Cell phones are 'Stalin's dream,' says free software movement founder

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Mar 15 07:29:07 PDT 2011


Cell phones are 'Stalin's dream,' says free software movement founder

Richard Stallman: iPhones and Androids are 'Big Brother' tracking devices

By Jon Brodkin, Network World

March 14, 2011 05:47 PM ET

Richard Stallman

Nearly three decades into his quest to rid the world of proprietary software,
Richard Stallman sees a new threat to user freedom: smartphones.

"I don't have a cell phone. I won't carry a cell phone," says Stallman,
founder of the free software movement and creator of the GNU operating
system. "It's Stalin's dream. Cell phones are tools of Big Brother. I'm not
going to carry a tracking device that records where I go all the time, and
I'm not going to carry a surveillance device that can be turned on to

Stallman firmly believes that only free software can save us from our
technology, whether it be in cell phones, PCs, tablets or any other device.
And when he talks about "free," he's not talking about the price of the
software -- he's talking about the ability to use, modify and distribute
software however you wish.

Stallman founded the free software movement in the early- to mid-1980s with
the creation of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, of which he
is still president.

ON BOARD: Microsoft: 'We love open source'

When I asked Stallman to list some of the successes of the free software
movement, the first thing that came up was Android -- not Google's version of
Android, but rather a third-party version of the mobile OS in which all
proprietary software has been stripped out.

"It just recently became possible to run some very widely used phones with
free software," Stallman said. "There's a version of Android called Replicant
that can run on the HTC Dream phone without proprietary software, except in
the U.S. In the U.S., as of a few weeks ago there was still a problem in some
dialing library, although it worked in Europe. By now, maybe it works. Maybe
it doesn't. I don't know."

Although Android is distributed with free software licenses, Stallman notes
that manufacturers can ship the devices with non-free executables, which
users cannot replace "because there is a device in the phone that checks if
the software is changed and won't let the modified executables run." Stallman
calls it "tivoization," because TiVo uses free software but lays down
hardware restrictions to prevent it from being altered. "If the manufacturer
can replace the executable but you can't, then the product is a jail," he

Theoretically, Stallman says, phones that use only free software can protect
themselves from the danger of electronic eavesdropping. "If it's all free
software, you can probably protect yourself from that, because that's caused
by the software in the phone," he says.

Ironically enough, Stallman was speaking to me on a cell phone. Not his own,
of course, but one he borrowed from a friend in Spain while on a European
speaking tour. Over the course of 38 minutes, our connection was lost five
times, including just after Stallman's comments about electronic
eavesdropping and free software for phones. We tried to connect again several
hours later but were unable to complete the interview via phone. Stallman
answered the rest of my questions over e-mail.

Sacrificing convenience is something Stallman is used to. He won't use
Windows or Mac, obviously, and even software such as Ubuntu, perhaps the most
popular operating system based on GNU and the Linux kernel, does not meet his
free software requirements.

Few people are willing to make the sacrifices he will for the goal of
software freedom, Stallman acknowledges.

"The decisions anyone makes depend on values," he says. "And most people are
taught to think about software purely as a matter of price and performance,
not whether it respects your freedom. People who make decisions on those
values will not make any sacrifice of convenience to get free software,
whereas I am willing to work for years and years and years to have no
proprietary software in my computer."

Stallman does his computing on a Lemote Yeeloong laptop running gNewSense, a
GNU/Linux distribution composed only of free software.

"There are some things I can't do. I'm using a rather slow computer because
it's the only laptop with a free BIOS," Stallman says. gNewSense is the only
totally free distribution that will run on the Lemote, which has a MIPS-like
processor, he says. The Lemote had come with another GNU/Linux distribution
that included non-free software, and Stallman replaced it with gNewSense.

Stallman, 57, experienced software sharing for the first time when he began
working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971. The sharing community
broke down in the early 1980s around the same time that Digital Equipment
Corp. discontinued a mainframe hardware platform the community relied upon.
Stallman could have joined the proprietary software world if he had been
willing to "sign nondisclosure agreements and promise not to help my fellow
hacker," he says. Instead, he pioneered the free software movement.

Stallman is a fascinating figure in the world of computing, admired by many
individuals and reviled by companies such as Microsoft which see a threat
from software they can't make a profit from.

Stallman has failed to break the Microsoft/Apple dominance of the desktop
computer market, not to mention Apple's dominance of tablets. But the free
software movement he created did lead to the proliferation of Linux-based
servers which are prevalent in data centers and power much of the Internet.
This is perhaps ironic because Stallman expresses resentment about the credit
given to the Linux kernel at the expense of his own GNU operating system.

Stallman says he is "somewhat" proud of the proliferation of free server
software, "but I'm more concerned with the size of the problem that needs to
be corrected than with how far we have already come."

Free software in data centers is nice, but "with the goal of giving users
freedom, their own desktops, laptops and phones are the computers that affect
their freedom most." The focus is mainly on software rather than hardware,
but the movement insists on "hardware that comes with specs so that we can
write free software to support it fully," he says. "It is unconscionable to
offer hardware for sale and refuse to tell the purchaser how to use it. This
ought to be illegal."

Before agreeing to an interview with Network World, Stallman demanded that
this article use his preferred terminology -- e.g. "free software" instead of
"open source" and "GNU/Linux" instead of just "Linux." He also requested that
the interview be recorded and that, if the recording were distributed online,
that it be done so in a format that works with free software.

There are four essential software freedoms, Stallman explained. "Freedom Zero
is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom 1 is the freedom to
study the source code, and change it so the program does your computing as
you wish. Freedom 2 is the freedom to help others; that's the freedom to make
and distribute exact copies when you wish. And Freedom 3 is the freedom to
contribute to your community, which is the freedom to distribute copies of
your modified versions when you wish."

