Harsh Kapoor on Fri, 26 Oct 2018 23:26:29 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Richard Stallman in New Left Review (September-October 2018)


richard stallman


Interview by Rob Lucas

You’re widely recognized as the world’s leading campaigner for
software freedom, having led the development of the gnu operating
system. Today, the gnu /Linux operating system, and free (libre)
software more broadly, underpin much of the internet, yet new
structures have emerged that can wield a great deal of power over
users. We’d like to talk to you about the present computing landscape
and the political relevance of free software. But may we start by
asking about your formation, as a programmer and as a thinker—how did
it all begin?

I grew up in Manhattan, born in 1953. I was a behavioural problem—I
couldn’t go to a public school without getting in trouble—and started
working with computers at an early age. In 1969, during my last year
of high school, an ibm lab let me come and use their computers. In
1970 I had a summer job there. They gave me a project to do,
implementing a certain algorithm to see how well it would work. I
finished that in a few weeks, so they let me spend the rest of the
summer being paid to write whatever I felt like. I went to Harvard to
study physics, and carried on programming there. Towards the end of my
first year I started visiting computer labs to look at their manuals,
to see how the computers differed. When I visited the Artificial
Intelligence Lab at mit, they didn’t have much by way of a manual,
because they had developed their own time-sharing system. The
administrator there decided to hire me more or less straight away. So
although I graduated from Harvard in 1974, I had actually been an
employee at mit for three years. Harvard’s computer was a lot better
to play with than ibm’s, but it didn’t have a lot of memory, whereas
mit’s computer at the ai Lab had plenty. Not only that, they let me
change the time-sharing system; in fact, that was my job—they hired me
to work on that system. I added lots of features to lots of different
programs—whatever I thought of, or people suggested to me, that seemed
like a good idea, I would implement and then people would use it. And
this was absolutely delightful—and gratifying to make things that
people used and appreciated—so I kept working there. From that point
on, I did programming using the machine at mit.

Were there any people at mit who were influential in how you learned

There was Richard Greenblatt, who later started the Lisp Machine
project; to some extent there was Don Eastlake. And Bill Gosper,
although he was more of an inspiration in terms of hacking and math
than in how to program. There were a lot of smart people there. But
also I was inspired by the attitude at the mitai Lab, where the
hackers said: ‘We’re not going to let the administrators tell us how
to do things; we’re going to work on what they need, but we will
decide how; and we won’t let them implement computer security to
restrict us with.’ This was a conscious decision of the hackers who
had written the time-sharing system, which they’d started a couple of
years before I got there. Their attitude was, yes, the administrators
could fire us, but we were not going to suck up to them. They weren’t
going to stand being treated like ordinary employees. I wouldn’t have
had the strength to do this on my own, but as part of a team, I
learned it. We were the best, and most of us weren’t getting paid an
awful lot—any of us could have got a much better-paying job someplace
else if we’d wanted. We were there because we were free to improve the
system and do useful things, the way we wanted to, and not be treated
like people who had to obey all the time.

And this had the consent of the ai Lab’s directors?

To some extent. The Lab’s leaders, Marvin Minsky and Patrick Winston,
were perfectly content with it. Minsky, I was told, didn’t like having
doors locked, because he had a tendency to lose his keys. So the doors
to the Lab and all the offices inside it were always open. There were
no passwords for the time-sharing system. There was no file
protection—literally: anybody could sit down at any console and do

To what extent do you think that the collective ethos at the mit ai
Lab back then—which is a striking feature of this history, and is
typically cited in the origin stories of free and ‘open source’
software—was premised on the fact that you were working with a
different kind of technology?

It had to do with the fact that we used a shared computer. The pdp-10
was the size of a room and cost a million dollars, so to get another
one was not easy. Time-sharing started in the 1960s, but even in 1980
no one thought we could afford a computer for each person—not a real
computer. Yeah, there were these toy pcs, but what could you do with
those? The point is that when people share a computer, either they do
so as a community, where they trust each other and resolve disputes,
or it’s run like a police state, where there are a few who are the
masters, who exercise total power over everyone else.

So you’d agree that the origins of the free-software movement had
something to do with the shared use of a computer?

Yes and no. At the mitai Lab, the hackers were the authors of the
software and were also in charge of the machine. Perhaps guided by the
spirit of Marvin Minsky, we developed a culture of welcoming everyone
to come and work on everything, and share. So, we resisted security
measures. Anyone could look at anyone else’s terminal through the
system. If you had real work to do, you didn’t do that very much,
because you were busy. But the kids, teenagers coming in over the
internet—Arpanet, as it was then—they would watch, and they would
learn things. They would also watch each other and notice if someone
was causing harm.

So they could watch people programming?

Yes, they could. Our way of dealing with kids coming in over Arpanet
was to socialize them. We all participated in that. For example, there
was a command you could type to tell the system to shut down in five
minutes. The kids sometimes did that, and when they did we just
cancelled the shutdown. They were amazed. They would read about this
command and think, surely it’s not going to work, and would type
it—and get an immediate notification: ‘The system is shutting down in
five minutes because of . . . ’

It sounds like chaos.

Except it wasn’t, you see. There was always a real user, who would
just cancel the shutdown and say to that person, ‘Why did you try to
shut the machine down? You know we’re here using it. You only do that
if there’s a good reason.’ And the thing is, a lot of those people
felt outcast by society—they were geeks; their families and their
fellow students didn’t understand them; they had nobody. And we
welcomed them into the community and invited them to learn and start
to do some useful work. It was amazing for them not to be treated as

And these kids were primarily coming in over Arpanet?

