Richard Stallman on the road less travelled

by Paul Anderson, Intelligent Content on 18 June 2008 , last updated


Richard Stallman’s views on free and open source software are controversial and quite well known, but what are his views on its use in education? Paul Anderson, from Intelligent Content, catches up with him at the University of Manchester on a rare visit to the UK during Summer 2008.

Big ideas

Richard Stallman has taken the road, in the poet Robert Frost’s famous phrase, ‘less travelled by’. As a long-time and passionate advocate of non-proprietary software he set up the Free Software Foundation in 1985, but found himself at a fork in the road thirteen years later, when he refused to join with the emerging, rapidly growing and pragmatic open source community. In Stallman’s view, open source did not fully support and promote what for him was the most important issue with regard to the production and use of software: what it does to our freedom as individuals.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about big ideas here. This is a debate about free as in liberty, rather than free of charge, and Stallman emphasises that these are deeply political questions: ‘Free software means software that respects the users’ freedom. Our society encourages people to judge programs in a shallow way based only on practical convenience – how powerful is it, how reliable, what does it cost, and to ignore the most important questions: what does this program do to my freedom?’

Why is it so important to talk about freedom when discussing software? Stallman argues that because mass computing has developed so quickly there has been little time for a proper debate about the political and human rights issues associated with computer software and its widespread use. He argues that a program is free software if its licence provides the user with four essential freedoms: the freedom to run the program as you wish; the freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs (access to the source code is a precondition for this); the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour; the freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

Stallman asserts that if you have all four freedoms then the program is free software because the social 
system of the program’s distribution and use is an ethical system, respecting the users’ freedom and respecting social solidarity. However, if one of these freedoms is missing or is insufficient, then, he argues: ‘the program is proprietary software. User-subjugating software. It keeps the users divided and helpless. Divided because everyone is forbidden to share it with anyone else and helpless because the users don’t have the source code so that they can’t change it, they can’t even check, independently, what it is doing to them’.

His beef with the open source community is not that the user doesn’t have sufficient access to the source code, nor that the open source development methodology doesn’t produce good and useful programs. His issue is that he believes the open source community fails to take these core issues of liberty, social solidarity and freedom, sufficiently seriously. He says: ‘Open source is the campaign to forget about freedom and forget about judging the rightness or wrongness of software distribution practices and judge them only in terms of practical convenience’. Indeed, the fact that the very word ‘free’ has been dropped from the conversation is a crucial indication to Stallman of the direction of travel: ‘In 1998 they coined a different term so that they could get away from all the ideas associated with the term free software including the idea that this is an ethical imperative for respecting users’ freedom’. In other words, if you don’t talk about freedom, you won’t lead other people to think about it.

These debates may seem to the outsider like the arcane discussions of medieval theologians, but they are important for two main reasons. First of all, this is still a live issue within the software development community, where the controversy still rages about the best way to develop and distribute software. Secondly, the software products from the two camps are actually being used by millions of people—the leading example being GNU/Linux.

Academic freedom

These are well known issues, particularly within the software and legal communities, but less well known perhaps are Stallman’s views on the issue’s implications for education.

What then of his views on how free software is used, and developed, within the education community? As you perhaps might expect it is a message of no compromise. Stallman draws inspiration from a long line of radicals who have fought for our freedoms, and, indeed, he quotes the American slave abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, on his personal website: ‘Those who profess to favor freedom, yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.’

In essence this is his message to the education system and he argues that: ‘If you are a student in school [or university] or a teacher or member of staff it is your responsibility to organise and pressure for a move to free software and above all stand up for the awareness [that] proprietary software is wrong’. Schools, universities, colleges and all levels of education should set an example and not make use of proprietary software nor be teaching young people to use such products. He maintains that since education’s primary role is social then it follows that: ‘Their mission is to educate the next generation to be good citizens of a strong, independent, capable, co-operative and free society and this means teaching them to use Free Software not proprietary software’.

There are also many practical reasons for rejecting proprietary software, the most obvious and perhaps superficial being to save money on licence fees. In addition, the use of free software – whose code can be perused at leisure – also directly encourages, he argues, the young programmers of tomorrow. But most of all it is an ethical argument: ‘If a school wants to start respecting freedom and teaching people how to live in a free society they have to do more than just say: “We’ll do it when it’s cheaper”. They have to say we will stand for freedom. We will replace all non-free software and we will not get any more’.

But surely it is impractical for a large and complex organisation like a school or university to stop using proprietary software? It is often the case that staff argue that the students actively want to use proprietary software, since it helps them to learn about the software being used in business and so improves their long-term employability. Surely the power of the market has dictated what education should be doing? Stallman argues that this is a poor reason for schools and colleges to promote non-free software: ‘It is not the power of the market. It is a mistake to call that the power of a market. It is a matter of luring people into a situation of permanent disadvantage’. He goes on to say: ‘the fact that society is already partly in a trap is no reason to push further into it’. Stallman argues that it may be difficult, but that: ‘If you want freedom you gotta accept that sometimes there are inconveniences to defend it. People who will not ever accept an inconvenience in order to defend their freedom will lose it.’

Although there has been some adoption of free and open source solutions within the education community in the UK, it is not yet on the scale that proponents would like. OSS Watch’s biennial survey of Higher and Further Education 1 from 2008 found that whilst roughly half of UK HE/FE institutions had a policy for considering free or open source software in absolute terms, universities and colleges were still heavily reliant on proprietary solutions. Stallman reacts to this by arguing that policy is not enough: ‘That is just a first step. No wonder [there is low take-up] because the policy they have is not a policy to support freedom, it is just a policy to maybe support freedom’. But, he argues it can be done. He cites the example of institutions in countries such as Peru, India and Brazil, where schools and universities are moving entirely to the use of free software.

