An evening with Richard Stallman, the father of Free Software (Not Open Source)
Day 2 of KLF featured Richard Stallman, founder and developer of the GNU interface and professor of artificial intelligence at MIT during the 1970s and 80s. Before the session began, he requested us to not take any of his photographs, discouraged us from using Facebook, because Facebook uses us, which is apparently true, and, if we really did want to take a picture of him, he asked us to ensure that the location feature in our phone’s camera is turned off. This made me wonder if he’s wanted by the CIA or NSA. Jokes apart, the guy sitting in front of us is a legend, a pioneer in free software and computing.
The session was at Stage Aksharam and was attended by a crowd that had no idea what was coming. Stallman started out with a simple presentation that was aimed at explaining what Free Software means. He reiterated that free doesn’t mean ‘sawjanya’ but ‘swathantra,’ as in, giving the user freedom. He said that programs shouldn’t control users and instead it should always be users who control the program. Free software respects the freedom of the users and community. Non-free program controls the user and the developer controls the program, this makes the program an instrument of unjust power. It all comes down to you knowing what a program does for you. His presentation was simple and funny at times. Yes, it was a power point presentation with slides, but it was comical, cartoonish and with just the right amount of humor which ensured that we were all listening attentively which made for a very informative session.
Richard Stallman talks about four freedoms with respect to any software program:
Freedom 0 – the freedom to run or execute the program.
Freedom 1 – It should be possible for users to study the source code of the program and edit it.
Freedom 2 – Users should be able to redistribute copies of the program.
Freedom 3 – Users should be able to modify the program by changing the source code and then redistribute the modified program.
‘Free software developers don’t get corrupted because we don’t have power, so we are safe’ – Stallman says smiling from the dais.The next part of the presentation focused on the need for this freedom and some real world examples where the users were denied these levels of freedom and thus made to suffer. The digital rights management in blue ray discs which he likes to call as ‘Digital Restrictions Management’, and Amazon Kindle which is the ‘Swindle’ as per Stallman were two examples. He mentioned how in 2009 Amazon remotely deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from their Kindle devices leaving readers both angered and surprised. Angered, because readers lost copies of their favorite book and Students lost their notes and study materials. Surprised, for it was not known that Amazon could delete downloaded copies of books from Kindle as and when they wished. This is enabled and made possible by back doors. He now urged us to think about the possibilities of a back door in a driverless car. ‘The state can pass commands to the car that will take you to their secret prison for questioning’ – Stallman joked with seriousness. He also made reference to the censorship jail of Iphone which is the ‘Imonster’ for him. He reminded us how Apple is now a pawn of China.
Moving on, Stallman mentioned the difference between the Free Software Foundation and Open Source. The Free Software Foundation was formed first in 1983 and the free operating system GNU was released. The GNU is completely a Free Software in all aspects. But later, the Linux kernel was added to it and then everyone started calling it ‘Linux’. Stallman says that instead, it should be called GNU/Linux and when you don’t, you’re not giving due credit to the creators of GNU. Later, there were programs added to the GNU/Linux system and these were called distros- short for distribution packages. The add-ons were both free and non-free software and this is where a major schism occurs. When you add non-free software to the GNU package it violates the freedom of the users. Focusing more on the practicality of the free-software movement the Open Source Software movement came into being in 1998. They sought to use to the name Open Source as it would do away with the confusing usage of ‘Free’ in the Free Software movement and also would foster better sales relationship with businesses as the concept of freedom is not the big picture. Stallman was initially for the OSS but later he decided to stick to the FSF as he saw the ideological differences between the movements. He explains this in the following article. He also joked that calling him Father of OSS (which a lot of people tend to do) is like calling Dr.Ambedkar the father of Narendra Modi, which again drew laughter from the crowd. The OSS guys are similar in many ways to the Free Software dudes, but they don’t emphasize freedom and advocate convenience and its advantages as a trade-off.
As the session wound down, Stallman donned the avatar of St. IGNUsius and started speaking about his church of Emacs. The crowd was enthralled and dumbstruck by his halo which used to be a computer disc. He gave his blessings to the audience and our computers. Then IGNUsius started auctioning items to raise money for the FSF especially a GNU fluffy doll. There was a merchandise counter which sold souvenirs and another counter which gave away free stickers.
Blog by Davis Jose