This past Thursday, free software pioneer Richard Stallman spoke to a full lecture hall about the ethics and implications of computer software in today’s complex environment of online privacy and user freedom. Stallman also addressed the history, philosophy and mission of his movement, the Free Software Foundation.
Before Stallman said a word about free software, he began by specifically asking members of the audience not to upload photos of him to Facebook or Instagram, stating that the company is a “monstrous surveillance engine.” This disclaimer set up one of the underlying themes of the presentation, the alleged abuse of power by owners of proprietary software.
Proprietary software means that the source code of the software is protected under copyright. This means that users of the software are bound by the limitations of the software as designated by the owner of the software, and any attempt to modify the source code is illegal.
Stallman stated, “The owner has power over the users, and that’s what makes this non-free program unjust.”
Stallman also contends that proprietary software is a trap, and that it creates a dependency on otherwise inferior software by creating dependency through integration of personal data. Personal data is exchanged between a user and a corporation when a copy of Microsoft Office is registered, when a product is purchased on Amazon.com or when a page is liked on Facebook. These companies, among others, stand accused of complying or assisting the NSA in collecting the data on their users.
Stallman said that proprietary software seeks to spy on its users, stop users from doing what they want, uses back doors to allow owner control and censors the user.
Stallman was critical of technology, software and applications that are proprietary such as Spotify, Angry Birds, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Adobe and many more.
He attacked Amazon’s Kindle application, saying, “The software (in the Amazon Kindle) is malware . . . it swindles readers out of the traditional freedoms of reading books.”
What Stallman proposes is the use and advocacy of free software, which is described by four attributes, the first being the ability to run programs as the user wishes. The second is having the ability to study and change source code to do what the user wants, the third is the right to distribute and sell these programs and the fourth is the right to redistribute the software with changes.
Stallman also proposed that free software must be available and taught in the classroom.
“Teaching non-free programming is bad education because it’s teaching people to be dependent on somebody else, which is making society a worse place. It goes against the social mission of the school, which is to educate its citizens to become a strong, capable, independent, cooperating and free society,” Stallman said.
The majority of Stallman’s presentation was non-technical and did not require extensive knowledge on programming or software.
He framed the issue of proprietary versus free software as a question of ethics by saying, “As you can see, the distinction between free and proprietary software is not a technical distinction. It’s not about what’s in the code. It’s not about what functions the program has. It’s not about how the code was written, it’s not about how they work. Those are all technical questions. This is an ethical, social and political question, which is why it’s more important than the technical questions. ”