A few would come in physically, but most came in over Arpanet.

One thing that’s striking about that culture—which is legendary in the
history of computing—is that it flourished in an institution largely
funded by the American Defense Department. Do you find it paradoxical
that this sort of freedom could develop under the carapace of the

It’s paradoxical, but it actually makes perfect sense. They wanted to
fund some research. They didn’t need to make it be done by jerks and
downtrodden people—they just wanted it to get done. During the
seventies, a number of the hackers at the ai Lab were bothered by the
fact that it was funded by the us military. I thought that what
mattered was what we were doing, not where the money came from, and at
some point I reached a conclusion that funding from business was much

Worse than funding from the military?

Much worse, because the businesses would try to restrict the use of
what you did.

Nevertheless, this was the state that was bombing Vietnam.

Yes, it was. I was against the Vietnam War, just like everyone else in
the Lab, but we weren’t helping them bomb Vietnam. Our work wasn’t
particularly military, or even likely to be used in the short term.
For instance, Greenblatt did a lot of work on chess programs; I mostly
worked on improving various system programs—I developed the first
Emacs text editor during that time.

At what point did that culture change—and how?

Even in the ai Lab, by the late 70s there was pressure from the
administration to try to get things under control, which I explicitly
resisted. Once I was in the elevator with an administrator who had
instituted some forms that every user was supposed to fill out, and I
hadn’t. He said, ‘It seems you haven’t filled out the user forms.’ I
replied something like, ‘Yes, I don’t see a reason to.’ He said,
‘Well, you really should fill them out, otherwise somebody might
delete your directory, if it isn’t clear what it’s for.’ I said, ‘That
would be rather a shame, since some of the system source code
currently resides in my directory—it would be rather a problem for the
Lab if it got deleted.’ The thing is, I could do things and he
couldn’t. But by around 1980, somebody insisted on putting on
passwords on the time-sharing machines at the mit Lab for Computer
Science. I’d been getting paid half and half by the ai Lab and the
Laboratory for Computer Science, but at that point I switched to just
the ai Lab, because I wouldn’t do anything for lcs anymore.

Did other people have the same reaction?

Many did, but the others basically got worn down, and eventually gave
in. Over the period of the seventies, the spirit of resistance got
worn down in others, whereas it got strengthened in me.

How do you explain that?

I don’t know. I guess I had found something worth being loyal to, and
I basically had nothing else.

It was at this point too that commercial ventures began dividing the
programmers at the ai Lab?

It was a process that happened over a few years. Greenblatt started
the Lisp Machine project—Lisp was a particularly powerful programming
language, in which a program has a simple, natural representation as
data that other programs can operate on. Everyone at the Lab agreed it
would be great to start a company to make Lisp Machines, so other
people could have them, but there was disagreement about how to do it.
Greenblatt wanted to start a company without outside investors, but
the other hackers questioned his business acumen. So he brought in
Russell Noftsker—the man who had hired me in 1971, when he was the
administrator of the ai Lab. Noftsker then decided to jettison
Greenblatt and start a company with investors, in the usual way. So
around 1980 two rival companies got started—the second, Symbolics, by
stabbing Greenblatt in the back. I didn’t want to join either
company—I just wanted to keep working at the ai Lab, which for me was

Were similar dynamics of commercialization affecting the hacker
culture elsewhere, at Stanford for example?

I don’t know. I visited Stanford, but I wasn’t there enough to know
what sort of things were going on.

How did the rivalry of these two companies affect the situation at mit ?

To begin with, both Symbolics and lmi, Greenblatt’s company,
cooperated in maintaining the mit Lisp Machine system. But in 1982—in
fact on my birthday, March 16—Symbolics announced that mit could no
longer include its changes into the mit version of the system, which
meant everybody had to choose a side: the Symbolics system or the mit
system, used also by lmi. And, as a neutral who had just been attacked
and given an ultimatum, I really had no honourable choice except to
fight that side. I always thought of this as war, and I understood my
part as a rearguard action. My goal was to keep the mit version of the
system viable long enough for lmi to escape being destroyed by
Symbolics, which was its goal. They were making all their improvements
available to mit, of course. But I didn’t want to read their code and
then write something similar, so I looked at their documentation and
then implemented a comparable feature—not necessarily the same,
because I had a chance to do it better, and often I saw a better way
to do it.

Except that there were, what, a dozen of them and one of you?

There were more like six main guys. But, yes, I had to match what they
did, so I worked very, very hard. But this showed me that I could do
something big like gnu.

Right. So that was an education, in a sense?

It was. It was an education in concentrating very hard on getting
software features working—making them as clean as I could, and getting
them working reasonably soon. Anyway, they couldn’t destroy lmi this
way, but they could work on another generation of computer, which lmi
couldn’t. And in 1983 their computers, their newer versions, started
to arrive, and the mit system couldn’t run on them. I saw that I would
be unable to continue what I was doing. But I also saw that I had done
enough—it had been a successful delaying action; it had enabled lmi to
get going and start developing another model of computer, and hire
some people to do the software for it. So then I decided, I don’t want
to spend the rest of my life punishing Symbolics for its aggression—I
want to try to build a replacement for what they destroyed.

You mean, the culture at the ai Lab?

The culture—but above all the hacker community, and a system that we
could work on freely and share. But having a free-software community
depends on having a body of free software you can use—and that’s why I
had to develop another operating system. The only way there would be a
free operating system was if somebody wrote one for modern
computers—ordinary computers, rather than special ones, like the Lisp
Machine. By the 1980s, lots of people were buying ibmpcs. Although
they were still weak at that stage, I realized that future pcs would
be able to run the system I was going to develop. That meant it was
best to make a system compatible with Unix, which gave me the basic
parameters of gnu.

