Because FLOSS is handy, isn’t it?

Richard Stallman in Donostia

Posted by isilanes on June 23, 2006

Este post está disponible en castellano aquí

Yeah, right, the president and founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, gave a speech at the Koldo Mitxelena culture center in Donostia, last monday 19th.


Stallman, introduced by Iratxe Esnaola

My friend Julen and I (Txema didn’t come along), therefore, went to the Koldo Mitxelena to attend his talk. I must admit we liked what we heard.

The first thing one notices hearing Stallman talk is that he’s a showman. The guy whas seated at a table, but stood up to give the talk, adducing that he was a little sleepy, and so standing up would help him not fall asleep. Subsequently, and owing to the fact that the microphone was a tabletop one, he proceeded to disassemble it and use it as hand microphone, dismissing the inalambric microphone he was promptly offered. Mind you, he did catch our attention.


Stallman, with the tabletop mic

The second thing one can realize is that he has a very clear vision of stuff, and that it is catchy, because he speaks in such a reasonable and gentle way. I should mention that he gave the whole talk in Spanish, and quite fluently, albeit with a heavy American accent.

He commenced his speech enumerating the four basic liberties the FSF proposes for a software piece to be free:

Freedom 0: The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.

Freedom 1: The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

Freedom 2: The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.

Freedom 3: The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

He then explained why these freedoms are vital, and I will next repeat some of his arguments.

Moral dilemma

He said, for example, that Freedom 2 is necessary to avoid some kind of dilemmas towards which software with non-free licenses lead us. Let’s assume we have a legal copy of a certain program, and therefore, he have accepted its license. Let’s also assume that a friend asks us for a copy of it. In these circumstances we face a dilemma, because we have to chose the lesser bad from two bads. If we decide to give a copy to our friend, we’ll be breaching our license, and it is never good to break an agreement we previously accepted. On the other hand, if we don’t give her a copy, we will be depriving a friend of us of a potential benefit, which is not good, either.

Someone told me, after commenting her this issue, that there is not such a dilemma, because: “What if your friend asks you for 1000 euros?”. OK, I would probably consider it negatively, sure. But refusing to lend 1000 euros or our car to a friend is not like doing so with a piece of software. With the former, we lose a material good to share it, but with the latter we lose nothing. The software is like knowledge in general: if we share it it doesn’t get divided, but multiplied. We negate our friend a copy of the software piece just because an abusive license forces us to do so. We do not get any benefit from it.

According to Stallman, the lesser bat is to share with our friend, because we just break an abusive license. Anyway, breaking an agreement, however abusive, is not good. The correct thing is not to sign the agreement in first place. Then only way to avoid the dilemma, he said, would be either not having friends, or not aqquiring proprietary software. He supported the latter.

Problems of the Proprietary Software

He continued the talk speaking about some problems that the proprietary software has, and how the aforementioned freedoms can help alleviate them.

Bad functionalities

The programmers may have implemented into the program some functions that the user doesn’t want, namely:

1) A proprietary program may have occult functions, that the user doesn’t know of, let alone control.

An example of this are the spyware, which, without her knowing, send the user’s personal data to its manufacturer. Such programs include Windows XP, Windows Media Player and TiVo systems. The latter sends the manufacturing company information fo what TV shows the user records, and when she watches them. In the same manner, Windows Media Player sends Microsoft info about what the user plays in it.

2) A program may, directly, not work under some circunstances. Such a functionality the user won’t desire, for sure, but in many cases, this functionality is not only present, but publicly declared. This is the clase of the DRM systems, or “Digital Restriction Management”, as Stallman calls it. Basically, a DRM-ed media (say, a DVD or a CD) tells its owner when and how access its content, and some OSs, like Windows and Mac OS, have the technicall characteristic that they do abide by this DRM rules. The iPod, for example, is “equiped” with the abusive DRM FairPlay. You can read further opinions on DRM by Stallman here. You can also read about a Sony DRM called XCP in my blog.

3) A proprietary program may have a backdoor, introduced by the programer to, potentially, gain access to any machine in which her program is installed. There’s people saying that, for example, the recent WMF vulnerability in Windows is actually a backdoor, intentionally put by Microsoft. I have also found news like this one (2002), speaking about backdoors installed in Windows for allowing NSA control.

It is apparent that governments all around the world (China being the most prominent case) are increasingly having second thoughts on Windows use in their computers, the reason being the danger of it having backdoors to give Microsoft or the government of the USA access to them. As long back as in 2000, the CNN published some reasons why China was changing its mind over proprietary OSs:

Those concerns have risen up recently in the form of stated policies favoring the use of the Linux operating system in government agencies, as well as a recent flurry of government commentaries warning of a U.S. “back door” to Windows operating systems. Officials have said China must develop its own OS to prevent an electronic military attack.

Stallman cited a 2001 case in India. It looks like a couple of Al-Qaeda members infiltrated de Indian division of Microsoft, and tried to introduce a backdoor into de Windows code. I have found some info at noticias.com[es], merit.edu, or Security Awareness Incorporated.

