Monday, January 21, 2008
Richard Matthew Stallman, popularly known as “RMS”, the founder of the GNU Project and The Free Software Foundation (FSF), was in Sri Lanka this week. He is an American software freedom activist, a hacker, and software developer. In September 1983, he launched the GNU Project to create a free Unix-like operating system. Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft and is the main author of several copyleft licences including the GNU General Public Licence, the most widely used free software license. He has also developed a number of pieces of, highly used development tools, including the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), the GNU symbolic debugger (GDB) and GNU Emacs. Stallman co-founded the League for Programmeming Freedom in 1989.
The Nation Economist was able to get a special interview with the software freedom activist. The following are excerpts.
(Q) What is Free Softwear?
(A) ‘Freedom’, I believe, is translated into Sinhala as “Nidahas.” Free Software means, software that respects the user’s freedom. The idea is that computer users should be free. The crucial issue is always: what are the essential freedoms that everyone should have?
They should have four essential freedoms.
• Freedom 1: The freedom to run the programme as you wish.
• Freedom 2: The freedom to study source code and modify the programme.
• Freedom 3: The freedom to copy the programme so you can help your neighbour.
• Freedom 4: The freedom to improve the programme, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.
So this makes the software part of human knowledge. So you can adapt, extend and pass on to each other.
The other alternative is user subjective software or proprietary software/non-Free Software. Software that keeps users divided and helpless. If you are forbidden to share with people, then it is unethical to use it at all. Fundamentally, unethical, because it is attempting to divide people, and helpless, because the users don’t have the source code, as it is kept secret, so they can’t change anything, they can’t even tell what the programme is really doing. This is, fundamentally, unethical, because it is dividing people. These developers are keeping the users helpless. These are predatory practices, which resembles colonial systems. After all, how does colonization work? Divide and rule. Keep people divided and helpless, and then you can get what you want from them. That’s what proprietary software does. It keeps you divided, by saying you are not allowed to redistribute and they keep you helpless, by not giving you the source code. This gives developers power over the user. That power is unjust. Proprietary software is, fundamentally, wrong. The goal of the free software movement is to put an end to this injustice. Our aim is, there should be no proprietary software, that all software should be free. Users of software should have the freedom they want.
(Q) The term “Free Software” has been widely misunderstood. Is it software that is free of charge?
(A) Not necessarily. It is a misunderstanding. It is because, in English, we don’t have a good word for “Nidahas”. We only have the word “free” which can also mean “gratis”. So, it causes confusion. It even took me a few years to recognize these two different meanings of the word “free”, have to be carefully distinguished. In Sinhala and Tamil, these two words explain it well. You have to get the meaning of this word right. It’s not a matter of price at all. It’s a matter of freedom. So, if you think of free speech, it is not free bear, then you will understand free software. I have nothing against programmemers getting paid to write software. In fact, most software programmemers paid to write are not meant to be proprietary, it’s custom software. One client wants to use it and is paying for its development. And that is ethical, as long as the developers respect the client’s freedom. So, most of the software has nothing do with this question. But most users are using proprietary software. That means they are victims. They are under the power of developers, who are usually mega corporations, such as Microsoft, Apple, Dobby, Oracle. There are many of them, as in the case of European colonisation, like some countries managed to grab more colonies and others managed to grab a few colonies, but still, its wrong. So, rather than trying to judge which colonial power is better, we should put an end to it.
(Q) How did you learn to appreciate free software?
(A) It’s trivial for people who are naturally born programmemers. Once you get an idea of programmeming, it is obvious. I read manuals of computers and thought of programmeming. To learn, I had to do it. I was absolutely fascinated by it. By chance, at MIT, I met a free software community. In the lab, the software we had was free. We were happy to share it with anybody at any time.
(Q) Was this the Hackers’ community?
(A) That’s right. We called our selves hackers. To be a hacker meant that you were fascinated by computer programmeming. But, more generally, hacking meant and still means playful cleverness. So, if you enjoy finding opportunities to play at being clever and if you admire other people’s playful cleverness, then you are a hacker at heart.
(Q) But isn’t it unethical to hack?
(A) It might be, in some cases. But generally, no. This term was confused in the 1980s. When the world found out about hackers, they focused on one kind of activity some hackers do. Some hackers, sometimes, do things like breaking security. Why did hackers originally, start breaking security? Because, at University, there were administrators who would stop them from using the computers, usually, for stupid reasons. There would be a computer nobody is using. Then, there would be somebody with something interesting to do, using this computer. Administrators would oppose that person citing rules and regulations. So, this clever person, the hacker, who enjoyed playful cleverness, rather than beat his head against the wall, would just go around and use this computer anyway, for research. It was not a matter of harming anyone. Because, these computers were meant to be used by university students for work and interesting things. So the people who want to use these computers did not let the bureaucrats get in their way.
