Home Audience For U & Me An Interview with Richard Stallman on Freedom, Android, Amazon, Facebook, Steve Jobs…

An Interview with Richard Stallman on Freedom, Android, Amazon, Facebook, Steve Jobs…

Richard M. Stallman
Richard M. Stallman at Acharya Narendra Dev College, University of Delhi, February 2012

Any government that tells people to teach proprietary software is essentially delivering the country into the hands of a company.

Richard M. Stallman
Richard M. Stallman at Acharya Narendra Dev College, University of Delhi, February 2012
Before you even speak a word before RMS (as Richard M Stallman is fondly known), you have to know a few things. “Linux” is wrong… it’s GNU/Linux. If you’re an Open Source fan, don’t let it out… it’s Free Software all the way with RMS! When it comes to propagating Free Software, RMS is an assertive man. Proprietary software, or anything that hampers freedom is unacceptable. LINUX For You caught up with RMS during his visit to India last month. Read on…

Please tell us about your journey with Free and Open Source Software.

Well, actually it’s not open source — please don’t connect me with that. I disagree with that. In fact, open source was started specifically to reject the ideas that I stand for. My journey is about free, swatantra and mukt software.

Before I started the Free Software Movement, I lived in a free software community, so I knew from experience that free software was a good way of life — I was not just imagining it. That was when I was working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab in the 1970s. The lab was part of a larger free software community. We shared software around, and all the software we used, with very rare exceptions, was free software. A lot of it had been written by us. It also meant that you could fix anything that bothered you.

At the beginning, in 1971, when I was hired by the lab, free software was not unusual. Lots of operating systems were free. But, by the end of the 1970s, free software had become rare. Proprietary software was the norm everywhere — and then in the early 80s, our community died, and I was dropped into the proprietary world. In contrast with the free software way of life, I thought it was ugly… morally ugly. It was the constant mistreatment of other people. Because I could understand the comparison, I refused to live that way. I dedicated all my efforts to making it possible not to live that way, for me and for you.

So in 1983, I launched the Free Software Movement, with the goal to make it possible to use computers and have freedom. However, for that to be a practical option, you needed an operating system that was free software. In the 1970s we had one, but it was PDP 10, which became obsolete in the early 80s; so all our software was obsolete too. And all the computer systems with modern software were proprietary.

To make free software a real option, we needed to be free — therefore, it was my job to develop it. I announced a plan to develop a UNIX-like OS that would be entirely free software. I gave it the name “GNU”, which stands for “GNU’s Not UNIX”. The name was kind of a joke — but the project was a very serious one, about fighting for freedom… freedom that we had lost completely.

What was the journey to develop GNU/Linux like?

We had to start from a point that was just a little more than zero, and work our way up to freedom. There were a few free programs in 1983 when I started GNU, but those were in no way near a whole OS. There was a lot of work to do, and during the 1980s, we did it. There are hundreds of components that you need to have a UNIX-like OS, even at the most basic level. A few components we found with somebody else, who wrote them for different reasons, but were free software. But the other components we had to develop.

So I wrote some of them, and recruited people to write others, and in some cases, convinced people to develop free programs — for instance, the CSRG (Computer Systems Research Group) at Berkeley. They had written a lot of code to change UNIX, but their code was mixed in AT&T’s code, and so was proprietary. I met them in 1984 and requested them to separate their software and release it as free, which they subsequently did. I wanted to use that code in the GNU system.

By 1992, we had almost the complete GNU system, but one essential component was missing: the kernel. We started developing one in 1990. I chose an advanced design, which gave it somewhat the character of a research project, and it took six years to get a test version. Unfortunately, nobody succeeds every time. But we didn’t have to wait, because in February 1992, Linus Torvalds, who had a proprietary kernel called Linux, decided to make it free. The combination of the Linux kernel with the rest of the GNU system made a complete OS, which was basically GNU, but also contained Linux. So calling it only the Linux OS is wrong; it is the GNU/Linux OS.

Is the concept of Free Software anyway related to the price?