It’s interesting that you describe it primarily in terms of creating a
community, rather than creating the technology.

The community needs the technology—you can’t have a community in which
software-sharing is your way of life unless you’ve got free software
to do everything. The point is, the software had the purpose of making
the community possible. But part of the idea was that I wanted
everyone to be part of this community—the aim was to liberate all
computer users. At the same time, I was getting one lesson after
another in the injustice of non-free software. mit had bought a new
machine which ran Digital’s time-sharing system, twenex, instead of
the one we’d been developing; it had security features that allowed a
group of users to seize power over the machine and deny it to others.
I saw the repressive rules for student computers introduced at
Harvard. I suggested they apportion a computer to each group of
students living together, and let them all run it; those who were
interested would develop the skill of system administration, and they
would all learn to live together as a community by resolving their own
disputes. Instead I was told: ‘We’ve signed contracts for proprietary
software, which say we’re not allowed to let any of the students get
at them.’ This was a proprietary operating system that made it
possible to have programs that people could run but couldn’t actually
read. It taught me that non-free software was a factor in setting up a
police state inside the computer—which at the ai Lab was generally
understood wisdom; I wasn’t the first to call that ‘fascism’. I was
also the victim of a non-disclosure agreement, which taught me about
the nature of those agreements—that they are a betrayal of the whole
world. [1]

The gnu /Linux operating system now constitutes a very significant
part of global computing infrastructures, and has countless
contributors globally. How did you go about writing gnu at the
start—to what extent was it a collective endeavour?

In the early days there were not very many people participating.
Gradually, more joined. I tried approaching companies to see if they
might fund the effort, but none did. I’d announced the gnu project on
Usenet in September 1983—Usenet was a pre-Internet system for net
news, set up by at&t. Initially only one person actually wanted to
work, so there were just two of us when we started in January 1984. At
that point, I formally quit my job at mit, but the head of the Lab,
Patrick Winston, offered me the use of the Lab’s facilities to do the
development work, which was helpful. In 1985 we set up the Free
Software Foundation and published the gnu Manifesto; that attracted
more volunteers. Coming up with replacements for all the components of
Unix was a big job, and I had to find people to do each part. This
stage, I’d say, finished around 1990, when I got to be a little
famous, got an award and got more attention.

This was more or less coterminous with the development of the modern
internet, in terms of the publication of Berners-Lee’s proposal for
the worldwide web. What explains the attention you were getting at
that moment—the attractions for programmers of the free-software

We’d drawn up the gnu General Public Licence, which guarantees end
users the freedom to run, study, share and modify the licenced
software program. It was the first ‘copyleft’ licence for general
use—meaning that software deriving from that program has to be
distributed under the same gpl terms. Most of all, we were producing
software that lots of programmers were finding useful because it was
more reliable than the commercial proprietary alternatives. Someone
did an experiment, testing the various programs—versions of Unix, or
our free replacements—to see whether the program would crash. Ours
were the most reliable.

Could you explain why they were so reliable?

I guess because we really cared—and we would really fix bugs that the
users reported. Not only that: users could send us fixes, as well as
just bug reports. We had a policy of thanking users for their bug
reports. The main milestone was passed in 1992, when we had a complete
system, using the kernel designed by Linus Torvalds. We’d started
developing a kernel in 1990, but the design I chose turned into a
research project—it took six years to get a test version. So Linux is
the kernel that we actually use with gnu, for the most part.

And Torvalds fortuitously used a gnu licence to do it?

Not initially. In 1991, Linux was proprietary. In ’92, he re-released
it under the gnugpl.

You persuaded him?

No, I didn’t—I had never heard of him at that point. But he had, I
believe, seen me give a talk at the Helsinki University of Technology.
When he freed the kernel we could use it, calling that combination

What’s your definition of free software?

Free software is software that respects users’ freedom and community.
It’s not about price. It’s libre, not gratis. With any program, there
are two possibilities: either the users control the program, or the
program controls the users. When the users control the program, that’s
free software—they control the things they do with it, and thus it
respects their freedom and their community. If they don’t have full
control over it, then it’s user-subjugating, non-free proprietary
software—the program controls the users, and the program’s owners
control the program, so it becomes an instrument of unjust power for
the owner over the users. For the users to have control, they need
four specific freedoms—the concrete criteria for free software.
Freedom Zero is the freedom to run a program however you want, for
whatever purpose you have. Freedom One is being able to study the
program’s source code and change it so that you can make the program
run the way you wish.

What about people who can’t do that—ordinary users who aren’t programmers?

I don’t think that everyone has to learn how to program—not everybody
has a talent for it. But they still deserve control over their
computing activities. They can only get that through collective
control, which implies the right of users to work together to exercise
control over what the program does for them. So further freedoms are
necessary for collective control. Freedom Two is the freedom to make
exact copies of a program and give or sell them to others. Freedom
Three is being able to make copies of your modified versions, and give
or sell them to others. This makes it possible for users to work
together, because one of them can make a modified version of a program
and distribute copies to others in the group, and they can make exact
copies and pass them on. That’s free software—and all software should
be free, because the user’s freedom should always be respected. Every
non-free program is an injustice. The fact that it exists is a social
and ethical problem for society; and the goal of the free-software
movement is to put an end to that.

You’ve argued that this foregrounding of freedom radically
differentiates your movement from so-called ‘open source’, which
started later.

