Friday, 18 November 2011

On meeting the Father of free software by Simon Potthast

The first impression you get from Richard Stallman is that of a slightly eccentric grandfather figure. Despite the slightly belated entrance into a room comprised of geeks of all shapes and sizes you can physically feel the palpable excitement associated with the arrival of The Last of the True Hackers. The general hubbub is quieted as he enters the room, removes his shoes and dons a radio mic. All eyes turn to the front of a packed and sweaty lecture theatre, recently vacated by a handful of students and the gathered assemblage awaits the first utterances. 

Almost as quickly as he arrived he is gone once again. The audience burst into spontaneous applause coupled with nervous laughter. After a few more minutes he is back at the podium and a brief conversation debating the merits of an introduction takes place between the organisers before Stallman takes matters into his own hands and begins his speech.

What follows is a cutting indictment of pretty much everything we take for granted in our modern society. Over the course of the next hour or so we are presented with the fact that, not only does our own government use software and the underlying protocols of our beloved internet to monitor and control us, but that certain major corporations produce software technically classified as malware that the general public use and trust on a daily basis. 

Most of what Stallman has to say could easily be dismissed as anarchic rumour mongering were it not for the empirical evidence available to back up his claims. The ability of certain corporations to make changes to your installed software without your knowledge, to delete electronic copies of books that you mistakenly thought you actually owned, to restrict the playback of legally purchased artistic works to proprietary mechanisms.

He argues vehemently that our freedoms are being restricted by everyone who can and do get away with it. Throughout the talk he refers to appliances by pseudonyms such as iBad and Swindle, a point raised by one attendee as being childish. Stallman's response to the accusation is that, if you use the correct name for these devices then you only empower them further. 

Rather than attempt to replicate everything he discussed here, as i'm sure the whole talk is now available online, i will merely give my personal reactions.

I agree with about 95% of the things Dr Stallman had to say. I do think that our freedoms are being taken away in vast chunks by both governments and software companies alike. It is very much the responsibilty of those of us who can understand what a given piece of software is doing to defend the rights of those who do not. 

The main point I did not agree with is that the same freedoms did not need applying to hardware. I think that homebrew hardware has come a lot further than Stallman realises and I think that he very much swept the arguments under the carpet, perhaps due to tiredness. 

To summarise, from my perspective it was an honour for me to meet Dr Stallman as he has been a major guiding force in my own computing journey. I would never equate myself to him, nor pretend that I am worthy of criticising him. What I will say is that the world of computing would be a very different place without him and that we are all in need of his particular brand of philosophy in order to maintain our freedoms in this digital age.