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.

MediaGoblin adding support to OpenStack Swift

I am very happy to see the Free Software Foundation going back to making good software. I have argued for long time that what made the FSF a great organization that changed the world is the fact that they didn’t only point at proprietary software as a problem but they also provided a solution with copyleft and the GPL licenses and provided working code in the GNU system. I’m glad to see that the FSF has adopted Mediagoblin’s software development and included it in the GNU system. It’s free as in freedom software as a service that allows to publish multimedia content (pictures, audio, videos, 3D models) in a federation with API support and lots of awesomeness. You can think of it as a federated replacement for things like Flickr, YouTube or SoundCloud that you or anyone can run. Just wonderful.

If you haven’t donated yet, do it now as it’s not too late. MediaGoblin 1.0 is going to support OpenStack Swift too, so if you like OpenStack you have the moral obligation to donate to the FSF to develop Mediagoblin.

GNU Telephony working on a Skype replacement

Nathan Willis on LWN explains quite well the role of two GNU projects as Skype replacements: SIP Witch and GNU Free Call.

SIP Witch, the call server developed by the GNU Telephony project, made its stable 1.0 release in May. In conjunction with that milestone, GNU Telephony has also unveiled its next major project, GNU Free Call — a free, peer-to-peer routed voice calling network.

Read it all ($) GNU Telephony releases SIP Witch 1.0 and announces Free Call [LWN.net].

What to do if adoption of copyleft licenses declines

Is adoption of copyleft licenses really declining? Blackduck Sotware with its own secret recipe says so, as Matt Aslett reports. Whether or not this is true we can’t tell because BlackDuck doesn’t publish their method to collect and analyze its data. In any case, I think that if you look at this debate from a different angle, these numbers don’t count at all.

Twentyfive years ago there was no free/libre open source business and the GNU L/GPL licenses constituted the main corpus of free software available for use. The FSF used the strong copyleft mainly because of an ethical choice and also for practical reason to defend its code from appropriation by third party. Remember that at the time there was no ‘ecosystem’ and the notion of copyright to software was brand new.

Now free software is developed mainly by companies for business purposes: their choice is not only to defend code from appropriation but also to allow building thriving ecosystem for Open Innovation. The other reason I see for the large popularity of permissive licenses is the quantity of software developed by Apache Foundation. It’s amazing how far their code has gone from the original idea of a web server.

Whether BlackDuck has reliable numbers or somebody else does it’s irrelevant: numbers don’t count. I believe that if FSF wants to see more copyleft code out there, it needs to go back to its origin and get back to developing software that matters. The FSF needs to go beyond the GNU operating system and expand into the new areas of ‘cloud’, ‘social’ and ‘mobile’.  Projects like MediaGoblin and GNU.FM are the first steps in the right direction but more is needed.

451 CAOS Theory » The trend towards permissive licensing.

How I went from architecture to free/libre software

When I tell people that I studied as an architect I always get a question: how did you end up in technology and why do you advocate Free Software/Open Source if you studied brick-and-mortar? The answer I usually give is summarized in the incipit of the book The Architecture of Open Source Applications

Architects look at thousands of buildings during their training, and study critiques of those buildings written by masters. In contrast, most software developers only ever get to know a handful of large programs well—usually programs they wrote themselves—and never study the great programs of history. As a result, they repeat one another’s mistakes rather than building on one another’s successes.

Free Software with its freedom 1, the freedom to study the code and adapt it to your needs, is the only way software architectures can evolve. It took hundreds of years to go from building the pyramids to the skyscrapers and all thanks to the freedom to study how things are made. I believe that if we keep the same freedom we have in the world of atoms we’ll be able to continue building a better cyberspace.

The future of Free Software

Eben Moglen is helping Free Software to keep the promise of a free society. In his keynote speech at FOSDEM Moglen has laid out the foundation for the future of the Free Software movement: make sure that digital communication between people remains free.

Our freedom depends on reengineering the network to replace vulnerable, centralized services with alternatives which resist government control.

He identified the enemy (the data-mining industry, lead by corporation and governments around the world), gave the enemy a name and an easy target (Facebook) and he gave an action plan (the Freedom Box).

Freedom Box is the name we give to a free software system built to keep your communications free and private whether chatting with friends or protesting in the street.

I noted that he didn’t mention Twitter in his speech, and I think I know why. First of all Twitter has a good track of records when it comes to step up against government requests. What I believe is Moglen’s most clear reason to mention only Facebook is that he wants to give one target to the crowd, and a fat, easy one, too. Facebook must be the evil, much like Microsoft was the only big, fat target for all FSF’s propaganda (not Autodesk or or Adobe or Oracle or IBM).

