Richard Matthew Stallman (aka RMS) can be best described as a genius or a maverick. He graduated from Harvard in physics while working at the Artificial Intelligence Lab in Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1984, he started developing the GNU operating system, then in 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation and invented the concept of copyleft—a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights of free software. How have things progressed? How happy is he with the current state of affairs? Given the increased awareness and use of free software, we had (wrongly) assumed that he would be happy with the progress. He not only reiterated the weakness in defence of freedom but also outlined the threat humanity faces when “progress” (in the purely practical sense) is promoted at the neglect of freedom. Let’s see what he has to say.
Q. For the benefit of our readers, who are new to the concept, what exactly is ‘free’ software?
A. It’s best described by the phrase, “Free as in Freedom, and not Free as in Free Beer.” So, when I talk about free software (aka Swatantra software), I am not referring to the cost of the software but to the level of freedom it provides to the user.
Q. How satisfied are you with the progress in the free software world?
A. We are moving towards horrible tyranny. People are being pressurised to use devices having non-free software for their day-to-day activities. And non-free software is malware. We have listed over 500 examples on gnu.org/malware. If a company has control over the software you are using, then it is almost sure to use that control to mistreat you. However, it is possible to refuse, as I do that myself.
I refuse to have a portable phone as every portable phone is a tracking device, which can be modified into a listening device. These so-called smartphones—I call them ‘snoop’ phones—invite you to talk to various online services or ‘disservices.’ But in the process, they snoop on you terribly; they can manipulate and pressurise you. It’s not an acceptable kind of technology.
Q. How do you define malware?
A. Malware is software designed to mistreat, harm, or annoy the user. Users might be expected to stop this abuse if they could control what the software does.
Q. Do you consider marketing messages as malware?
A. Yes, because most users tend to turn those off in the settings. Software taking user permissions during installation is a racket. Users often don’t understand what a program will actually do. But also in many cases, the choice is, either give permission for the program to do all these things, or it doesn’t work at all.
Q. How is then the choice of users determined?
A. Suppose there are no taxis anymore. And the only kind of vehicle you can get is a Uber car. So then, when the Uber app says that it will track your location, to what extent is this a choice? In a theoretical and some literal sense, it’s a choice. And I prove that because I absolutely refuse it; I boycott Uber. But most people don’t believe they have another choice.
Practically speaking, in society as it is now, it’s not optional. If your boss or your school asks you to use certain software, say, if they tell you to use Zoom, which has malicious functionalities (like the company Zoom can cut off your discussion, can also snoop on you), what will you do? There may be another side we don’t know about. We haven’t looked through the source code.
So, malware of non-free software is a real injustice which, in practice, people can’t easily escape. This is an outgrowth of the free software issue, because when the program’s not free, the developer will make it malware. S/he has an interest in making the program malware.
Q. What could be the alternative to such services in the free software world?
A. There are some services which ask for your location in order to provide you with the service. Though the service and the app are different, they’re tightly associated and go together. The way things are you can’t use the service without the app. But they’re still conceptually distinct. And both carry out their own bunch of injustices.
I object to being required to identify myself to get a ride. With a taxi, I don’t have to. Because I’m going to pay cash. Uber won’t accept cash. I say any business that won’t let you pay cash, unless it’s for something very expensive like buying a house or a car, it’s an injustice.
In general, a house owner or a car owner has to be registered. But a person taking a ride downtown today does not have to be registered, and in a free society must not be registered. The practice of tracking where people go is the kind of surveillance that puts all human rights in danger.
The most dangerous things to surveil are where you go, what you do there, and whom you’re talking with. If those things are surveilled, human rights are gone. So that’s my ultimate objection to any company that acts this way.
Now, in principle, digital payments can be anonymous. In fact, we’ve developed free software to make anonymous digital payments; it’s called the GNU Taler. Switzerland seems to be very interested in using it as it has a tendency, to some extent, to oppose tracking people.
So, if there was something like Uber where I could request a ride without having a mobile phone and without running any non-free software (like calling someone), and if I could pay using free software like GNU Taler where I’d be paying digitally through the internet but not identifying myself, that would be okay for me. I would be willing to use that.
Q. Are you saying that digital cash, like the RBI introducing digital currency, is not a problem as long as it can be done without identifying users?