Open source is an amoral, depoliticized substitute for the
free-software movement. It was explicitly started with that intent. It
was a reaction campaign, set up in 1998 by Eric Raymond—he’d written
‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’—and others, to counter the support we
were getting for software freedom. When it started, Eric Raymond
called me to tell me about this new term and asked if I wanted to use
it. I said, I’ll have to think about it. By the next day I had
realized it would be a disaster for us. It meant disconnecting free
software from the idea that users deserve freedom. So I rejected it.

It’s one of the ironies of the history of free software that its
moment of greatest fame was associated with this term, open source,
which you reject.

Because it’s not the name of a philosophy—it refers to the software,
but not to the users. You’ll find lots of cautious, timid
organizations that do things that are useful, but they don’t dare say:
users deserve freedom. Like Creative Commons, which does useful,
practical work—namely, preparing licences that respect the freedom to
share. But Creative Commons doesn’t say that users are entitled to the
freedom to share; it doesn’t say that it’s wrong to deny people the
freedom to share. It doesn’t actively uphold that principle. Of
course, it’s much easier to be a supporter of open source, because it
doesn’t commit you to anything. You could spend ten minutes a week
doing things that help advance open source, or just say you’re a
supporter—and you’re not a hypocrite, because you can’t violate your
principles if you haven’t stated any. What’s significant is that, in
their attempt to separate our software from our ideas, they’ve reduced
our ability to win people over by showing what those ideas have
achieved. People who don’t agree with us—people who think what matters
is what’s convenient—have a right to present their views. But they did
it in a way that misrepresents us, too. And that, I think, is unfair.

In that sense, it really does appear a kind of political recuperation.

I wouldn’t use that term—to recuperate means to recover from some sort
of illness, and I don’t see who’s recovered here. I would call it
co-optation—they co-opted our work. They did it intentionally, and
they succeeded to a large extent. They would have succeeded 100 per
cent, except that we fought back.

Could you explain in concrete terms how non-free software is unjust for users?

The mere fact that the users can’t add features, can’t change
features, and can’t fix bugs is an injustice. The users of old
versions of programs that are no longer supported are effectively
compelled to change to a newer version, whether they want to or not.
Non-free, proprietary software is also much more likely to be
malware—to contain malicious functionalities, of which there are many
kinds. Non-free programs can spy on the users, report on them. Many
are designed specifically to restrict what users can do—that’s their
purpose. The proponents of these malicious functionalities have a term
for this: they call it ‘digital rights management’, drm. That’s a
propaganda term—I never use it. I call it Digital Restrictions

Then there are backdoors, which means that somebody can send a command
remotely to the program and tell it to do something to the user, as
Microsoft did when it forced users to upgrade to Windows 10—whether
it’s upgrading or downgrading is a matter of opinion—and then made it
impossible for them to cancel. This apparently was done through
commands sent to Windows remotely by Microsoft, which essentially owns
those users’ computers, because it put a universal backdoor into
Windows. Just as a computer is a universal computing engine, because,
with the appropriate program, it would do any computation, likewise,
these backdoors are universal, because, by forcibly installing the
appropriate code, they could forcibly do anything to the user.

Another form of malicious functionality is tying the program to a
specific remote server, as has happened with the so-called ‘Internet
of Things’—which I call the Internet of Stings. If they shut off the
server, the product—the refrigerator or the heating system—doesn’t
work anymore. Sometimes these products have a universal backdoor, and
the company can forcibly change the software such that the users can’t
do certain things anymore, unless they go through an account on the
company’s server—which means it’s tracking them. Anything that you
have to make an account on is tracking you.

How would you periodize the development of these malicious functionalities?

In the 1980s, I would say proprietary-software developers had some
ethical standards—in general you could count on them not to put
anything malicious into a program, and if something of that sort was
found it was a real scandal. In the 1990s, Microsoft’s Windows
operating system did spy on people in some ways: it reported to
Microsoft what programs were installed. But there were so many
objections that Microsoft had to take it out—and there were also
commercial competitors to Windows at that time. Once Microsoft had
established an effective monopoly, it felt it had a licence to
mistreat users and reinstalled the software. Windows xp had a
universal backdoor when it was released in 2001.

Apple and Microsoft—how would you compare them?

Microsoft and Apple have been changing places. For a long time,
Microsoft was the main enemy of users’ freedom, and then, for the past
ten years or so, it’s been Apple. When the first iThings came out,
around 2007, it was a tremendous advance in contempt for users’
freedom because it imposed censorship of applications—you could only
install programs approved by Apple. Ironically, Apple has retreated
from that a little bit. If a program is written in Swift, you can now
install it yourself from source code. So, Apple computers are no
longer 100 per cent jails. The tablets too. A jail is a computer in
which installation of applications is censored. So Apple introduced
the first jail computer with the iPhone. Then Microsoft started making
computers that are jails, and now Apple has, you might say, opened a
window into the jail—but not the main door. A study of mobile apps
found that, on average, each app informed a hundred different sites
about the user; the worst one informed 2,000 sites. [2]

What about Google?

Google distributes proprietary software—parts of Android are
proprietary—which includes a backdoor. With very few exceptions, all
Google services require running non-free software; it’s Javascript in
a webpage, but it’s still non-free software that they insist you run
on your computer. And of course Google does other bad things,
including collecting lots of data from users. Gmail goes through
Google Services, and Google looks at it to try to learn things about

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Skype?

