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.

17 thoughts on “Why Richard Stallman doesn’t matter

  1. Amazing, you seem to have completely overlooked Stallman’s efforts on the Affero General Public License – efforts that invalidate your thesis that “Nobody at the FSF cared about cloud or mobile” it was a major concern from 2000 onwards.

    1. I am very well aware of the Affero GPL (I was the one who submitted that license for approval to OSI). That license was always an after-thought. Richard didn’t dedicate as much attention to it as he did to Tivoization and it shows.

  2. Correct me if I misunderstood your post, but it seems you’re complaining that the FSF kept on working on “free software”, and didn’t leave that aside to fight the evils of facebook and cloud computing.

    But surely, that’s a different fight. If you want to fight facebook and its methods, and believe me I wholeheartedly support you on that, start a new movement about that. Surely the FSF should focus on free software, and not every potential harm to society that has to do with computing.

    Stallman’s political notes on his personal web page, covered a wide range of subjects. But that doesn’t mean every one of those should be tackled by the FSF. The FSF always was, and always should be focused on one thing: free software.

    1. I am not even talking about RMS political views, I’m not very interested in that part. My point is that FSF didn’t prepare much for the future, in general. The topic that you and FSF rhetoric calls “free software” is wide and FSF decided to focus on small issues that are not very relevant. Another way to look at it is to think about this: in the late 90s/2000s, the FSF was at the center stage of everything involving software. Internet was booming and free software (open source, however people call it) with FSF was being constantly mentioned, driving the conversation about freedom in tech. Think of the day when RMS was invited by Sun Microsystems to announce Java released as free software. Fast forward to today… where is the FSF leading anything?

      1. Not very relevant? I beg to differ. You’re free to consider running software on one’s own computer: “the computing model of the 80s”. But I, and I’m sure most everyone around the free software movement, consider being able to use free software on our day to day computing, being able to extend it for our own purposes, and being in control of our computing, of paramount importance.

        It’s not about “Stallman’s laptop”, it’s about being in control of our computing. And yes btw that precludes relying on cloud services. But that’s something an informed user has to do by themselves. The FSF can’t do much other than educate in this subject. Which it, and RMS actually does.

        Is the focus of the FSF narrow? Sure… as it should be. Is the object of its focus unimportant? Absolutely not.

        1. I guess we measure the effects of a mission by different terms. Freedom for a digital society is extremely important to me. Are FSF actions since the past 15 years getting us any closer to having more freedom? No, quite the opposite actually. Can we agree at least on this fact, that society as a whole has less digital freedom now than 15 years ago? Think mobile and Facebook alone, billions of users with no rights. No fault assignment, just a fact.

          1. We can absolutely agree on that. But that doesn’t detract from the importance of free software. Just because now we take access to a wide range of free software for granted, doesn’t mean that FSF is irrelevant, nor that it should change focus.

            The rest of the issues you’re talking about are very important. But the best way to tackle them is through a movement and organization focused on them. EFF is not redundant because FSF exists, they are complementary.

  3. Very interesting point of view Stefano. I too as yourself witnessed all of these events (l was part of it and still am in some way) in the past and that includes the first draft of GPLv3 and the tension that were raised by the all Free Software community against it. I was in agreement for instance about Linux not adopting v3 because it is highly unlikely likely that Linux would have been where it is now if it was wrapped into GPLv3. I am also in agreement with your view about Stallman and the way he always rejected for free software to play role in new technologies. What l don’t agree however, is the way you justify Lessig and Moglen abandoning FSF board and creating their own movements. That doesn’t seem to me a very wise initiative nor it it does help in anyway to change or contribute in Free Software evolution. On the contrary, it disperses energies of the Free Software community. These 2 individuals and several others they copied RMSs idea by simply renaming it instead of staying part of the team and play the game. They choose the easy part and for that reason l wouldn’t on earth ever support likes of Lessig and Moglen. But you do have a point about the way Richard always handled Free Software in all forms, weather using FSF, GNU or any other entity as vehicle.

    My point is, that we are all failed to be united within the Free Software ecosystem and pointed out the easiest way as a reason why of this splitting and creating hundreds of mini Free Software movements defining based on our personal views. And that easy reason was, and is, simply blaming Richard. This is not fair. We are trying to shadow our failures blame Richard for that. We should blame ourselves because we simply lost against one man and therefore all our movements are useless and makes no sense because they are a result of running away from a problem while forking the same problem without solving it in it’s origins.

    1. I’ll have to rephrase that part of the post as it can be easily misinterpreted. Regarding Lessig, I remember how much RMS criticized him for letting Creative Commons keep the non-commercial clause. I believe that RMS never really trusted him as he was not ‘pure’ enough. I don’t recall the exact circumstances that led Lessig to leave FSF board, but given how his career turned, I’m read to be he got tired and wanted to move on from the free culture movement.

      As for Moglen, the story is a lot more complicated than that. Maybe the protagonists will share the full story one day. I think it’s fair to say that whenever a split like that happens, it’s because the parties realized their vision cannot be reconciled with the version of the reality each see.

