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Hacktivist Richard Stallman takes on proprietary software, SaaS and open source

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Richard Stallman, revered by some as a genius (after all, he won a McArthur “genius” grant in 1990) and derided by others as a crackpot, was in New York Monday where he warned against the dangers of using proprietary software, SaaS and even open-source software. Yes, for this famed hacktivist and creator of the free software collaborative GNU, open-source is not nearly open enough and worse, masquerades as free software. Which, he says, it most definitively is not.

Packed NYU lecture hall for Richard Stallman. Photo by Rani Molla
Packed NYU lecture hall for Richard Stallman. Photo by Rani Molla

During the lecture, held at NYU by HackNY—a nonprofit, organized by Columbia and NYU faculty, whose mission is to “federate the next generation of hackers”—Stallman advocated the benefits of truly free software.

He’s defined free software as: 

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Stallman, who founded the Free Software Movement, framed these tenets as a moral obligation to stop tyranny by big software companies and the government. These proclamations often smack of paranoia but have real-world implications. If we are subject to our software, we are not in control of it.

Proprietary software “deliberately attacks the social solidarity of your community,” by leaving people helpless against it, Stallman said. “They can’t change it. They can’t independently verify what it does to them.”

The harm it potentially inflicts ranges from installing updates without permission all the way to spying on your activity — a topic that is top of mind in the wake of NSA PRISM program disclosures by Edward Snowden.

“Almost everyone in the world using proprietary software is also using propriety malware,” said Stallman, who looks every inch the part of a hacktivist with his long mane of graying hair. He includes under his definition of “malware” such things as Digital Rights Management, which he prefers to call “Digital Restrictions Management;” nonauthorized software updates; companies requiring proprietary apps (“arbitrary censorship”); and, of course, any software that collects or distributes user information—not to mention any remote filming or recording of users. In his view, offending products include Microsoft(s msft) Windows, Mac OS(s aapl), Amazon(s amzn) Kindle (“Amazon Swindle”), flash, Angry Birds and “nearly all portable phones.” (Stallman considers cell phones, which collect data on a user’s location,  “Stalin’s dream.”)

He also claims software as a service (SaaS) is inherently bad because your information goes through a server beyond your control and that server can add additional software when it likes.

“The server has your data and it will probably show it to the NSA,” he said to a crowd that was all too aware of recent events with Wikileaks and “our great hero Edward Snowden.” Instead he encourages peer-to peer apps to avoid third parties.

That’s why he takes issue with the term open source software. He says it’s booked as a way to have people test and improve code quality at no cost, but not as an issue of freedom and justice.

“Our ideals become forgotten,” he said of open source eclipsing free software, and encouraged the audience to keep talking about free software.

Interestingly enough, free software doesn’t mean that one can’t sell software for money, as long as you can do with it as you please. This includes sharing it, modifying it, and even giving it away for others to do the same—for free.

This post was updated noon Aug. 12 to reflect some clarifications by Richard Stallman. 

17 Responses to “Hacktivist Richard Stallman takes on proprietary software, SaaS and open source”

  1. veatnik

    For some odd reason some people that dislike the Free Software license and philosophy say that it is worse for businesses than some other Open Source licenses. They seem to miss the point that GPL can be very useful for businesses that want a way to create an ad-hoc strategic partnership developing software. GPL is also useful where you are trying to provide something that is more customer centric. Another reason may be a way to free code that was a payed for product without allowing others to market that code without returning changes to the community. (A factor if the code is still useful in the business process of the company that originated the code.) The BSD and MIT licenses are also useful, but in other situations. For example they are great for example implementation code for standards and standard libraries. GPL can also be used for libraries. Note that in the potential debate for either style license for libraries, some significant plusses and minusses appear that can guide a choice. (Dual licensing may also be a good option for libraries in some cases.)

    While some people seem to gravitate to one side or the other in the debate, (One side likes to label Stallman as a crackpot) I find that both styles of license can be very useful depending on what you intend to accomplish. I will side with Stallman having a genius as the GPL actually has some significant benefits for certain business situations that no other license provides. (Explanation: I worked for a company that time after time gave up and lost control of significant technology in strategic partnerships where a GPL style agreement would have prevented the ill affects of the bad agreements that had been used.)

  2. Stallman is not against open source software, since nearly all open source software IS free software. He is against using the label “open source” instead of “free software” because the open source movement emphasizes ideals such as collaboration and the potential for better quality software and deemphasizes the ideals of freedom and the importance of being in control of one’s computing rather than being controlled by it. The free software movement started by Stallman is fundamentally based on these ideals of freedom. He believes that talking about software freedom is as important as writing free software, and the term “open source” tries to avoid talking about freedom.

  3. Ryan Northrup

    Correction: Stallman founded the Free Software *Foundation*. The free software *movement* has been around in some form or another since the 60’s/70’s as a side-effect of hacker culture.

  4. Kane,

    This isn’t complicated. “Open Source” is nothing more than an attempt to hi-jack the Free Software community by relacing the core value, freedom, with pragmatism. Typical “Open Source” people learn to value the following characteristics of software:

    1. The software contains many features
    2. The software is dubbed as being more secure
    3. The software can be obtained for little or no money

    And here’s the sad part; Adobe, Microsoft, Apple, and the thousands of other producers of freedom-restricting software can deliver on every bullet point listed above. They can do that because everything listed above is subjective.

    If this is really that confusing, please take a moment to read Richard’s essay where he explains things in more detail:

  5. Kurukkan

    He is considered a crackpot for his uncompromising stand. How many of us posted our comments from machines which entirely use open source software and firmware? His concepts are very idealistic and are unpractical in the current economic scenario. Even the big corporates who used to keep a sympathetic view, eventually drift: the recent example of Google abandoning open standards. Others shamelessly make a mockery of it all: Oracle and MySQL (or Open Office).
    He is the lone enlightened mouse frenetically trying to make the others realize what the pied piper’s real nature is. But the music, is so entrancing.

    • “His concepts are very idealistic and are unpractical in the current economic scenario.”
      “He is the lone enlightened mouse frenetically trying to make the others realize what the pied piper’s real nature is. But the music, is so entrancing.”

      You show a very poor understanding of economics, and not sure what you mean by idealism. Because this ‘idealism’ is what is actually successfully happening all over the world. is just a small portion of ‘free software’, there are literally tons developed by thousands of programmers all over the world!

  6. How exactly is open source worse than free software? Open source you can do anything you want because you can see the code. Ask anyone what “free software” means. To most it would probably mean any software with open or closed that does not cost money.

    • As you’ve brought up, there’s a naming problem. Some people prefer to say “Libre” or join the terms as “FOSS” (free and open source software). For what Stallman is talking about, free software is open source AND has copyleft/user freedoms. But in terms of PR, it’s a hard sell, I agree.

    • The author mentioned that others have called him a crackpot, he didn’t draw that conclusion from the lecture. Many do not understand him, so sadly they label him.

      • I agree it’s from misunderstanding, but it’s classic use of “weasel words” to generate enticing controversy. “Some people,” “others,” “many,” etc. all let you editorializing without actually stating facts or opinions that are backed up or verified.

  7. Introduction is completely uncalled for. I would be surprised if you’d introduct Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer with the most obvious reservations many people in the free software community have about them and the damage they have caused.