I have never been a used of Facebook—I call them ‘useds’, not ‘users’,
because Facebook is using them. If people take photos of me, I ask
them not to post them on Facebook. Instagram is the same, as far as
I’m concerned, since it’s the same company. The bad thing about
YouTube is that you have to run non-free software to watch something
from the site in the usual way, and it doesn’t offer an option to
download unless you use specialized software. Skype is designed to be
snooped on by Microsoft. But there are free-software
alternatives—Linphone, Ekiga, Jitsi. The Free Software Foundation’s
high-priority projects include developing real-time voice and video
chat, as well as a free phone operating system.

How does the periodization of these technological developments relate
to that of state surveillance?

I started to be concerned about surveillance in the 1990s, when I
found out how portable phones were being tracked and learned about the
spying going on through Windows. In the late 1990s, the us law that
enabled wire-tapping on telephone exchanges was extended to digital
servers. But the big change came after the second September 11
attacks—the 2001 us terror attacks, that is, not the Pinochet coup in

The nsa was given a huge amount of money for digital surveillance at that point.

Right. The pat-riot Act was proposed then—I always split the acronym
like that; I’m not going to attach the word ‘patriot’ to such an
un-American law that explicitly authorizes massive surveillance. When
a program spies on its users and sends the data to a us company, under
the Act the fbi can collect all that personal data without even going
to court. Worse, the data can be used to profile people, and then
manipulate them.

Was it from this point that so-called ‘big data’ really began to
develop into something that could be harvested and scanned?

Maybe it was just beginning then, but I think the real collection of
lots of information about people, and the warping of technology into a
scheme to collect people’s data, didn’t start until five years or so
after that. Of course, there are other forms of
surveillance—surveillance is not solely done through non-free
software. By rejecting non-free software, which we have plenty of
other reasons to do, we block certain paths for surveillance over us,
but not all. For instance, the cameras on the street that recognize
licence plates, and maybe now faces—we can’t block that by insisting
on free software on our computers. The only protection against that
kind of surveillance is political. We need to demand, and campaign for
parties that will protect our privacy from government oppression.

But you think that the question of surveillance intersects with the
issue of free software?

They’re related issues—I don’t know what it means for issues to intersect.

Okay. How is the free-software movement related politically to other
issues—does it have any natural allies?

The free-software movement doesn’t require you to have any particular
political stand on other issues. And the Free Software Foundation
doesn’t take a position on other political issues, except to defend
human rights in computing—because the freedom to control your
computing must be regarded as a human right. That also includes not
surrendering your computing to anybody else’s server, because you
can’t control how it’s done by someone else’s computer; those services
that offer to do your computing for you are inviting you to give up
your freedom. We oppose general surveillance, because that’s a
violation of basic human rights. But, for instance, there are
right-wingers that support the free-software movement. We welcome
them. I don’t agree with them on other things, but I’m happy to have
their support in campaigning for free software.

Basically, free software combines capitalist, socialist and anarchist
ideas. The capitalist part is: free software is something businesses
can use and develop and sell. The socialist part is: we develop this
knowledge, which becomes available to everyone and improves life for
everyone. And the anarchist part: you can do what you like with it.
I’m not an anarchist—we need a state so we can have a welfare state.
I’m not a ‘libertarian’ in the usual American sense, and I call them
rather ‘antisocialists’ because their main goal is a laissez-faire,
laissez-mourir economy. People like me are the true libertarians. I
supported Bernie Sanders for President—Clinton was too right-wing for
me—and the Green Party.

Would it be quite right to say there’s no anti-capitalist dynamic to
free software? After all, capitalism proper involves excluding most of
the population from means of production, and free software makes such
means readily available to anyone. Market exchange is another matter,
and could also characterize libertarian socialism, for example.

As I understand the term capitalism, it doesn’t necessarily mean that
there are quasi-monopolies or oligopolies that politically dominate
the world. I do condemn the current system of plutocracy very
strongly. When I talk about capitalism, I mean private business. There
is a difference between the economic system that the us has now and
what it had in 1970. There are two different forms of capitalism, you
might say—this one I call extreme capitalism, or plutocracy, in which
businesses dominate the state. I’m definitely against plutocracy, but
I don’t wish to identify capitalism with plutocracy, because there are
other forms of capitalism that I have seen in my life. Basically,
businesses shouldn’t decide our laws.

So your political orientation would be to some kind of social
democracy with a mixed economy?

Yes. But that’s economic; and my political orientation is democracy
and human rights. But to have democracy means the people control the
state, which means the businesses don’t. So, in terms of economy, yes,
I favour having private businesses. I don’t think state restaurants
could have made the meal we just had.

This raises the issue of how free software is related to broader
questions of control and ownership.

Control and ownership are not the same. Some people propose a
capitalist-market solution to data harvesting and surveillance, which
is that people should ‘own’ their data and be paid a tiny amount for
surrendering it to a company. [3] This is a complete red herring and
won’t solve any practical problems. Another approach, adopted by the
new European Data Protection Directive, is to require people to give
‘consent’ for their data to be collected. That’ll help against certain
things—namely, data collection by systems that you never knew you were
using, or never agreed to use. But it’s so easy for them to get formal
consent that it’s a worthless barrier. Any site that has a Facebook
‘like’ button, or a Google Analytics tracker, just needs to include in
its Terms and Conditions—which nobody reads—a statement saying: ‘I
consent to my visit being recorded by various other sites that have an
agreement with this one.’ I call this ‘manufacturing consent’. Consent
regulations may be useful against Facebook, because it’s been tracking
visitors to thousands, if not millions, of websites for many years,
and hasn’t even bothered to get this sort of consent—so Facebook is in
trouble if it uses any of this data. But in future this will probably
just be a formal restriction, and not a matter of substance. We should
not allow any collection of data that goes beyond the minimum that is
inescapably necessary for the site to do its main job—and then we
should develop technology to reduce that minimum-necessary amount.