To me Free Software is the freedom issue, and not the price, which is a side issue. You may get a free copy of software, or you may pay for it; either is okay. The important thing is that Free Software respects your freedom and the community. When a program is non-free, we call it proprietary, non-free, user-subjugating software. A non-free program generates a system of digital colonisation. There is a colonial power, which is the proprietary software, and then there are colonised people, who are the users.

Like any colonised system, the proprietary software keeps the people divided. They are helpless because they do not have the source code. They can’t change it, and they can’t even tell what it really does. Proprietary software is often designed to do something nasty.

Free Software is important for freedom in the community is a general statement, but let me be specific. A program that you have a copy of is free for you if you have four essential freedoms. Freedom ‘0’ is to run the program as you wish. Freedom ‘1’ is the freedom to study the source code and change it — so it does your computing as you wish. Freedom ‘2’ is the freedom to help others to make copies of the software, and distribute them. Freedom ‘3’ is the freedom to contribute to your community, to make copies of your modified versions, and distribute them to others if you wish. So, if a program comes with these four freedoms, it’s Free Software, because the social system of its distribution and use is an ethical system that respects the freedom of the community.

If one of these freedoms is missing or insufficient, it is proprietary software, because it imposes an unethical social system on its users. So, the distinction between free and proprietary software is not a technical distinction. But this is a social, ethical and political distinction, which is why it is so important… more important in general than any technical distinction.

The use of proprietary software in society is not development; it’s dependence. The use of proprietary software is a social problem. We should aim to put an end to it. Writing free programs is a contribution to society. So, if you have a choice between writing a proprietary software or doing nothing at all, you should do nothing at all — because that way, you don’t do harm. Thus, the goal of the Free Software Movement is that all software should be free, so that their users can be free. Once you have understood this issue, you should make sure that you don’t get into this. We should reject the propaganda terms that the developers of the proprietary software use to demonise the cooperation. I am referring to terms like “pirates”. When they call people “pirates”, they mean that helping other people (by sharing software) is the moral equivalent of attacking ships and taking by force.

Many proprietary programs have malicious features. These features spy on users, and send their data somewhere… or there are features to restrict what the users can do with the data on their computers. This is known as DRM — Digital Restriction Management or digital handcuffs. And there are back-doors that obey commands from somebody else to do this to the users.

This is not a rare phenomenon. Most people are using malicious proprietary software. Let me give you some examples. One proprietary package that you may have heard of, which has all three kinds of malicious features, is called Microsoft Windows. It has specific known surveillance features, specific known digital handcuffs and known back-doors. So Windows is malware. More than that, one of the back-doors allows Microsoft to remotely forcibly install changes without asking the permission of the theoretical “owner” of the computer. I say theoretical, because once Microsoft has allowed Windows to run on any computer, Microsoft has owned the computer.

This means that any malicious feature that is not in Windows today can be remotely installed tomorrow by Microsoft. So Windows is not just malware, it is a universal malware. So is Mac OS. It has digital handcuffs. The Apple products, the “i” things, are even worse. They have known spy features, discovered less than a year ago. They have the tightest digital handcuffs ever in a general-purpose computer. Apple is a pioneer in attacking the freedom of its customers, because Apple extended its control even over application installation. Users cannot install any program they choose; they can only install from Apple’s App Store. This is censorship!

Why this GNU/Linux debate?

Once Linux was available as Free Software, the combination of Linux and the almost-complete GNU system made a complete free system, which was basically GNU, but also contained Linux. So a reasonable fair way of talking about it is GNU+Linux or the GNU/Linux system. However, the people who put together Linux with various big and small components of GNU, which we had actually released as a system (though we didn’t have all the components yet) were so focused on this one component, Linux, that they perceived all the rest as a small “add-on” to Linux. And they spoke about the combination as the Linux system, and that’s how most people use this variant of the GNU system to address the complete system.

They think it was started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds. Obviously this is unfair to us. Please, when you talk about our work, use the name we gave it, and call it GNU. If you want to give credit to Mr Torvalds as well, there is nothing wrong with that. Call it GNU/Linux.