The reason that they did was because they were fascinated by programmeming and they loved playful cleverness. So, their solution to any problem would be playful cleverness. This was not anybody’s privacy. The computer did not belong to any person. It belonged to the university, for students to use it. They did not steal anything. It wasn’t a bank’s computer. It was just a computer facility at university, meant for research.
I am not in favour of theft. Its fine that banks should have security and I don’t want people to break that security. I don’t want anybody to take my money or your money.
(Q) What happened at AI Lab, once you stared working?
(A) Initially, we had a free software community and eventually, it died due to commercial outside intervention.
(Q) So, that means there were people who had made free software before you?
(A) For sure. It was just the people’s way of life. I did not invent free software. In fact, in the 1950s, lot of software was free. Because, nobody thought of restricting the user. Even in the 1970s, there was still a fair amount of free software. Some operating systems were free software. During the 70s, that mostly disappeared. And by the 1980s, the lab’s free operating systems became obsolete too. Our community died for other reasons.
So, I found myself facing the prospect of looking at the rest of my life without freedom, without community, without anything but, a world of ugliness. I did not want to live that way. I thought, I would make life ethical. I am going to fight for freedom. So I started the free software movement. I did not invent free software. I launched a movement to bring back the freedom to cooperate with other people.
(Q) What is GNU project?
(A) I want to be able to use computers that have freedom and cooperate with people. Computers won’t run without an operating system. There wasn’t one. So, I decided to develop one. I named it GNU. There were about 50 operating systems at that time, but none were free. There were many different kinds of computers with many different operating systems. They were different in technical ways but, in terms of freedom, they were all same.
(Q) When you founded the GNU project, what was the reaction of the public?
(A) The public did not react at all. But, some programmemers were enthusiastic, and volunteered to write part of the system. So, in 1990, we had most of a part of the system. But one important part was missing. That part was the kernel, the programme which allocates the computer’s resources to all the other programmes which it runs. It’s the lowest level of the system. The other parts runs on top.
1992 Linux, which is a kernel, was released. So, when we put together GNU, which was mostly complete and Linux, to fill the last gap, the result was free operating system, which was basically GNU, but contained Linux as well. So, GNU plus Linux is the fair name for it. And ever since, it has been possible to use computers free.
The Community is developing more and more free software. Here you find SAHARA, a rather noteworthy piece of free software developed for disaster coordinating activities. Developers of these can be in one continent, while its Users can be anywhere.
I personally don’t do much of programmeming now. There are many who develop free software now. Most important thing I do now is to spread the idea of freedom. I have always been a freedom fighter. In the 1980’s, the best way I could contribute is writing software, because there weren’t many of us then. What I contributed personally, was an important part in what we did in 1980. It was a substantial part.
(Q) What is the difference between “Free Software” and “Open Source”?
(A) Free Software and Open Source are the slogans of two different movements with different philosophies. In the free software movement, the goal is to be free to share and cooperate. We say that non-free software is antisocial, because it tramples the users’ freedom, and we develop free software to escape from that.
The Open Source movement promotes what they consider a technically superior development model that usually gives technically superior results. Free Software and Open Source are also both criteria for software licenses. These criteria are written in very different ways but, the licences accepted are almost the same. The main difference is the difference in philosophy.
(Q) What are your views on the IT sector in Sri Lanka?
(A) It’s difficult to say. I have been here only a few days. Yet, I can see Sri Lanka has the same problem as in the US, which is most people are using proprietary software. This is a social problem which needs to be corrected. Like Microsoft, they restrict users’ freedom. So, you should not use them. You should use software that can be used in freedom.
You get a lot of practical benefits by using free software. It is almost like having freedom of speech. The particle benefits you get are you don’t pay lots of money to mega corporations, and mega corporations can’t restrict you freedom, because they are using unauthorised copies. Trying to stop people from sharing is evil. Government should never allow that.
(Q) What is your advice to aspiring young software developers in Sri Lanka?
(A) My advice is don’t make the mistake of thinking about software only in terms of practical convenience. Don’t forget about freedom. Don’t forget about social solidarity. Anyone trying to stop you from sharing information, is trying to tax society. Don’t let them get away with it. If you develop software, respect the freedom of the user. Don’t try to subjugate other people and don’t let anybody subjugate you. You deserve to be free.