Does that imply that, ideally, people would be doing more computation
on their own devices?

Yes, people should. People who are not programmers are likely to
think, ‘Well, I’ll never have control—I don’t know how to change these
programs.’ And that may be true, that they’ll never directly change
programs themselves. But when you’re using a free program to do the
job, there’s a user community, with many users, some of whom are
programmers. They can fix bugs, they can add features—it means the
program will never be discontinued, because the user community will be
able to fix the problems, and you’ll get the benefit—and not only
that: the fact that the program is free is a powerful deterrent to
malicious functionalities, because the programmers are aware that they
have no power over the users. This means they don’t get corrupted, the
way proprietary developers do.

This brings us back to ownership and control. With free software, you
always own your copy, which goes with having control over it. You
don’t own the program, in an abstract sense—well, if you wrote it, you
do. But usually the program was written by others, so you don’t; but
you do own your copy. Whereas, with proprietary software, the
developers normally say that users can never own a copy. Proprietary
software typically carries what I’d call an anti-socializing contract,
usually known as end-user licence agreements, or eulas. We speak of
the socialization of children—teaching them to be nice to other
people, help and cooperate with others. Well, this contract does the
exact opposite—people have to commit to not making copies for other
people, not lending or giving their copies to others. I’ve never
agreed to such a thing. Sad to say, most people already have, without
thinking about what they were ceding.

That suggests there ought to be a kind of imperative for all users to
commit acts of civil disobedience?

Absolutely. But, beyond that, governments should pass laws saying that
agreements of that nature are invalid—that they have no legal force in
this jurisdiction, no matter where they were signed. This applies to
non-negotiated contracts, where the terms are just imposed: ‘If you
want this, agree to the contract’—there’s no chance to negotiate, and
that’s the great abuse. It’s different when the parties actually talk
about what terms they want; there may be no need to restrict those.
But when the powerful bully the weak into agreeing to contracts—we
have to reject that strategy on a moral plane. I believe that the
freedoms of free software should be inalienable rights of all users of
software. But also, perhaps, the freedom to give, lend or share copies
of any published work should be an inalienable right. Governments
should actively block or prohibit all methods that deny people that
right. These anti-socializing contracts are one method—they’re the
legalistic method; they should be rendered legally without force. As
for digital restrictions management, that should put you in prison for
many years—it should be a felony to make, sell, lease, import products
with drm.

In material terms, the biggest impact that free software has had in
the world is its use by the technical community, on servers and by big
business . . .

And that is not my goal. I wanted to give freedom to the users, not
the companies. Yes, I believe that a company ought to have control of
its own computing. It doesn’t make the world a better place if Company
A’s computing is under the control of Company B. But liberating
companies from this mistreatment is not my priority. It’s humans, it’s
people, that I want to liberate.

But the question remains: gnu /Linux distributions are widely used for
web servers—probably a majority of servers run them. So when people
are interacting with a website, they will typically be interacting
with free software in some sense, but that doesn’t prevent the sort of
abuses you’ve been detailing here—backdoors, data collection.

When you visit a website, you are not using the software that’s in the
web server—the organization which owns the website is using that
software, to talk to you. Computer scientists are accustomed to
analysing systems by saying that the thread of execution can move from
one computer or process to another. In some scenarios, it makes
sense—technically. But I don’t think it makes sense for a discussion
about ethics, not when the scenario involves entities that can’t trust
each other and whose interests conflict. The scenario in which I visit
your website involves two entities, you and me. The programs in your
web server are working for you. The browser and other programs in my
laptop are working for me. They are not a single system, they are two
systems which communicate. Of course you don’t control the software in
some other entity’s website—why should you? And how could you? You
don’t, and you shouldn’t—but that’s fine. If I’m talking with you, I’m
not using your brain. But we’re talking, and you’re using your brain.

Certainly, users visiting a website are likely to be interacting with
someone else’s computer that’s running free software, and that doesn’t
necessarily help those users. Just because the server uses free
software, and the company whose server it is can change it, doesn’t
mean visitors are treated ethically. And whether or not a website is
on a computer that is running free software, it may be collecting data
about users. Also, it’s very likely to be sending non-free software to
their browsers, to run on their machines. Many websites do this. That
software does the visitor’s computing, and the visitor doesn’t control
it—because it’s non-free software, and because it’s running directly
as it’s sent from the server. It’s not easy for the user to interpose
control over that.

Suppose some of the software in the web server is not free. Who does
that hurt? The entity whose website it is—so I would urge it to free
its websites by switching to free software; that’s in its interest.
But I have no reason to boycott a website just because there’s
non-free software running it, just as I have no reason to boycott a
restaurant because their cash register has non-free software in it—I
don’t use their cash register.

So how, more broadly, should we address that issue of entities on the
internet that may well use free software on their own servers, but
interact with their user base in very opaque ways, wielding a lot of
power over data collection and so forth?