      Let’s be clear: I’m not blaming Richard. I blame those who stayed close to him, protected him from the wrong dangers and exposed the organization and the movement to the very attack we’re witnessing. Organizations need to prepare for the bus factor and FSF didn’t. Clearly, there is no plan.

      1. Richard has its way of doing it, he always did. Said that, the pioneers of Free Software, including Lessig and Moglen, should have realized better than anyone that they couldn’t have changed Richard’s view and should have tried alternative ways without changing his views. These alternatives does not include abandoning the movement and creating their own based on their own views. By abandoning and creating separate movements they are actually exactly like Richard, not single inch different.

        I don’t personally care about the reasons why they left but what l care is the question you asked (l think on LinkedIn), what’s next. We should work on what’s next without further splittings and further creating micro movements that are representing free open source world.

        Richard is one man and we can easily tell him, if united, you did a great job but now things are evolving differently and we need to adapt free software to these evolutions. I don’t think he has much choice to be honest, he can’t go against the community that keeps free software alive.

        Proposing someone else as president of FSF is not going to change anything to be honest with you. Look at how Linux is more powerful than any of these organisation we mention, FSF, GNU, etc. Why do you think is this? Why a single component such as Linux, which is part of a big project like GNU is better known then the all project?

        These are the real questions would help probably to establish what’s next.

        Richard has very little to do with all of this honestly.

        1. It’s rather presumptuous of you to think that you can talk for the whole “community that keeps free software alive”, and everyone implicitly agrees with you on this. I feel that RMS did a great job so far heading the free software movement, and would prefer if he continued to do it for as long as he can.

          You make vague allusions to things that “have to change”, but you have not communicated clearly what those things are. The OP was a bit more specific, but he still didn’t state what exactly he would want the FSF to have done about facebook and mobile phones. What you would do differently from what RMS did, that justifies your assertion that he needs to be replaced to change course?

          Finally what makes you think Linux is part of GNU? They are completely unrelated projects. And to answer your question, Linux is much better known than GNU because people have been mistakenly calling the whole operating system “Linux” for ages. RMS attempted to educate anyone and everyone he ever talked to about this distinction, but it’s really hard to make everyone change how they call something, once a name has caught on.

          1. Sorry for bad wording and perhaps l might rephrase that part. I am not in any say talking on behalf of the entire community. When l write, most of the time, my mind is ahead of what l type so my entire point of view get shrunk in a fee sentences.

            Said that, my intention and presumptuous appearance as you define come from the fact I consider myself reasonably familiar with the community and at the same time l am not that deeply influenced by the internal mechanics and frictions inside the Free Software ecosystem. In addition to that, l am fairly open (and for most of the time part of) to other movements, likes of open source, eff, etf, from the biggest to smallest micro community around the all FS ecosystem. I am also familiar with the corporate environments which you have mentioned some of them, i.e. facebook, google, mobile etc. and I’d welcome them to cooperate with the Free Software ecosystem more and more. Mine is just related to knowledge and based on that l talk from my and my point of the view only, not on behalf of the entire community.

            Re to Linux being separate project, you are totally right there. My point there is, it shouldn’t be. And Richard is definitely not the right individual to make this quality step forward because of his unwillingness to talk to the rest of the ecosystem. I take that as his limits and since no one came forward trying to create further step (they’d rather splitt and create nee movement) there is not much choice left for me to come forward and propose myself.

            Yes, me, an unknown person to everyone in this ecosystem. But remember l am unknown to everyone in the Free Software ecosystem but not the other way around:-)

            I confirm my position that this is something l can and have the willing to do. As l said, all bug shoots doesn’t seem to have that ambition.

            Hope this explains my message in better this time.

    2. I met RMS back in 2002 with the first hacking event and Free Software organized by me called F3Cod & Fun. Since then I have hiddenly contributed to the diffusion of the FS in every business, industrial, home, etc. I have been in contact with RMS for a long time since 2002 (in the last year I lost contact with RMS, but my personal estimate for RMS is always the same) and although the fundamentalist spirit of RMS is clear, I think it is not right to exclude RMS from the Free Software world scene, because if Linux and the GNU project software has spread, it is thanks to the work, strength, enthusiasm and stubbornness of Stallman. For this reason I agree with my friend Stefan Umit that RMS should be helped to understand new and modern needs and at the same time help RMS to resolve its inner conflicts to see everyone as an enemy. The idea of creating other FS communities is useless, it would only create unnecessary divisions, dispersion of resources and foolish commanders who love success. I think we are forgetting the basic idea of FS that is the culture of the gift from the hacker ethic.

      1. RMS should be helped […]

        what makes you think that someone hasn’t already tried and failed to help RMS understand that his behavior with other people was an issue? Torvalds, on the other hand, took a hiatus from his project to get sensitive training. Just an example of how differently two organizations (FSF and LF) handled behavioral issues of their leaders.

  4. There is nothing wrong with someone else “as a service”‘ing your project. That would be like complaining that someone could take your software, package it, and sell it at stores for a profit. The GPL is about giving power to the users of the software. Cloud services are users of the software and have the 4 freedoms. Free software is about no one being able to tell you what you can’t do with the software. Telling cloud services they can’t run your software is restricting their freedom 0. Additionally this type of hosting is nothing new. People have been selling shared hosting using free software for decades.

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