Stallman came up with the term "copyleft" to indicate licenses that ensure
free software code cannot be redistributed in proprietary products.

The key to Stallman's philosophy is this: "Without those four freedoms, the
owner controls the program and the programs control the users," he says. "So
the program is simply an instrument of unjust power. The users deserve
freedom to control their computing. A non-free program is a system of unjust
power and shouldn't exist. The existence and use of non-free software is a
social problem. It's an evil. And our aim is a world without that problem."

"That problem" wasn't caused by one company in particular, but Microsoft is
usually the most frequently criticized by people like Stallman.

"They continue regarding us as their enemy," Stallman says. Ten years ago,
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously called Linux a "cancer." Microsoft has
softened its public tone since then, but Stallman is not impressed: "They
have in some ways learned to be a bit more subtle but their goal is that
people should use Windows and not a free operating system." After that
thought, our phone connection was lost again.

Other than Microsoft, Stallman calls out "Apple and Adobe, and Oracle and
lots of others that make proprietary software and pressure people to use it."

Google "does some good things and some bad," Stallman says. "It has released
useful free software such as the WebM codec, and is moving YouTube to
distribute that way. However, the new Google Art Project can only be used
through proprietary software."

Stallman is also at odds with some people in what is known as the open source
community. Open source advocates clearly sprung out of the free software
movement, and most open source software also counts as free software. But
Stallman says that people who identify as open source advocates tend to view
the access to source code as a practical convenience and ignore the ethical
principles of software freedom. Various vendors have jumped on the open
source bandwagon without embracing the principles that Stallman believes
should be at the heart of free software.

"I don't want to make this seem too one-sided," Stallman says. "Certainly a
lot of people who hold open source views have worked on useful programs that
are free and also some of those companies have funded work on useful programs
that are free. So that work is good. But at the same time, at a deeper level,
the focus on open source leads people's attention away from the idea that
they deserve freedom."

One of Stallman's targets is Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel and
one of the most famous figures in the world of free software.

Stallman and his crew worked on the GNU operating system for most of the
1980s, but there was one missing piece: a kernel, which provides resources
from the hardware to programs that run on the computer. This gap was filled
by Torvalds in 1991 when he developed Linux, a Unix-like kernel.

Systems using the Linux kernel are usually called just "Linux," but Stallman
has fought for years to get people to use his preferred term, "GNU/Linux."

Stallman "wanted to make sure GNU got proper credit," says Miguel de Icaza of
Novell, who created the free software program GNOME but has been criticized
by Stallman for partnering with Microsoft and selling proprietary software.
"When Linux came out, Richard didn't take it very seriously for a while, and
he kept working on his own kernel. It was only when Linux took the spotlight
that he felt, to some extent, his project had not been given enough credit.
The problem is, what happened at the time was there was a new community that
was created out of the blue that wasn't necessarily aligned with GNU."

The GNU kernel, called Hurd, is still "under active development," according
to the project's Web site.

Torvalds' contribution to free software will be widely celebrated this year
during the 20th anniversary of the Linux kernel. But Stallman won't be one of
his cheerleaders, and it's not just because of the naming dispute.

"I don't admire a person who says freedom is not important," Stallman says.
"Torvalds set a bad example for the community by publicly using a non-free
program for the maintenance of Linux (his kernel, which is his main
contribution to the GNU/Linux system). I criticized him for this, and so did
others. When he stopped, it was not by choice. More recently, he rejected
[the] GPL version 3 for Linux because it protects the users' freedom from
tivoization. His rejection of GPLv3 is why most Android phones are jails."

Even Red Hat and Novell, known widely as open source supporters, don't get a
ringing endorsement. "Red Hat partly supports free software. Novell much
less," he says, noting that Novell has a patent agreement with Microsoft.

Despite outward pessimism, Stallman does see a few positives spurred by his
quest for software freedom. When he's not at his Cambridge, Mass., home,
which is most of the time, Stallman is roaming the world giving speeches and
holding discussions about free software. Before traveling to Spain, Stallman
stopped off in London to give a speech in which he called Windows "malware,"
and met with a couple members of Parliament to explain free software issues.
He often gets a better reception in Europe than at home.

"In the U.S., awareness of free software has been almost completely pushed
under the rug by open source. As a result, you'd never find people in any
government position who'd want to talk to me," he says.

Outside of North America, some governments are embracing free software. "I
found out yesterday that in France, the state agencies are continuing to move
to free software," he says. "There's no systematic policy requiring them to
but they're doing so more and more. And in some countries, for instance in
Ecuador, there is an explicit policy for state agencies to move to free
software and any agency that wants to continue using non-free software has to
apply for a temporary exception, permission to do so."

Although Stallman didn't mention it, the Russian government is requiring
agencies to replace proprietary software with free alternatives by 2015 in a
bid to improve both economics and security, according to The Wall Street

In addition to free software, Stallman is devoted to political issues, and
writes a blog for The Huffington Post. In fact, he sees little distinction
between the corporations threatening software freedom and "the scoundrels in
Washington" who are beholden to corporate donations.

In the recent Wisconsin union protests, Stallman sees something of his own

"Sometimes freedom requires a sacrifice and most Americans are not willing to
make any sacrifices for their freedom," he says. "But maybe the protesters in
Wisconsin are starting to change that." Corporations and mass media "have to
a large extent convinced Americans ... that they're not entitled to refuse
businesses whatever businesses want. Well, we need a spirit of resistance in
America. We need to recover the spirit of freedom with which we created the
United States."

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

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