Last night I attended Richard Stallman’s lecture at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, on the subject of “Free Software and Your Freedom”. Dr. Stallman launched the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation some thirty years ago in order to create and promote free software:
“Free software” means software that respects users’
freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom
to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus,
“free software” is a matter of liberty, not price.
I won’t try to summarize everything that was said at the lecture, but some segments stood out to me as particularly interesting:
While free software grants users the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software, proprietary software is licensed such that there are restrictions on one or more (possibly all) of those attributes.
One detriment of proprietary software is that you as a user cannot know for sure what the software is doing. As has been demonstrated
in various well-known proprietary applications, the software may well
be sending data about you or your usage of the software to its
developers without telling you. This, Stallman concludes, makes the
application malware. It is spying on its users, and is an attack on
Publishing the application as free software, on the other hand, is a
defense against such malware. While it is still possible that a free
application could spy on its users, it is much less likely, as anyone
who uses the software could plausibly investigate what it is doing.
Mobile Phones and Surveillance
Mobile phones — smartphones and otherwise — can be remotely accessed
and controlled by service providers, and can be converted into listening
devices, to transmit all audio that they pick up. The only surefire way
to prevent this from happening is to remove the batteries. All of the
batteries. Some phones, Stallman says, include multiple batteries,
including one that is designed to prohibit being removed. Other phones
are designed to prohibit removal of batteries altogether.
Even when not converted into listening devices, mobile phones still,
out of functional necessity, track where they go — and thus track where
their users go. The mobile service providers can know at all times where
their users are located, and can maintain a database of everywhere they
have gone in the past.
Thanks to the efforts of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden,
we know that there is far more surveillance of us today than there ever
was in the Soviet Union. (Upon mentioning Snowden, the audience erupted
into applause, and Stallman led everyone in three cheers for Snowden:
“Hip, hip, hooray!”)
Service as a Software Substitute
What many people call Software as a Service — providing a software
application over the internet, typically through a web interface —
Stallman calls Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS). Software that
runs on someone else’s server is out of your direct control, so even if
it is free software, it doesn’t matter: you cannot change it, study it,
and so on. By definition, you are handing your data over to someone
else, since your computing is being done on their computer and not
yours, so the door is wide open for the SaaSS provider to invade your
Not all web applications fall under the category of Service as a
Software Substitute; it depends on what service they provide.
Communications services and collaboration services are not SaaSS,
because by their very nature you must be sharing data over the internet.
Even if you ran a free local application instead of using a web
application, you still would end up sharing the data through whatever
servers and routers were between you and those you were communicating
How can you tell if a web application is SaaSS or not? Dr. Stallman
recommends a thought experiment: imagine that you have the most powerful
computer possible. Using that computer alone, can you run the
application you want to run? If the answer is yes, then to make that
application run remotely from a server would be SaaSS, as that would be a
service substituting for software.
For example, no matter how powerful of a computer you had, you could
not use that computer by itself as a web search engine. You need to
connect to other computers, and use resources on other computers, in
order to have the functionality of a web search engine. So a web search
engine application is not a software substitute; it is a service.
If all software in the world today was instantly licensed as free
software, that would not be enough to guarantee ongoing software freedom
long-term. People need to understand the value of freedom when it comes
to using computer software; otherwise, someone could come along
offering some new technology or some improved user experience with a
proprietary license, and it would be accepted on its technological
Software usage is still relatively quite young in the world; only for
the past several decades has it been part of society at all. But there
has never been any serious public debate or discussion about what rights
and freedoms software users ought to have. Such matters were decided by
proprietary software vendors as they published and sold their products.
Is this really what is best for society?
- Reverse-engineering of proprietary hardware drivers and related
software would be a huge benefit to free software development today. And
developing expertise in reverse engineering would also be a potentially
good career idea, as it’s an in-demand skill set that not many people
- If you want to learn how to develop large software applications from
scratch, it’s not very helpful to spend time developing small software
applications from scratch. Instead, start with contributing small
changes to existing large applications. Then move on to contributing
large changes. And then move on to building your own.
I’ve read many of Richard Stallman’s articles and listened to
recordings of many of his lectures, but I still found attending this
lecture in person to be a particularly insightful and educational
experience. There is clearly much good that can come from having, using,
and promoting free software; and there are clearly social ills and
injustices that can come from using proprietary software.
As I sat in the auditorium listening, I started to ponder how arguing
for free software might be likened to debates and discussions held in
the framing of the United States government. What rights and freedoms
and restrictions are best for the people, and for the long-term good of
the country? Indeed, just considering how free software can help enforce
constitutionally-provided privacy makes a strong case for why it is in
the best interest of the people.
More reading from FSF Project GNU:
[Much of what I have written here is based from notes that I quickly
jotted down during the lecture, and I may have misunderstood or
misinterpreted something. Corrections would be welcome.]
More: a few photos of the University of Illinois campus.