It’s important to donate now on Kickstarter: Push the FreedomBox Foundation from 0 to 60 in 30 days. I hope that FSF and FSFE now donate to this project, too: I’d be really surprised if they don’t.

PS If you want to read more here are some articles: NY Times, WSJ, BoingBoing, Slashdot, reddit, ZDNet, The New York Observer, New Europe, techPresident, LWN.

How To Read Open Document Format ODF documents on Symbian

My previous post on the topic generated quite a discussion about Open Document Format (aka ISO 26300) documents on mobile platforms. My argument was that ODF support on most mobile platforms is still poor compared to the proprietary counterparts. From the discussion that happened on identi.ca I learned about a quite decent Symbian reader for ODF files, called Office Reader. I tested it using Funambol email push and sync client on my Nokia E71 and the results are quite good. You can see from the screenshots below (taken from a pretty complex ODT test file) that the text rendered correctly.  I’m confident that I would be able to get an idea of the attached document and, if it was a press release, for example, I think I would OfficeReader would present enough information to approve it or not. This is the  if you want to compare to the mobile version. I’ve tested also a couple of ODP presentations and spreadsheets: they are rendered good enough to get an idea of what kind of document it is, but not as well as the text file.

I downloaded and installed OfficeReader directly from the phone’s browser, but of course all other options are valid. Check the FAQ if you can’t install or run it (I had to allow your phone’s operating system to run unsigned apps).

PS I took the screenshots with the free software Screenshot application (GPL license but the install screen says ‘freeware -not to be sold’ ?!?).

Wikiedia Crowdsourced its strategic planning process

I’m a firm believer that non-profit organizations need to have a strategy, too. Maybe even more than for-profit ones, because of the constant lack of resources. I’ve been watching without commenting the development of the five-year strategic plan for Wikimedia Foundation: fascinating. The process has entered the last phase, synthesis. There is lots to learn from it. I hope I’ll find time to blog about this later.

Some background info on HBR.

Perché ristabilire il senso di comunità porta al successo

Ho tenuto oggi una lezione di tre ore al Social Media Lab dello IULM dal titolo Etica della società digitale, ovvero perché ristabilire il senso di comunità porta al successo. Oggi ho avuto la conferma che il software libero ormai non è un concetto astratto. Praticamente tutti gli studenti (delle facoltà di Lingue, Turismo, Marketing e Comunicazione) usano regolarmente Firefox, conoscono OpenOffice.org, sanno che WordPress è software libero. Quindi, diversamente da qualche anno fa, non occorre più convincere nessuno della bontà del software libero o della sua fattibilità, della sua sostenibilità economica. Oggi penso di aver fatto bene a concentrarmi sullo spiegare perché il software libero è un elemento fondamentale nella società digitale.

Durante la prima ora ho spiegato i fondamentali e la storia del software libero. Per portare i principi di Stallman all’atto pratico ho usato le metafore di Lessig illustrate in Code is law.  La prima parte della lezione si conclude quindi con l’affermazione che nell’attuale era dell’informazione e per una società digitale libera il potere del codice software va bilanciato con la responsabilità morale del programmatore, ovvero con le quattro libertà di Stallman.

La seconda parte invece mi è servita a dimostrare che essere etici non vuol dire fare beneficenza e rimanere poveri. Ho usato due tipi di esempi, in negativo e in positivo. Gli esempi negativi sono i comportamenti di aziende o interi gruppi che, perdendo la bussola etica e perdendo il senso di appartenenza ad una comunità hanno portato alla recessione. Gli esempi positivi sono quelli di aziende che hanno mantenuto invece un forte senso di comunità e continuano a mietere successi. Non ho potuto fare a meno di citare Funambol in questo caso: adoro il principio Don’t upsell to your community. A chi si stupisce perché ho messo Google tra i buoni rispondo che secondo me Big G finora ha dimostrato un forte senso di responsabilità; ad esempio, qualcuno vede Facebook partecipare a qualcosa tipo dataportability? Quindi, ricapitolando, se il software libero è il modo per tenere una solida etica nella società digitale e mantenere il senso di comunità, e le aziende che hanno alti standard morali e forte senso di comunità solido hanno successo, allora il software libero è un pezzo importante per il successo.

Nella terza ora abbiamo discusso insieme questo caso di studio da HBR, un’azienda che deve decidere se e come rilasciare il suo programma con una licenza libera. La discussione è stata bellissima con spunti davvero intelligenti da parte della classe.

Le slide sono qui sotto. Mi sono divertito tantissimo e non vedo l’ora di poter ripetere questa lezione da un’altra parte: accetto inviti 🙂