SciTech

Stallman preaches free code

Richard Stallman doesn?t take kindly to long introductions. As a representative of the University of Pittsburgh chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery recited a laundry list of thanks to all the people who had helped to bring Stallman to speak on ?Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation? last Thursday in the Benedum Engineering Hall, the man himself was hopping on one leg, barefoot, up and down the aisles of the auditorium. Laughter rippled.
The founder of the Free Software Foundation is known for his eccentricity. At his appearance Thursday, he asked whether anyone in the audience had a parrot. ?I like meeting friendly parrots,? Stallman said. He closed his talk with an appearance as ?Saint iGNUtius? of the Church of Emacs.
But more than his eccentricity, Stallman is known for his iconoclasm. This is the man who practically single-handedly started the Free Software movement in the 1980s with his aim to create an entirely free and open operating system.
?So. What is free software?? began Stallman. ?Free software is software that respects the user?s freedom.? When Stallman says his software is ?free,? he doesn?t mean it costs nothing (though that is true). He means that the software is protected by the GNU General Public License (GPL): a licensing agreement that, in its own words, ?is intended to guarantee your freedom to share and change free software ? to make sure the software is free for all users.?
There are four essential kinds of freedom Stallman recognizes: First ? ?freedom number zero,? as he calls it ? is the freedom to run the program. Second is the freedom to look at the source code, and to make changes for your own use. These two freedoms are concerned with ?helping yourself,? according to Stallman?s taxonomy.
The third freedom is the freedom to ?help your neighbor,? namely by copying the program from your computer to his. The final freedom in Stallman?s list is the freedom to ?help your community,? by taking your own modifications and releasing them to the public as new versions of the software.
Stallman views proprietary software as an evil, and not even a necessary one. If free software respects the user?s freedom, non-free software tramples it, by forbidding users to help each other. Each non-disclosure agreement a programmer signs, in Stallman?s view, amounts to ?a blank check of betrayal.... By the time you find out who you?ve betrayed, it?s too late.?
One CMU student in the audience, sophomore CS major Matthew Wright, said, ?I agreed with pretty much all he said.... I was surprised how much he spoke his mind.?
Near the end of the lecture, Stallman stated his opinion that all schools should use free software exclusively. As usual, he had a list of reasons for his view. First, free software is cheap. Schools, Stallman said, should not spend taxpayers? money on ?permission to use unethical [i.e., non-free] software.? Second, schools have a ?duty to educate society in a healthy direction.? Stallman drew parallels to the marketing of cigarettes in the 20th century: corporations today give away ?educational discounts? and gratis copies of their software in the same way that cigarette companies used to give out free cigarettes in schools ? in order to produce a fresh generation of ?addicts.? Today?s schoolchildren are not addicted to nicotine; they?re addicted to Microsoft and Adobe and Mulberry.
Third, Stallman said that schools should use open-source programs for the sake of education. When a student asks, ?How does this program work??, it?s not educational to reply ?I don?t know,? or ?I?m not allowed to tell you,? or ?It?s a secret.? Free software solves this problem by letting bright young students investigate computer programming on their own terms. Finally, of course, Stallman believes schools should use free software because to do any less would be evil. Stallman suggested the following rule: ?If you bring software to class, you must share it with everyone.?
?Anything you can do with a free program, you can do with a non-free program. This is an ethical distinction, not a technical one,? said Stallman, both consistent and strident in framing the free software debate in moral terms. But Stallman did not neglect the practical side of the issue. A big part of the IT market is the technical support business, he said, and if a customer buys a proprietary program such as Microsoft Word, that customer is then tied down to Microsoft; whenever a bug is discovered or the program needs maintenance, it?s time to petition Microsoft for a fix. And competition alone doesn?t fix the problem; whether you?re petitioning Microsoft, Oracle, or Google, the essential situation is the same.
?Freedom is not just the freedom of choice,? Stallman intoned. ?Freedom means having control of your life. The choice between proprietary programs is the ability to choose your master. Freedom means not having a master.?
Stallman mentioned other practical aspects of free software, including its immunity to spyware and back doors: Since anyone can see the source code at any time, there?s nowhere for such malefactors to hide. He fingered RealPlayer and TiVo among prominent spyware hosts, but didn?t forget to mention that the biggest spyware program of all is ?one you may have heard of... It?s called Microsoft Windows.? (Stallman mentioned a rumor that the Indian police, back in 2001, had fingered a handful of Microsoft employees as al-Qaeda operatives trying to sneak a secret back door into Windows XP.)
But Stallman isn?t fear-mongering; he?s evangelizing. He repeats again and again that free software isn?t good because it?s less buggy, cheaper, or better for the economy (due to the competition in tech support already mentioned), or less risky (because it?s impossible to pirate). It?s good because it?s free, according to Stallman.
?How much non-free software do you have on your computer?? he asked. ?If we want to live in freedom, we?ve got to get that number down to zero.? That?s a massive undertaking, one that many people have called idealistic and impractical. But Stallman is forever the optimist: ?When you?re trying to do something big, there?s nothing more practical than idealism.?