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.

FSF highlights two projects that can replace Skype

GNU Free Call wants to help people easily connect with each other without relying on any one centralized network. To do that, they’re creating a peer-to-peer calling network, along with client software for traditional desktop computers and mobile devices. The project recently released stable call server software, GNU SIP Witch 1.0, and now the team is beginning to focus its efforts on building the client software.

WebRTC is coordinating an effort to let people call each other and hold videoconferences just by visiting a Web site.

via Two new projects can help free software replace Skype — Free Software Foundation — working together for free software.

Technology is changing politics

That’s the theme of the Personal Democracy Forum that started today in New York.

Too often, the discussion of technology and politics employs a kind of lazy shorthand. We say things like “The Internet is revolutionizing politics,” or “the Internet is helping dictators,” as if a set of network protocols and bits and wires could do anything on its own. Unfortunately, that shorthand often infects our discussion of current events, and we end up debating things like “TwitterRevolution” or “Facebook effect” rather than the real issues, which are what people do with these tools. The Internet, after all, doesn’t empower anyone. We empower ourselves.

Don’t miss the plenary keynote with Dan Sinker, Michael Wesch, Lisa Gansky, Lawrence Lessig, Andrew Rasiej and Eben Moglen that will probably tell the public more about the FreedomBox.

http://cdn.livestream.com/embed/pdf2011?layout=4&autoplay=false

Watch live streaming video from pdf2011 at livestream.com

Oracle ‘donates’ OpenOffice.org to Apache foundation

Oracle has done what Sun should have done a long time ago: put OO.org code into the hand of an independent foundation. The good news is that now a wider participation from corporations and individuals is possible. Hell, even Microsoft can now participate into OO.org development. I hope that soon the fork can be reconciled, too.

My first thoughts is that Apache Foundation is a good home for Open Document Format, ODF. If the license will also change to Apache there will be more opportunities to create an ecosystem on top of the standardized format.The free software movement needs a thriving ecosystem around ODF so that we can edit and exchange office documents between computers, mobile and other devices without sacrifices. So far this ecosystem has failed to materialize and OpenOffice.org as a tool has many flaws (bad/old GUI, heavy and in areas like presentation is just bad).

I personally welcome the change as I never believed that The Document Foundation had enough steam in its engine to radically improve the product. But I believe it can still maintain and improve LibreOffice until Apache’s community will start rolling the next generation of desktop productivity tools.

Oracle ‘donates’ OpenOffice.org to Apache foundation | ZDNet UK.

Comments from Rob Weir and Novell’s Michael Meeks.

Why it’s fair to put GNU in GNU/Linux

I keep meeting people that get this wrong and start very boring discussions about the name of operating systems based on Linux kernel. Latest storm started with Pedro Côrte-Real ‘How much GNU is there in GNU/Linux’ and the subsequent comments on LWN.net. GNU is the foundation of a very powerful idea: that one day  computers would run on a free (as in freedom) operating system. GNU is not an operating system, GNU cannot be measured in lines of code. The lines of code of GNU that are copyright by the FSF are what made everything else available, from Linux to Android to Apache. If it wasn’t for the early years of development of the GNU system by Stallman we would have probably never had what we have now.

Call it whatever you think is fair but remember that this is not about lines of code, it’s not a technical issue: calling the system GNU/Linux is paying a tribute to the idea that computer users need to have a free operating system. I wish the FSF would make this more prominent on gnu.org.

Google extends copyright with YouTube Store

Copyright is a set of exclusive rights granted to the author or creator of an original work, including the right to copy, distribute and adapt the work (Wikipedia). Google is adding a new right: the right to exclude you from configuring your device the way you want.

Google is excluding jailbroken (rooted) Android phones from accessing the pay-per-view YouTube channel, you won’t be able to play the streamed file on your own device.