But there is more at stake here than how you treat us — your freedom (indirectly, of course). Directly, your choice of names doesn’t alter the substance of things. But your choice of words determines the message you transmit to others, which influences their thoughts, which then guide their actions. So it makes a difference what name you use.

Since 1983, the name GNU has been associated with our philosophy of freedom and justice in computing, whereas the name Linux is associated with different ideas, those of Mr Torvalds — which are very different ideas. Mr Torvalds never agreed with the Free Software Movement. He doesn’t believe that you, as a computer user, deserve freedom. He doesn’t believe that he, as a computer user, deserves freedom. He just doesn’t think of the field that way. His values are powerful, reliable software, and he says that he is willing to use proprietary software, as long as it is powerful and reliable.

So these philosophies are different at the root, at the basic values’ level. Well, he has the right to promote his views; the problem is that when people think of the system as Linux, they also think it was started by Mr Torvalds in 1991, and admire him tremendously for developing this whole system — and then they often adopt his ideas, without even considering ours, which they consider radical and extreme. That way, they don’t even learn to value their own freedom.

It’s bad for them that they do not demand freedom, but it’s also bad for us — because when we fight for our freedom, they are not with us, since they don’t even understand there is something to fight for. And we could lose because of that. When we try to bring our ideas to the attention of users of the GNU system, we face two obstacles. First of all, users of the GNU system mostly don’t know that it’s the GNU system. They think it’s Linux, and was mainly developed by Linus Torvalds. So when they see our articles, based on our philosophies, they wonder why they should read these “philosophies of extremists from GNU”, and don’t care what we think. They identify themselves as “Linux users”, and they follow the “pragmatic” ideas of Mr Torvalds. If you use the term GNU/Linux, it will help our campaign, as it will inform these people that they are GNU/Linux users — and then they will pay attention to what we say.

The other obstacle that has arisen is that when people talk about Free Software, they call it open source software. They coined this term in 1998. Before that, there were two political camps: a Free Software Movement which campaigned for all users’ freedom, and the other camp, where people like Mr Torvalds, who didn’t want to raise this as an ethical issue, only wanted to talk about practical benefits like power, reliability, efficiency, affordability, etc.

In 1998, the other camp coined the term “open source”, so that they could avoid using the term “free”. With a new term, they could decide which ideas to associate it with and which to leave out. They chose to completely leave out the ethical level. They don’t present the ethical ways to release software, and what we can do to stop the unethical ways. They don’t say that proprietary software is an injustice. They say that it is convenient for you to let users change and redistribute the software you release, because then they will improve the code quality. This, I disagree with.

Why does a free program have a license? Licenses are for proprietary programs and their purpose is to restrict people, right?

For us, it is the opposite. A Free Software license is actually a statement of permission that gives the users the four freedoms. That’s the only way a program or any other kind of work can be free, if the copyright holders have put this on the statement of permission. This is because under today’s copyright law, whatever work is done is under copyright.

By default, copyright law forbids users to copy software, change it, distribute it — and many countries even forbid running it, because it is copying into main memory. So, the only way a program can be “free” is through a formal declaration by the copyright holders, giving every user the four freedoms. We term that declaration a Free Software license. If a work does not have that license, it is not free. And there are people who are publishing things and saying these are free, but they don’t put on the licenses, so what they are saying is false. When you see this, you should complain to them, and say, “I am glad you would like it to be free, but you actually legally need to make it free — so please do that!”

There are many ways to give people the four freedoms, and that is why there are many Free Software licenses. The big difference between Free Software licenses is between the copyleft licenses and the non-copyleft licenses. The GNU General Public License is a copyleft license. It means that it requires the distribution (with or without changes) be under the same license. In effect, it says, you can distribute this code to others, but you must respect their freedom the same way we respect your freedom. Looking at the same thing from a different point of view, it means that the man who provided a software copy to you must respect your freedom the same way he took advantage of the freedom given to him.