Collecting data is a separate issue, and it’s the responsibility of
separate laws. Free software avoids a particular mechanism of
injustice—but it’s not coterminous with all of ethics for computing.
And this shouldn’t surprise people; there are various ethical issues
in life. If you look at a store, for example, there are different
ethical questions that can arise, and you wouldn’t expect that one
requirement would fix them all. For instance, the store can mistreat
the staff. The solution to that might be to encourage unionization,
have strict laws to prevent wage theft. Then there’s discrimination,
which is mistreatment of those who aren’t staff but would like to be.
There are other issues that affect the customers only—for instance,
are the products what they are said to be? A union might ensure the
staff get paid, but might not care about cheating the customers. There
are multiple ethical issues; and we shouldn’t expect that correcting
one kind of injustice automatically corrects the other kinds.

Given that that’s the case, again, are there related political
campaigns that you would support?

Putting an end to massive surveillance that endangers human rights.
For this, we need to require that all systems be designed to limit the
amount of data they can collect. You see, data, once collected, will
be misused. The organization that collects them can misuse them; rogue
employees of that organization can misuse them; third parties,
crackers, can break into the computer system and steal the data and
misuse them; and the state can take them and misuse them. Laws
restricting the use of the data, if properly enforced, would limit
misuse by the organization collecting the data, and maybe to some
extent misuse by the government—though not enough, because the state
will usually give itself exceptions to do what it wants. It will write
the laws so it’s allowed to get those data, and use them to find
whistleblowers and dissidents.

On the other hand, if the system is designed not to collect data, then
it can’t be used for that, unless the state intervenes to alter it. So
unless you can be confident that the state will respect
democracy—which is hardly the case here—and respect the right to
dissent, you should make sure that massive surveillance is not going
on. I’ve proposed various technical approaches for designing systems
to collect much less data—you can see them on the gnu website. [4] The
basic point is: when there’s another Snowden, how do we make sure the
state can’t find that person?

You would argue for legislative campaigns to restrict this type of surveillance?

Legislative and juridical—there are people who go to court to try to
stop the collection of data, or limit the use of it. My point, though,
is that if we really want to secure our privacy, we’ve got to stop the
collection of the data. Rules to limit how the collected data may be
used may do some good, but they’re not very strong protection. The
privacy issue is broader—the cameras that recognize licence plates and
track cars: this has been used to crack down on dissent. For instance,
there was a picket at a uk coal-fired power plant, and suspected
protesters were tracked and then stopped on a road by cops, who held
them there until the protest was over, not bothering to charge them
with anything. [5] It’s clear that they were not suspected of any
crime—there were no grounds to charge them with anything. It was a
digital attack on dissent, surveillance used to sabotage democracy. It
would be good to establish an archive of all these incidents.

What’s your view of platform cooperativism—the idea of creating
cooperative alternatives to things like Uber, for example?

In general I’m in favour, but it doesn’t automatically address all the
wrongs. Mistreatment of workers may be avoided by having a
worker-owned cooperative—the workers will treat themselves as well as
is feasible in the circumstances. But that doesn’t mean they will
treat the customers ethically. What’s wrong with Uber? Well, one thing
is, it pays drivers peanuts, which is why I call it Guber, and that’s
a good reason to refuse to use it. But even worse is the way it
mistreats customers, making them run non-free software and keeping a
database of where each passenger has gone. Uber has actively tried to
eliminate all other alternatives by running at a giant loss,
undercutting competitors, aiming to drive them all out of business.
Now, if that were replaced with a worker-owned cooperative, they might
basically keep running it the same way, but with higher pay for the
drivers, who are now the owners—which would not make it any more
acceptable, in my view. It’s not just a matter of labour versus
management, or whether a company is mistreating its workers; the
rights of the customers are equally important, and just having a
worker-owned cooperative will not guarantee that these are respected.

How about a cooperative of users and workers? There’s been the idea of
Twitter’s user base buying it out.

Maybe. I’m not sure whether it makes sense to do this for a ride
company, though. What does it mean for the customers of a ride company
to be co-owners? You can’t expect every passenger to do that. And if
they were co-owners, that wouldn’t protect them at all unless they
insisted on anonymity, and, at present, most people don’t think about
it enough to insist.

Perhaps the example of Twitter makes more sense; you could imagine a
Twitter that was owned by its users and workers. And it’s imaginable
that the user community would be able to ensure that, for example,
Twitter ran only free software.

Oh, but that’s a different question. Of course, they ought to do that
for their own control over their operations. Twitter probably does run
mostly free software already, because that’s standard practice in
servers. They’re probably running the gnu/Linux system, plus a lot of
software that they wrote, which is free software in a trivial sense.
But that’s not what affects justice for the users, as I’ve explained.

What do you think about the idea of creating socialized alternatives
to the data-hoarding tech giants—as mooted in these pages by Evgeny
Morozov? [6]

I think it makes little difference whether data are collected by
governments or by companies, because either way the data menace
whistleblowers and dissidents. Whatever data businesses collect, the
state can easily get.

How about the various attempts to create federated alternatives to
Facebook and Twitter—social-communication software like gnu social and

Not just attempts—they work. And from what I hear Mastodon, which is a
sort of upward-compatible offshoot of gnu social, is getting to be
rather popular. However, the difficulty with a social network is its
‘network effect’. Suppose Facebook released all its software as free
software: you could set up a server doing the exact same things that
Facebook’s servers do, but you wouldn’t initially have any users. The
main thing that pressures people to be Facebook useds is that the
people they know, or want to communicate with, are useds as well. My
ethical analysis of a communication system with a network effect is
that the useds of Facebook are victim-coperpetrators. They may
recognize that it mistreats its useds, yet they go along and become
one because other people are pressuring them to. But, as a result of
surrendering, which means they’re victims, they then become part of
the pressure on others to do the same—a victim-coperpetrator, in other
words. This is the same with Skype, and any other such system that
mistreats people but which lets them communicate with each other.
Normally, if you’re using a non-free program, you’re the victim of
that, and so I wouldn’t rebuke you, I would only encourage you to
stop. But, where there’s a network effect, I would say it’s your moral
duty to cease pressuring others to use, and be used by, that system.

