Hacktivist Richard Stallman takes on proprietary software, SaaS and open source

Richard Stallman, revered by some as a genius (after all, he won a McArthur “genius” grant in 1990) and derided by others as a crackpot, was in New York Monday where he warned against the dangers of using proprietary software, SaaS and even open-source software. Yes, for this famed hacktivist and creator of the free software collaborative GNU, open-source is not nearly open enough and worse, masquerades as free software. Which, he says, it most definitively is not.

Packed NYU lecture hall for Richard Stallman. Photo by Rani Molla

Packed NYU lecture hall for Richard Stallman. Photo by Rani Molla

During the lecture, held at NYU by HackNY—a nonprofit, organized by Columbia and NYU faculty, whose mission is to “federate the next generation of hackers”—Stallman advocated the benefits of truly free software.
He’s defined free software as: 

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Stallman, who founded the Free Software Movement, framed these tenets as a moral obligation to stop tyranny by big software companies and the government. These proclamations often smack of paranoia but have real-world implications. If we are subject to our software, we are not in control of it.
Proprietary software “deliberately attacks the social solidarity of your community,” by leaving people helpless against it, Stallman said. “They can’t change it. They can’t independently verify what it does to them.”
The harm it potentially inflicts ranges from installing updates without permission all the way to spying on your activity — a topic that is top of mind in the wake of NSA PRISM program disclosures by Edward Snowden.
“Almost everyone in the world using proprietary software is also using propriety malware,” said Stallman, who looks every inch the part of a hacktivist with his long mane of graying hair. He includes under his definition of “malware” such things as Digital Rights Management, which he prefers to call “Digital Restrictions Management;” nonauthorized software updates; companies requiring proprietary apps (“arbitrary censorship”); and, of course, any software that collects or distributes user information—not to mention any remote filming or recording of users. In his view, offending products include Microsoft(s msft) Windows, Mac OS(s aapl), Amazon(s amzn) Kindle (“Amazon Swindle”), flash, Angry Birds and “nearly all portable phones.” (Stallman considers cell phones, which collect data on a user’s location,  “Stalin’s dream.”)
He also claims software as a service (SaaS) is inherently bad because your information goes through a server beyond your control and that server can add additional software when it likes.
“The server has your data and it will probably show it to the NSA,” he said to a crowd that was all too aware of recent events with Wikileaks and “our great hero Edward Snowden.” Instead he encourages peer-to peer apps to avoid third parties.
That’s why he takes issue with the term open source software. He says it’s booked as a way to have people test and improve code quality at no cost, but not as an issue of freedom and justice.
“Our ideals become forgotten,” he said of open source eclipsing free software, and encouraged the audience to keep talking about free software.
Interestingly enough, free software doesn’t mean that one can’t sell software for money, as long as you can do with it as you please. This includes sharing it, modifying it, and even giving it away for others to do the same—for free.
This post was updated noon Aug. 12 to reflect some clarifications by Richard Stallman.