Without copyleft, one person or one company can get a copy of the program as Free Software, and put on restrictions, and distribute it to you as proprietary software. And then the freedom, which is the purpose of this law, will not reach you. This would be a failure for the GNU system, according to the Free Software Movement, because the reason we developed the GNU system is to ensure you have freedom. If this freedom is taken away by a middleman, we fail. So I invented the idea of copyleft as a way to prevent that failure. And that’s why I wrote the GNU General Public License [GPL], as the way to release software — but I wrote it so that everyone else could also release their software that way.

So, when Torvalds decided to make Linux free software in 1992, he used the GNU General Public License to do that. GPL is not the only Free Software license; there are non-GNU Free Software licenses as well. But because the GNU GPL is a copyleft license, it’s usually better, because why let somebody else have the chance to deny freedom to some of the users of your copy?

Don’t you think for Free Software Movement to succeed you probably out to write more and more programs?

No. That’s not true. That was true at the beginning because in the 1980s (during the early days), the free software I wrote was a substantial part of the Free Software Movement. But nowadays, the Free Software community is so big, and there are so many software, that my additions would constitute a tiny portion of it. And besides, I am older now. I cannot do that as well as I used to.

Meanwhile, what I see is that there is a terrible lack of valuing freedom, and this is not being addressed by people so much — so that is where I need to contribute.

Based on your interactions with the community in India, what are your observations about the Free Software Movement in this country?

Well, there are a few activists who have campaigned strongly for Free Software, and they have had some successes. Some of the schools in Kerala switched to free software — but most of the Free Software community is not thinking about freedom, and there are obstacles from the government. Schools are required to teach proprietary software (at least, some schools are, because they are under the control of the universities that require it, who in turn are controlled by the government bodies that require it). This is wrong.

Any government that tells people to teach proprietary software is essentially delivering the country into the hands of a company. The Tamil Nadu government is distributing laptops with Windows to the children. Well, that’s delivering the future of the state to a company. It’s wrong. I have heard that they have now settled for a dual-boot system. Dual-boot means providing some ethical software and some unethical software. That’s like saying at a lunch in school, “We will offer the children water and whisky, so they could get to know both of them.” Switching to dual-boot is a step forward, but they must stop distributing Windows. It’s wrong to ever distribute non-free software to the public — and when it’s to children, it’s even worse.

What are your views on the Indian developers’ contributions to Free Software?

Well, I don’t follow that. You see, there are hundreds and thousands of free programs, and most of them I have never heard of. I don’t try to keep track of who is contributing what, because I cannot do that. I have other work to do. As a result, I am not in a position to measure the contributions of people from any particular country.

However, I do know of one Indian developer who has made an important contribution. His name is Krishnakant [Mane]. He came to a talk I gave, and said that there was no Free Software that could speak words from the screen, and so asked what he ought to do? I said, “Write some.” So a few years later, he came to one of my talks, and reminded me of what I had said to him earlier — and said that he had “written some”. So now he has made major contributions to screen-reading software, which he and thousands of other people use.

What do you rate as your favourite contribution to Free Software?

I don’t have one. But if you talk about contributions done by me, I would say, in a narrowly practical sense, it’s GNU Emacs. I use this program all the time. If you ask me, of all the things that I have done, which one is most important, it’s the launching of the Free Software Movement, and leading the development of the GNU system.

Which is your favourite GNU/Linux distribution?

I am using gNewSense, but I don’t want to have preferences between free distros. Until recently, this was the only distro that could run on my computer. However, I am told that Parabola also runs on it, so I will try that.

How do you convince enterprises to resort to Free Software when they argue that Free Software is not secure?

It’s foolish to think that Free Software is not secure. Proprietary software is terribly insecure. But I don’t try to convince businesses. I don’t focus on trying to convince people to use Free Software. I focus on showing people how Free Software is necessary for their freedom. Others are trying to convince people in different ways to use Free Software — I think that is a secondary job.

Most people new to the Free Software world do not consider Free Software mature — for example, GIMP vs Photoshop, LibreOffice vs MS Office, etc. How does one deal with such arguments?