Institutions as producers of software

The other hugely significant role that universities and colleges (especially those that are research-led) have in this debate is that they are also the producers of software. Traditionally, there has been strong support from university computer scientists and other researchers for the ideas of free software and, indeed, Stallman himself formulated his ideas whilst working at MIT. However, it seems that this has changed over the years and, in addition, there is considerable pressure from government for universities to realise a return on investment through a variety of what are called ‘third stream’ activities. As a result, university intellectual property (IP) and commercialisation offices have taken an increasing interest in the code that research projects produce.

Stallman detests the use of the term intellectual property and is similarly unhappy with the concept of protecting the university or college’s intellectual property: ‘Stopping people from sharing a program or a song, is not protecting – that’s absolutely wrong, because that makes a claim, an implicit claim, that for more people to run the program or more people to hear the song, destroys it or damages it, and that is false’.

His advice to computer programmers and researchers working with software code through university research projects is characteristically trenchant: ‘Here is what every person developing software in a university must do when necessary. When the program is just vaguely starting to work, go to the administration [management] and say “If I can release this as free software, then I’ll finish it. Otherwise, I’ll just write a paper about it”.’ And, again, as is the case with schools, staff should be protesting and getting organised, perhaps through their Union: ‘Use whatever ethical means are available because the universities shouldn’t be developing proprietary software. It is better if they develop none at all, because [by doing so] they are betraying their mission to contribute to human knowledge’.

He is equally trenchant when discussing the government’s role in asking universities to develop through attracting commercial funding and through developing and commercializing their work using non-free licences. He says: ‘So, people have to reject that. People have to say the government is wrong, and university administrators who go along with it are wrong and it is better to reduce the size of the university, reduce its activity, than start going into something that is wrong. This takes courage, not that much courage, not like facing possible death, but it takes moral courage to say these are wrong… Allowing the university to be turned into the tool of business is allowing it to be corrupted’.

Web 2.0 and Software as a Service

There is also a new issue that is also affecting the discussions about software use in education: Web 2.0 and the emerging concept of Software as a Service (SaaS). A growing number of educational institutions, particularly schools – as the Guardian made clear in a recent article (Dodson, 2008) – are making use of web-based office packages such as Google Apps Education Edition (an educational bundle that includes the well known GoogleDocs). These provide many of the features, such as word processing and spreadsheets, that have been traditionally provided by licensed, shrink-wrapped software packages, but through the browser window instead of the desktop. The software itself mainly runs on a remote server.

How has the Free Software Foundation responded to this new challenge? Stallman says it is definitely an issue that they are aware of but points out that: ‘Somehow people think that if the proprietary software is installed on your machine by the browser and you don’t notice it then that makes it ok, but I don’t think it makes it ok’.

He argues that there are two ways of looking at this emerging development. The first is to maintain the focus on whether the code that is involved is free, in the terms that the FSF defines, and to only work with services that can be truly classed as free in this respect. This means, for example, that the software source code that runs the service on the remote servers must be made available to the users. In order to address this issue the FSF has contributed to the creation of a new licence, the Affero General Public License v3, which stipulates that the code is made available in this manner to those using the remote service. However, as Stallman points out: ‘Google is not using it…the programs that Google installed [on its servers] are not under that licence’.

Secondly, Stallman widens the argument out to look at the overall concept of user control: ‘One problem that we see increasingly is that people do their computing on someone else’s server and if you do that you don’t control your computing. The interesting thing is that is equally true of the Web whether the software on that server is free or not.’ The issue is therefore one of where the software actually runs and whether the user has control of that process. He argues that: ‘you still would have no control over your computing if you do it with Google’s server, but this is not because Google is particularly bad. Suppose Google published all that source code and suppose I got it and put it on my server – well you wouldn’t have any control over your computing if you did it on my server either. No matter how nice a guy I am and how much I respect your freedom, you don’t control the software installed on my server, or his server or her server, I mean, basically the only way you are going to control your computing is if you do it with your copy of the program.’ He finds it odd that users would want to work in this manner and in effect hand back control to the developers. As he sees it: ‘We have to just reject the pressure, almost a PR pressure, which is that we are being told that the latest thing is to not have our own copies of the software anymore. I don’t know why anyone would want to do this. These days it is hard to get a computer that isn’t powerful enough to run these programs, why would you ever think of using someone else’s server? It is ridiculous, but somehow people do it’.

Spreading the message

Is he hopelessly utopian? Maybe. Perhaps it is impractical to expect the world to move to working only with free software. Yet, Stallman’s message does seem to have made serious headway in some countries and millions make use of the GNU/Linux operating system that he has been instrumental in bequeathing to the world. And simply by continuing to raise the free software issue he perhaps causes the computer industry to occasionally stop and think. Stallman admits it is still a hard slog, but argues, characteristically, that: ‘to look at it in terms of how hard it is rather than why it must be won is an amoral perspective’.

In Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken, the narrator eventually admits that it is likely that, at some later date and with a sigh, he will look back and perhaps regret his choice. One gets the impression from meeting Richard Stallman, that, as he criss-crosses the continents making his case at conference after conference, he is a long, long way from that point.

Further reading


Related information from OSS Watch:

This document is © Intelligent Content 2008.

  1. OSS Watch undertakes research to gain a better understanding of the needs of its stakeholder communities. Reports from this research can be found at the OSS Watch studies page.