I’ve found gnu social close to a replacement for Twitter, whereas
Diaspora was more like Facebook.

That’s what I gathered. I’m in favour of projects like these, because
I know they’re useful for other people, but it wouldn’t fit my
lifestyle. I just use email. You can call me the Mailman—as in True
Names, Vernor Vinge’s science-fiction story.

It’s often argued now that attempts to deter American corporations
from massive data collection, in the name of privacy or civil
liberties, will allow China to win the new ‘space race’ in
machine-learning and artificial intelligence. What’s your response to

Freedom and democracy are more important than advancing technology. If
China and the us are in a race for Orwellian tyranny, I hope the us
loses. Indeed, the us should drop out of the race as soon as possible.
Our society has been taught to overestimate the importance of
‘innovation’. Innovations may be good, and they may be bad. If we let
companies decide which innovations we will use, they will choose the
ones that give them more of an advantage over us.

A complementary argument is that Silicon Valley may have the advantage
over China in terms of innovation, but that the next stage in ai will
be about implementation—the sheer amount of data an organization can
run through the algorithms, and the scale of its processing
power—where China has the advantage of a population four times greater
than the us. (This seems to be the claim of Kai-fu Lee in ai
Superpowers.) How do you view these developments? What are the
implications in terms of, first, software freedoms, and second, civil

Such ais will work for companies; their use will be to help companies
manipulate people better and dominate society more. I think we should
restrict the collection of data about people, other than
court-designated suspects. If that holds the companies back in
developing ai techniques to help them dominate society, so much the

Quantum computing is being touted as the next digital
breakthrough—variable ‘qubits’ rather than the zeros and ones of
conventional computing—supposedly opening the way to an exponential
increase in computational power and machine-learning. Do you
anticipate this having any implications for software freedom?

This means that computers could do certain tasks faster (not all
tasks). For the most part, that would be nice but would not
fundamentally change anything. However, in one specific case, it could
do great harm: our current public-key encryption algorithms would be
broken. People are trying to develop adequate replacements before
quantum computers are big enough to be used for this.

Would the principles of the free-software movement apply to quantum
computing, just as to conventional computing?

Certainly. This is a general principle and doesn’t depend on details
of the computer’s operation.

What do you think have been the major victories and setbacks of the
free-software movement?

Of victories, having a free operating system—in other words, the
existence of gnu/Linux. Before that, it was impossible to do anything
on a computer without proprietary software. Internationally, there
have been some partial legislative victories; several countries in
Latin America have passed laws to move the government towards free
software, but they vary in how strong they are. The one in Peru is
rather weak. Argentina has not passed one, but some provinces have.
Ecuador was the best example of a system designed to cause migration,
but the person that Correa put in charge of that agency didn’t do his
whole job. I think they migrated the public schools, which is very
important. A similar thing happened in Venezuela, except that the
policy was not as coherently designed, and some medium-level officials
went against it, and the ministers were changed over and over, and the
activists had trouble getting political support from the ministers to
back them up. In India, the state of Kerala migrated some levels of
schooling to free software a decade ago—at the time, they couldn’t
migrate the last years of high school, because those were controlled
by a curriculum board. India adopted a central law saying that there
had to be a preference for what they call ‘open source’, but in fact
they’re using the definition of free software.

What about the us public school system?

It’s just all bad. As for setbacks: the three main ones are mobile
computing—phones and tablets, designed from the ground up to be
non-free. The apps, which tend now to be non-free malware. And the
Intel management engine, and more generally the low-level software,
which we can’t replace, because things just won’t allow us to do so.

Can you imagine a situation in which there was no longer any unfree
software, or is that essentially utopian? Is there any way to get
there from here?

People said that having a free operating system was utopian and
impossible. They argued that there was no use even trying, because it
was so difficult. But I think that there’s a fundamental error in that
question, which is that it assumes that giving up would be okay. I
don’t use non-free software. I don’t use the facilities that require
users to run non-free software. So, the free software we have is
already useful—and I’m sure we can achieve a lot more if we try than
if we give up. I don’t say that free software is more important than
defeating plutocracy, or more important than curbing global heating;
and I wouldn’t try to argue that people should work on one rather than
another. But we’ve got to have people working on this one—and people
in the software field can’t avoid the issue of free versus proprietary
software, freedom-respecting versus freedom-trampling software. We
have a responsibility, if we’re doing things in the software field, to
do it in a way that is ethical. I don’t know whether we will ever
succeed in liberating everyone, but it’s clearly the right direction
in which to push.


[1] See Sam Williams, Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade
for Free Software, Sebastopol, ca 2002, ch. 1 (also available online
in an edition revised by Stallman).

[2] Luigi Vigneri et al., ‘Taming the Android AppStore: Lightweight
Characterization of Android Applications’, Eurecom Research Report
RR-15-305, 27 April 2015.

[3] See Rob Lucas, ‘Xanadu as Phalanstery’, nlr 86, March–April 2014.

[4] See Stallman, ‘How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand?’,
available on gnu.org; originally published in Wired, 14 October 2013.

[5] Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, ‘Activists repeatedly stopped and
searched as police officers “mark” cars’, Guardian, 25 October 2009.

[6] Evgeny Morozov, ‘Socialize the Data Centres!’, nlr 91,
January–February 2015.
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