If you don’t focus on freedom, if you don’t think of proprietary software as a threat to your freedom, then you might consider which software to use purely based on practical considerations. Proprietary software developers are not always incompetent. They don’t always do a bad job. So either one may seem better, practically.

But if you recognise that a proprietary program is an attack on your freedom, and it’s a system of digital colonisation, then you will look at the choice in a different way. You will see the proprietary software as intolerable, and would want to know how you can get free software. So if a free program can do the job at all, then you would find that better. Anything that is good is better than anything that is bad. Once you recognise that proprietary software is bad, you will obviously choose the better program. I would rather have nothing than use a proprietary program, and that’s the choice I make. If there is something that I can do only with proprietary software, I will rather not do it.

What would be your advice to software developers and hackers in terms of what to do and what not to do?

The way you learn to participate in Free Software development is by doing it. If you use a program, and wish it had features it doesn’t have — or you come across a bug, then add the feature or fix the bug and send the change to the developers of the program; then work with them to get your change installed. That is how you learn.

Increasingly the computing industry is shifting to tablets, which is a completely non-free ecosystem. What is the FSF doing to make Free Software for tablets?

The Software Freedom Law Centre is looking for a way to fight against Apple’s power trap. Meanwhile, we may arrange the development of, and sell some computers that are designed to work with free software. That’s all we can do. There is a lot of free software to use. Android is released as free software, but it is not a complete system. There is always some other non-free software in it. But there is a version called Replicant, which can get rid of most of the non-free software on a few phone models.

Android is not completely free, but it is better than Microsoft’s Windows Phone and Apple’s iOS. Google has complied with the requirements of the GNU General Public License for Linux, but the Apache license on the rest of Android does not require source release. For example, Google withheld the source code of Android 3 (aside from Linux), even though executables were released to the public. Thus, Android 3, apart from Linux, is non-free software, pure and simple. [Although Google since released the source code of Android 4.0 — the successor to version 3.]

You have expressed your rejection of Facebook. Why?

Facebook is not your friend, and is certainly not my friend. Facebook collects data on who was where, and when, and uses its so-called “users” to collect its data. If you posted a photo of me in Facebook, people would be invited to label it as Richard Stallman — and their database will have more information about me. I don’t want their database to have information about anybody.

Why have you asked your followers not to do business with Amazon through Stallman.org?

Amazon’s Swindle is malware. That’s not its official name, of course. I am talking of an ebook reader which is designed to swindle readers out of their traditional freedom of reading. There is a freedom to buy a book anonymously paying cash, which is the only way I buy books. I never give my name to be put in any database with the books I have bought; I don’t want any database to have that information. With the Swindle, however, Amazon forces users to identify themselves to get identified with the books they have bought. Amazon has a giant database that records each book that each user has read — and such a database, no matter who has it, is a threat to human rights. We must not allow that to exist.

Then there is a freedom to give a book to someone else, or to lend it to other people, or even to sell it, perhaps to a book store. Amazon eliminates those freedoms with digital handcuffs, together with end-user license agreements. So Amazon goes far to show its contempt for the idea of private property. Users can’t own books.

And there is also a freedom to keep a book for as long as you wish, and pass it on to your children. Amazon abolishes this freedom with a back-door. We know about these back-doors by observation. In 2009, users observed that Amazon remotely deleted thousands of copies of a particular book. These were authorised copies, until they were wiped off by Amazon. The book was 1984 by George Orwell. The official name of the product is Kindle. Kindle means to start a fire. Evidently, this product was designed to burn our books — so don’t let it happen! Don’t ever use that product, or anything like it.

You have been reported to have said, “I am glad Jobs is gone.” People did not really understand what you meant. Please explain.

People distorted what I said. I said it’s not good that he is dead, but it’s good that he is gone. The reason I said it was because he was an evil genius, who did harm to the world. He figured out how to make computers that were prisons for the users, and he made them attractive, so that many users got attracted to the glamour, to be handcuffed. After he did this, Microsoft started doing the same thing. So he changed the world for the worse, and we are still fighting the harm that he did. That’s the reason for what I said. Of the various things that Jobs did, that one is the most important, and he is a big harm to the world. I am glad he is not able to do any more of this. I hope that his successors will be less successful than him.

