of a computer, and as one who posesses software). You can sell the software you get through the GNU project, and you can also modify it any way you like. He has been present on many interviews on the Internet, and a search for his name brings up a number of videos of Stallman expounding his beliefs about his brand of “Free Software”.

The computer field is packed with those who differ from each other in minutae. It’s the computer field, after all, so the dominant gestalt is that it is all about minutae. But this became a serious enough problem that as of 2005 we needed to have to distinguish between the “Free Software movement” and the “Open Source movement”. Apprarently, very different. Different enough that Stallman stepped down as president of the Open Source Initiative and founded the Free Software Foundation, leving behind author and EMACS wizard Eric Raymond. Hmph.

The Open Source Movement began in 1998 with Netscape, which codenamed their source “Mozilla”. They still retain the name. By 1998, the GNU/Linux operating system had been 5 years old, and Linux kernel inventor Linus Torvalds had taken a neutral position on “open source” or “software freedom”. However, the source code for his kernel was, and still is, free for anyone to download, modify and compile. Indeed the true authors of the kernel consist of a cast of thousands, with Torvalds giving final approval.  Open source focuses on a working model for software development, and for marketing. It did not advocate freedom enough for Stallman’s liking.

A pertinent graphic found on the one of Stallman’s websites. Hopefully, it’s Copyleft

But what would happen if one completely invested themselves into the ideal of software freedom at this point? You would have to start by getting rid of your cell phone. That Android may be open-source, but it is full of malware from the manufacturer that tracks your every move. Same goes for iPhones. That tablet would, in most cases, would have to go, since the Adndroid or Apple-owned, Microsoft-owned, or Android OS that runs on it would also suffer from the same problem. You literally need to toss them or shelve them until GNU/Linux comes up with something that gives you your human rights back.

Your shiny new desktop PC, if it is running any commercial OS or software such as MS Windows, or Apple’s Snow Leopard, has to now run Linux, which as already said, may not have current enough drivers to take full advantage of the newest hardware. I speak from personal experience, as my tablet PC, made in 2009, has drivers for it, but pen, touchscreen, and the fingerprint scanner either misbehave or no driver yet exists for it in Linux even today.

If you really believed in Software Freedom, you would be dead against this thing which is has the Orwellian name “Digital Rights”. These are not your rights that are being protected, but the rights of, well, digits, essentially. If you buy your DVD movie in North America, and decide to pack the DVD in your suitcase to go on vacation in Europe, you will find you cannot view the DVD on a player sold in Europe. Digital rights also restrict your reasonable and fair viewing of digital media sucha as a DVD in many other ways, and it is thus seen as a handcuff placed on consumers. So, no DVDs for you. And along with that, many games which have no inherent need for an internet connection, but nevertheless cannot seem to run without one. Sony and Amazon are other companies you cannot do business with any longer.

As for web browsers, you might have to consider ditching Flash, Silverlight, and to prevent Google and other sites from adding sneaky obfuscated Javascript code on to your browser (if you know Javascript, obfuscating it is not hard to do), you might want to disable Javascript. Also, the very idea of an execution environment for random applets is a security threat, so you would need to disable Java.

After all that disabling, turfing, and Linux installing (on a slightly old PC, not your shiny new one), what are you left with? Still an impressive system, with software that gives you freedom, but probably not up to the standards of young people who want to impress their friends with their shiny new gadgets. To have shiny new gadgets, you have to trade away your freedom in various ways. While some have decided to do everthing I have mentioned and more to gain their freedom, it comes at a price. They have to do without tablets and cell phones. They can’t even have a Kindle to read e-books on the subway. They will have to subsist on reading a real book, I suppose.