A. Digital cash is an ambiguous term because it means many different things. Taler is not digital cash, it’s digital payment. You get other tokens that are denominated in some currency. The point is that you have a way of paying.
Totally anonymous payments have a problem as they lead to hiding lots of money from taxation, helping the rich steal from everyone else. We don’t want to cause that problem. I think digital payments are okay if the payer is anonymous. Here’s a crucial point. With GNU Taler, the payee is always identified and hence, it does not promote tax dodging.
We identify the payee. So, if you paid for a service, it’d get something that it can submit to a bank or a similar entity, and get exchanged for money. This way, the transaction would get recorded with the bank.
Q. How does GNU Taler differ from cryptocurrencies?
A. GNU Taler has several advantages compared with cryptocurrencies. First, it doesn’t fluctuate relative to the currency. And you’ll avoid the speculation of cryptocurrencies. I’ve never used crypto; I don’t like speculating.
Another difference is that it’s more anonymous for the payer. With Bitcoin at least, every transaction is public because there are ways of figuring out who owns or uses a particular wallet. And the other thing is that it’s always identified for the payee. And it’s also much more efficient.
Q. How does it prevent the payer’s information from being stored?
A. It uses blind signatures. Using an algorithm similar to RSA, you can arrange for someone else to sign a number for you and not know what number is signed. Essentially, you take a number and multiply it by a large prime and submit the product to be signed. Since you know that it’s signed in a certain way, such that you know what the two factors were, you can deduce the signed version of the original number by dividing out that other prime. So, you now have a token that can be validated by the bank. But no one can tell that it came through you.
Q. When I buy a car, it now comes with non-free software and spyware. What’s the respite then?
A. Nowadays, there are connected cars which have cellular data communication. And if that’s operating, it can determine its location if anyone tells it to. But not if you disconnect it. Also, the GPS system, which shows you where you are, probably remembers all your locations as well. If you get the car serviced, someone can look in that and find out wherever you’ve been. That’s the road to tyranny.
You wouldn’t want any government to have that kind of power. But if you disconnect the GPS antenna, then it won’t know where you are and obviously won’t remember your locations. For each antenna, you have to either disconnect it or cover it with some sort of metal foil—a conductive foil that doesn’t let radio waves through.
Those are the only things I believe you need to do. Though this is theoretical, it would be very interesting for people to try and verify that the system stopped working. One nice thing about these methods is that you can easily revert things back to how they were.
Q. There is an increasing trend where car companies are providing cars as a service. Toyota, for example, had proposed to charge $80 a year just for the facility of remotely locking and unlocking your car. BMW is offering heated seats in their cars as an optional service.
A. This is malicious; it’s nasty behaviour. Selling you something that you cannot change is always bad. If you’ve got a car and you’ve just connected the data link antenna, then those services would work anyway. But if you disconnect, the related services won’t function. That’s what you got to expect.
Q. What are your thoughts on the emerging concept of the Internet of Things?
A. Well, we should respond to that with disgust. At the outset, I call it the Internet of Mal-things, or the Internet of Stings. Because although it’s not inevitable that they must be malicious, they are.
In particular, if anything is designed so that you use a snoop phone to give commands to a device, and the commands pass through the manufacturer’s server, that means everything between you and the device is being snooped.
Q. What is the way out of this scheme of things?
A. The freedom-respecting way to design such a product is that your computer should be communicating in some local way and not over the internet. Any device in your house that talks though the internet is a Mal-thing almost certainly, because it enables snooping on you without any special effort. The devices that you accept into your house should not have any way to talk to the internet, but only to your computer. That way, you have total control over what commands you send to those devices.
Any device that has software which can be changed by someone else but the user is already so unjust. It locks you out and turns the device against you. We must fight against this scheme of things where someone else can send commands to that software and you don’t know. They’re very likely to put in a universal backdoor just so that they can change the software. Why would they respect any of your freedoms? I don’t accept such things in my house.
Q. Where do the values diverge between open source and free software?
A. At the outset, I’d like to clarify that free software doesn’t mean muft software, but swatantra. We talk about the essential freedom for all users. The idea of open source was invented in 1998, which is 14-15 years after I started the free software movement. It describes the same practices that were already there in the free software community.
They have the same activities, but different values. With the free software movement, the values are freedom and community. We cooperate so we can all do things and have freedom. Open source doesn’t talk about freedom at all.