Why don’t you use a cell phone?

Because cell phones can track my location or my conversation with anyone. Most cellular phones, even if they are not smartphones, do have a processor running software and that (proprietary) software is malware, because it will send information about its users’ locations on remote command — and it has a back-door, so it can be remotely converted into a listening device. Almost all software has bugs — but this software is itself a bug.


  1. You know a lot of ppl disagree with RMS and think he is eccentric and maybe anal. He has changed the face of the computer industry; had the foresight to see what was/is really going on. He’s stuck to his “guns” so to speak. I long for the day I don’t need proprietary codecs. I’m much further along now than 8 years ago and only use maybe 1-2% non-free stuff from 100%+ back then. All this because one man and group of ppl who saw the same thing said no.

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    • u can really do that IFF u have no family and friends and wife like the great guru and u are living a wild life like him( his appearance i meant)…

    • write a good software(thats really usable) and soon u shall understand the need to copy-protect ur hard work…not all closed source softwares are evil and track ur location…this is madness to not trust everything..

  3. He is crazy but have to respect about he fight for world freedom , agree with many but some disagree with facebook and cell-phone

  4. an extraordinary-man with principles and values.. though difficult to follow by a common-man.. i will try to support & propogate his principles..

  5. […] An Interview with Richard Stallman on Freedom, Android, Amazon, Facebook, Steve Jobs… […]

  6. This Proprietary stuff have engulfed people and the young generations .Government should promote and help these initiatives taken by free software communities and should implement them from grass root level , for a free young generation . But thanks to free software communites the fight for freedom is still growing on. Some governments have tried to implement it, which is big step in this world of Proprietary stuff …..Thanks for making us understand the difference between open source and free software. 

  7. If you go to a backery and buy a cake, is it unethical if you don’t get the recipe as well?
    If you buy a radio, is it unethical if you don’t get the construction plans for it?
    If you buy some software, is it unethical if you don’t get the source-code?
    If you buy a processor, is it unethical if you don’t get the “hardware description language”-description of the processor?

    Stallman sees it as an ethical issue. Maby he is ultimately right. I simply don’t know.
    He’s right that sharing is a good thing.
    But is it really an ethical issue whether or not you get some recipe, construction plans or source-code??

    • interesting analogy but it’s not the same. stallman would have no problem using an mp3 player that is nothing more than a music player that can’t load apps and can’t share your information.

      if the cake you are buying would be consumed many times a week and would be integral to your health and well being as a person then you’d want the freedom to know what it is that you are eating. that still however is different…

      he is soooo hardcore about free (as in freedom) software because you use your “computer” to do all of your “computing”, which means direct control over much of your information and life. he would probably use emacs, mutt, or thunderbird over something like outlook, mac mail, or sparrow simply because he cannot guarantee what the closed non-free programs are doing with his data and thus violating his (and our) freedom.

      i sit in the middle between torvalds and stallman. i agree with stallman but give in to some non free software do to pragmatism. i’m not willing to go without or not do something. i will however replace software i use with free software as it meets my needs and hope one day to be able to improve or add to free software myself.

    • I just perfectly agree with u tony…though i am a linux fan and use it as my main OS,,,i still cant support his views…i support the view of sir Linus Torvalds…he is more transparent and thats why “linux” kernel is used in many closed source businesses like android..(many android apps and drivers are closed)

  8. how does enterprises which develop free software finance their projects and pay their employees ? i don’t because all their products are free

    • Its From the advertising and the revenue generated from these softwares..!!
      when most of the revenue generated is from open source software by any company it is called poss company..!!

  9. People must have the freedom to close the source of the software he developed…he is kinda freak against closed source innocent developers who wanna earn their money in a straight way keeping their spine straight,not begging for donation for their hard work…

  10. If u are smart enough and think urself more intelligent than others u can always check the executable binary code of proprietary softwares and determine iff its really a threat and track ur information or not…why need the source code..!? :P


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