Why Richard Stallman doesn’t matter

Too many people have joined the chorus of cacophonous conversations online about booting Richard Stallman from the free software movement. They claim that his social behavior has prevented more people from joining. There are conspiracy theories claiming a hit job by an evil corp. The point that everybody misses is that Stallman’s views on software don’t matter anymore. The FSF should have nurtured and grown new leaders a long time ago, leaders who looked into the future, understand cloud and mobile computing and their threats to a free society. This crisis is a dramatic opportunity to inject new blood in the organization that shaped information technology.

Anyone who has met Stallman in person carries a story of how he made them uncomfortable. He is socially inept, whether incapable because of his Asperger brain or poorly socialized because nobody taught him manners is a moot point. What he says and does in view of other functioning humans can make you sad, amuse you and disgust you. He has mental issues and nobody cared enough about them to help him. That’s the saddest part for me when it comes to Stallman, the person.

When it comes to the organization and the movement that Stallman started, I get even sadder. There, the lack of support for Stallman is less visible but even more damaging.

I had the first inkling that the Free Software Foundation and the free software movement was heading to for a crash when the GPLv3 was being drafted in 2005. At the time, I was leading the Italian chapter of Free Software Foundation Europe and it was clear to me that RMS didn’t have a grasp of where the industry was going. He was laser focused on closing the embedded device loophole, preventing what he called the TiVoization of free software. All around him, not a single voice could argue strongly enough about the Google issue that later would become the *-as-a-service loophole and cloud issue.

That’s because Stallman’s world was and still is, stuck in the 80s: computers are physical devices that users can own and keep in their homes. For that use case, the four freedoms, the definition of source code and installation tooling introduced in GPLv3 made a lot of sense. Nothing else seemed to matter to him. The decision for the Linux kernel not to adopt GPLv3 wasn’t considered a problem and it was often downplayed by FSF leadership.

Right after the GPLv3 came out, Google was relieved they could continue doing business as usual, Linux kept its license and the FSF waged war against Debian and Mozilla. Stallman led the FSF out of the most important focus for the future because he wanted a pure free software operating system for his laptop? Definitely feels that way: he wanted zero binary blobs in device drivers, zero non-free Javascript. His dream of a pure operating system was there, almost close enough to touch. Meanwhile, the concept of computers evolved to include mobile phones and cloud. And those are just evil.

Nobody at the FSF cared about cloud or mobile

Folks closest to the FSF community were so myopic about completing GNU for Stallman’s laptop that nobody did anything about the big picture. I never heard anyone at the FSF ask what it means for a digital society that Facebook has been legally using free software to develop algorithms that modify human behavior. Quite the opposite, the problem was javascript in the browser for apps like Gmail.

Soon after GPLv3 came out, both Eben Moglen and Lawrence Lessig left the FSF board of directors. Moglen shaped the GNU GPLv2 and navigated the v3 together with Stallman. Lessig founded Creative Commons, bringing the concept of digital freedom to art. Both have vision and charisma. Those voices were silenced didn’t resonate inside the FSF. That’s where I dropped too, sadly realizing we weren’t going anywhere with that structure and those leaders.

My impression is that after GPLv3 was ratified, the FSF closed itself in a cocoon of integralism that didn’t help Stallman the person and damaged the movement he created.

For over 30 years, Stallman has been a tireless advocate of a world that hasn’t mattered for the past 15 years. If he had friends at the FSF, he would have been put in a position of doing no harm. Just like in any organized religion the appointed spiritual leader may be crazy but the foot soldiers on the ground in the community know what they need to do to carry out the teachings that matter.

The FSF should have been nurturing such respected teachers. New leaders with deeper connection to the real world could have helped evolve the message of Chief GNUisance, go beyond the dogmas and prioritize the research for new licenses, new definitions for freedom on post-80s computer era, invent new business models for young entrepreneurs, educate the wider public and politicians to prevent the rise of Facebook and other abominations.

It didn’t happen and that makes me sad. The movement that ate the world is also responsible for building the most perfect shackles that society has ever had.

What now?

My dream scenario is Shoshana Zuboff to be invited to the board and elected president of the FSF. The Harvard professor who wrote The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the most exciting research on the damage to society imparted by Zuckerberg and his spyware cronies at Google. If free software is necessary for a free society then the FSF needs to focus on the algorithms that change people behavior rather than binary blobs in wireless cards.