Q. What does the concept of open source talk about, then?
A. They talk about openness. But openness is narrower and shallower than freedom. Openness just means you can see what the software is doing. Now, when you look at their criteria, it’s almost equivalent to the free software criteria. But that’s not part of the word ‘openness.’ They don’t make that a matter of principle.
Around the year 2000, they talked about the possibility of making practically better software by allowing everyone to participate in studying it, looking for flaws, fixing them, and so on. They didn’t declare a good, convenient but non-free program as an injustice for your freedom’s sake. They didn’t refuse to use and develop that. They didn’t fight it. That’s what we did.
We said that if the program’s not free, it is an injustice to its user. The users are entitled to have control over the software that does their computing.
Q. Please elaborate on these kinds of licenses.
A. Copyleft is a technique of licensing that I invented because I wanted to make sure that the modified version of my programs will also be free. I use the copyright law as a basis for a license that says: You are given the permission to release and modify the versions of these programs as long as they’re under the same license.
There are other free licenses also, that respect the core essential freedoms, but they do not have that requirement. I generally call those lacks, permissive, and weak licenses. So, they are not copyleft licenses. But the programs released under them are still free software and are also open source. But modified versions of them can be non-free.
This is why you need to be very careful when somebody says something is based on free software. It could mean they could have taken a program that is not copyleft-ed and modified and released it as non-free software.
It could also be possible that they took good GNU plus Linux distributions, some of which are free. Suppose they take one that’s free and then add some non-free programs. Now, it’s not false to say that it’s based on free software. But that doesn’t mean it respects your freedom.
Q. How to identify if something is truly free software or not?
A. We have a list of thousands of free programs in the directory at fsf.org. And we’re always looking for more people to help update the software directory for the highest-possible accuracy and new additions. Because there are still thousands of free programs that are useful but unlisted. Any volunteer can just go to the site and contribute to the directory. We also rate GNU/Linux distributions and other system distributions in the same sense. Some are 100% free, that is, swatantra software. You can look at gnu.org/distros.
Q. Your journey with FSF had some issues in the recent past. Is there anything that you want to share with your audience?
A. I resigned from the FSF presidency and Board in September 2019. And I rejoined the Board in 2021. And I’m still on the Board, but I’m not the President. The FSF is learning to get along without me as President, which it eventually has to do.
It’s well known that people started spreading lots of accusations against me, which were mostly false or based on partial truth. I’m not perfect, but I didn’t do anything really horrible. But some people pointed out little things about what I say and do and turn them into something horrible. And if you want to read about this, you can look at the Stallman support network which refutes lots of falsehoods.
Q. What do you think FSF India needs to learn from the US or the global counterpart in terms of implementation?
FSF India is not very active. It started as a separate organisation in the early 2000s, but it never really started functioning effectively. At this point, I think it’d be necessary to find a new set of activists who want to carry it forward. Some activists in it are still active in the free software community but FSF India as such is not doing anything.
Q. What are the goals that you would want FSF India to have?
A. Teach people about free software at the practical level and at the level of ethical philosophy. Convey why it’s very important, not merely as a matter of convenience, but as to what is at stake here.
Q. And what is really at stake here?
A. Freedom is at stake here. Fundamentally, it starts with the freedom to control the software that does your computing. If you let your computing be done by somebody’s online service, neither do you control what’s running that service nor can you have a way to control it.
Q. How to take that computing into our own hands?
A. If you want to use Google Docs, there’s software on the server that has to be there. And obviously, Google can’t let you change that software. Because different people might want different changes, and that doesn’t make sense.
But if each of us is free and each of us has the source code, the programmers among us who want the same changes as we want, can get together and make a change.
It’s up to you which version you’re going to install and use. This is why free software means you can get what you want. And it’s under your control. Otherwise, the software is under the control of somebody else, who is probably looking for an opportunity to mistreat you with it.
Looking at gnu.org/malware, you’ll see how many different ways they mistreat people with it. They design non-free programs to restrict people (digital restrictions management). They make people give personal data in order to keep using it. There are famous online disservices which swindle people and get them addicted. And partly that’s the fault of the server code. But the client code is also involved. If the client code were free software, you could change it and overcome some of the addictive aspects.
So, software freedom, in the direct sense, is freedom in one area of your life. But the more software and computing become involved in other areas of your life, the more software freedom becomes essential to freedom in those areas.