It was originally NewsBytes who aired the news, but the original news is no more accessible, and its address redirects one to the home page of the online Washington Post. Some Microsoft-friendly media tried to understate the case, without many arguments. They didn’t deny these people worked for MS, only that “they didn’t find any backdoor trace”. With their stupidity record, it doesn’t look like much of a guaranty to me…

This foul attempt was (we believe) stopped, but… what if there have been another successful ones? The quid of the matter is that we can not know. Only MS programmers can verify the presence of backdoors introduced by rogue employees. Do you really trust them to do it? Hadn’t you better have right to verify it yourself, or any other user?

The tree harmful functionalities Stallman mentions are a direct consequence of the fact that proprietary software does not have any of the four aforementioned freedoms. Free software will never be subject to these “functionalities”.


Any software piece, free or not, can have bugs. The difference is that the free software, by means of the Freedom 1, permits the users fix the bugs they find, and, by means of Freedom 3, share with others their corrections. In fact, Freedom 1 is not enough to handle the programing errors. Not all the users are programmers, and even if they were, there are too many programs to keep track of. That’s why Freedom 3 is fundamental. With this liberty, even the users who can’t program benefit. The Freedoms 1 and 2 are aimed at the users, and the 1 and 3 at programmers, but in the end everyone gets the benefit.

Various subjects

Among other things, Stallman commented that the development of the free software is democratic, because it develops following the user criteria, even if anyone can pay someone to program what she needs (but no one develops, because it’s not popular). He compared this to the autocratic development of the proprietary software, where the user ends up accepting whatever the programmer wants, instead of the other way around.

He also wondered about the hability to choose and the liberty. He said that being able to choose between different proprietary softwares (e.g. Windows and Macintosh) equals being able to choose our master, because once the election is made, we will fall in a dependency routine. The actual freedom is not having any master. Being able to choose is not necessarily freedom.

He talked on about freedom, and said that we have to fight for freedom when it is possible to win (no one asks to fight if it is useless), not when it is sure that we’ll win. If we all wait until the victory is assured, no one will take the first step, until it’s too late. We have to fight, and we have to expect the fight to be hard, even facing the eventuality of losing.

Near the end of the talk, he made a summary of the history fo the GNU software, and free software.

He also spoke about Trusted Computing, a system backed by some lobbies to make sure the computer does what the maker, and not the user, wants. In short, what it makes is pass some of the power the user has over her computer into the hands of the maker, so that the computer obeys the latter, not the former. That’s why Stallman proposes the term Treacherous Computing, because it makes the computer betray its user. According to him, using the term “trusted” or “treacherous” is a matter of what side of the fence we are. Stallman said this is a “conspiracy against the users, but not even secret nor ilegal!”.

Free Software and Education

He ended the talk saying that public education should use free software exclusively, for 3 reasons:

1) Economic savings. This is the most frivolous reason, but no less valid. There are no license fees, so you save money. This would be most advantageous in a public resource (education) that is deficitary in most countries. However, this advantage can be eliminated by the proprietary software companies giving away the licenses to schools and universities. In fact, that they do.

This, obviously, is not done out of generosity. The companies that give away their licenses do it to lock-in future users. They take advantage of the education system to train kids in the use of their products, and do it for free. When the student leaves the academic resources, he will have no more free licenses, and the company she works for won’t, either. But she will do have the need to use that software, because it is what she knows how to use. I consider that public education should not fall for it, and play their game so sheepishly.

2) When a student is puzzled by something, she asks the teacher. If the teacher can not answer, the student can try to find the answer by herself. Both options are impossible with the proprietary software. If a student wants to know the innards of her Windows computer, not only the teacher will not be able to dispel her doubts, but she will be forced to tell her that it is forbidden to even look for the answers. This is not what an educative system should encourage.

3) Moral education. The school must give a moral education, making the students see what is right and what is wrong. Sharing with others is right.Producing something for the common good is right. Looking for errors in one’s and others’ work, and working to fix them is right. Asking and answering freely is right.

Final details

Being the showman he is, and after a round of questions, Stallman delighted us with his Saint IGNUtius impersonation, given that many say he’s a Saint, and he doesn’t want to negate it.


Stallman, preaching

However, he made it clear that in the free software religion there is no god nor master, that anyone can be a saint, and that priesthood doesn’t imply celibacy.

It must be said that the sanctity aura he displays is NOT an old hard disk. In the past, it might have been, yes, but it transformed into his aura, for a major good :^)

At the end of the talk he signed some autographs, and took some pictures with his fans. He also gave away pro-GNU stickers, and sold (yes, sold!) some GNU keychains and pins, to raise funds for the FSF.


Stallman, signing for me a GPLv2 preamble I took there


One Response to “Richard Stallman in Donostia”

  1. […] « Mathematica fonts error Richard Stallman in Donostia […]

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