Google – the vendor – and the studios – the rights holders – are using copyright to control something much more profound than mere copying. In this version of copyright, making a movie gives you the right to specify what kind of device can play the movie back, and how that device must be configured.

via Cory Doctorow Google’s YouTube policy for Android users is copyright extremism

MediaGoblin project brings GNU into the cloud

GNU MediaGoblin is a new software project that will enable people to publish, share and distribute their photos, video and other media in the cloud. Think of it as mix of social sites like Flickr, YouTube, DeviantArt or Facebook but better. Being a GNU project, it respects users freedom will be licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License and federated using OStatus. Like Status.net and Identi.ca, you’ll be able to run your instance of MediaGoblin and still be able to follow your friends across different domains.

It’s good to see the GNU project lead the way in cloud computing and provide an example of how to do social web applications right, respecting users freedom. Just like the FSF took the lead in the late ’80s redefining the operating systems with GNU, there is a need to experimenting with code while keeping moral leadership. As Simon Phipps wrote, the cloud is here to stay so we better learn fast how to transport the principles that worked for servers and desktop computers to cloud and mobile.

The team developing MediaGoblin has a long series of success: Chris Webber and Will Kahn-Greene, both longtime Miro contributors, are leading the Development Team. Matt Lee and Rob Myers from FooCorp, the makers of GNU FM (the software that powers Libre.fm) and GNU social, are providing infrastructure. Deb Nicholson, founder of the Women’s Caucus, is helping with community outreach.

Good luck to all of them: I hope to see working code soon.

via GNU MediaGoblin: GNU MEDIAGOBLIN: FREE AND DECENTRALIZED MEDIA SHARING IN DEVELOPMENT.

Looking for freedom respecting alternatives to Skype

Now that Microsoft has bought Skype many people I know are wondering what will happen to Skype’s GNU/Linux client. Will Microsoft keep it or will they drop support for it? I don’t know, nobody can predict what Microsoft will do at the moment.

From a conversation I started on identi.ca I learned a few things about the state of VoIP with free/libre software. The good news is that all you need is to make voice calls over Internet, computer to computer, there are many alternatives based on free software and open standards. The two main protocols are XMPP and SIP. Software like Jitsi (aka sip-communicator), Ekiga, Coccinella, QuteCom (aka openwengo), Telepathy/Empathy, Pidgin and other provide the same basic voice calls.

Some of these programs claim to have video capabilities but I haven’t tested this function deeply. The fact that Carlo can’t make video calls with Ekiga is not a good start. I tested Empathy video call with a friend on Empathy, both of us using our Google Talk accounts on Ubuntu and the video call worked. I’m not aware of any other XMPP server that allows video calls or if there are services using software from Muji project. I learned a little bit about SIP Witch, OpenMSRP and GNU Telephony, all seem very promising tools to help stay away from proprietary VoIP software.

Some clients, like Jitsi work also on Windows and Mac OS X. Others are GNU/Linux specific but this shouldn’t be a problem: being based on open standard one should be able to run any other SIP or XMPP client on those platform and still be able to call each other. A search on iTunes App Store and Android Market reveals lots of SIP and XMPP clients, I’m not sure about their capabilities though.

None of these clients allow desktop sharing: this is not a big limitation for me though, as I rarely used that. The main features missing from all these programs are:

  1. a global addressbook to discover your friend’s address
  2. simple ways to make calls from computer to phone or viceversa

Discoverability of new accounts is crucial to drive adoption: I have lots of contacts in my addressbook and I would like to be able to find them online instead of having to ask them for their latest VoIP address. The complexity of SIP broker white pages is intimidating, I’m not even sure I understand how it works.  Honestly, I don’t even want to know: I want to call my friends and family.

Enabling calls from and to regular phones could finance further development of these applications. I can’t believe that none of them seem to offer an easy way to buy credit from the application itself.

Since the Free Software Foundation considers a replacement to Skype an High Priority project I would suggest them to put it on a more visible page.  I keep looking for a good free software alternative to Skype that I can use to talk to my mom: leave your thoughts and notes in the comments.