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 eavesdrop."
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.
Free software success
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 US. In the US, as of a few weeks ago there was still a problem in some dialling 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 licences, 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 says.
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 email.
Making a sacrifice
Sacrificing convenience is something Stallman is used to. He won't use Windows or Mac 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.