Hacker and FreeSoftware activist.
Founder of the FreeSoftwareFoundation, creator of the GnuGeneralPublicLicense and wrote much of the modern version of the Emacs editor.
- Personal site : http://www.stallman.org/
Quora Answer : Why is Richard Stallman more important than Elon Musk?
Richard Stallman is the man who saw, long before most people, the danger that a world eaten by software would be to our rights and freedoms.
If everything you can do in a wired technological society is constrained by software. And software is a black-box controlled by self-interested corporations, who are backed up by draconian intellectual property laws. Then your freedom has effectively gone. You can act only in so far as the software lets you. And the software is hard-coded tyranny.
Most people are just starting to wake up, now, in the 2020s, to the risks of handing control over too much of their lives to big tech. They see what Facebook knows about them. They look across at what China is doing with social credit. And they shudder. But have no idea what to do about it.
But Stallman could see those problems coming in the early 1980s, and was already trying to organize resistance to them, and to redirect the future in a better, healthier and free-er direction.
Stallman wasn't just thinking about programmers. He has stories from the 80s and 90s warning how, say, DRM would make lending books to friends, impossible. (Which is exactly what happened with e-books. People don't lend books to their friends, and the second hand book market is effectively non-existent).
Stallman was thinking about all the ways that those who control the software control our lives, from long, long before it was fashionable.
And he tried his hardest to change the future away from that.
He had a plan :
Politically aware programmers, with a sense of moral purpose, would write software that was deliberately free, whose source-code was open for anyone to read, study, learn from and change, so that users wouldn't be controlled by it. Users would know what their software was doing. And if they didn't like it, could change it to something they did like. Software enabled tyranny would be avoided because ownership of and control of software would be out there in public. Not controlled by corporations or governments.
It was a bold and visionary plan. In many ways before its time. Too few people understood it.
(And it didn't help, that in the 90s, Eric Raymond and Tim O'Reilly came along to sabotage it by claiming that free-software was really just about good business sense and hacker culture, man. And not about morality and the struggle for freedom, at all.)
Of course Stallman comes across as having bee in his bonnet. And most people, unfortunately, ignore him. That's because he's the genuine article. A bona-fide moral visionary. One of the few of our times.
Elon Musk is a bit of an arse. Yes, he's doing good work helping to shift the world to electric cars. That's a "good thing (tm)" and I won't take that away from him. He's also, kind of a "visionary" for putting his money where his mouth is, and doing his bit to push space exploration and Mars colonization. Although I think it's too early for that and he isn't going to succeed. (It's also a "vision" that's remarkably 1950s retro. But sure, give Musk some credit for that.)
But Stallman's GPL should be up there with the Magna Carta and the American Constitution, as another major milestone in legal history and the struggle to protect and guarantee human freedom. It's the only interesting and possibly viable response to the dangers we currently face from a future of ubiquitous computing and networking.
The are only two alternatives in our future. Either our devices are open, and we control them and get them to do what we want because we can program them. Or our devices are closed and controlled by other people, and those other people control us through our devices. (And good luck "opting out" of using devices and ubiquitous social media services if you want to stay a functioning member of society.)
Stallman pretty much saw this 40 years ago. And has been fighting to bring us the first alternative ever since. He's spent his life talking about the dangers, talking about the solutions, and encouraging programmers to join the moral and political movement in favour of defending human freedom from technological tyranny.
That makes him one of the most important political and moral leaders of our times. And possibly of any times in human history.
See also :
Phil Jones (He / Him)'s answer to Will the Free Software Foundation become irrelevant if Clang makes GCC obsolete?
Me on Twitter https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1355518981214523392.html replying to GrahamLally
I think Stallman's politics is left and libertarian (where libertarian is "extreme liberal"). The intuition most of us had originally is that with enough freedom, the good drives out the bad. As you know, I think we might be discovering that that is "wrong" in some sense ... \1
But it's still a viable and attractive intuition.
And, yes, the GPL etc. is built on that. So freedom is more important than trying to constrain people to do good. \2
Furthermore ... pragmatically, this appeal to pure freedom clearly engages and recruits more people than if Stallman had tried to use GPL to enforce his own wider political views. You have "right-libertarians" (ESR, or Lessig) on-board with GPL. \3
Finally, I think there is a question whether you could legally codify and enforce restrictions on use. GPL is all about hacking existing copyright law and its definition of "derivative". Because derivation is a well established legal idea, that bit is "easy". \4
Obviously other things like CC or GPL Affero start putting more restrictions (Eg. non-commercial, or "can't use the software on a server without sharing") which push the envelope a bit. I'm sure others have tried to put restrictions eg. "can't use for military" into licenses \5
Whether those have ever been tested in court, I'm not sure.
I'm inclined to think that this is right. You try to undermine copyright through the legal GPL, and address other politics / morals through community practice, codes of conduct, culture rather than enforcing \6
That feels right to me ... but I admit maybe that's my libertarian bias showing through.
What I think certain is that law isn't a viable substitute for politics and community. If people want to be racist, a license in the blogging software can't / won't stop them \7
OTOH, I do think that platforms like Twitter and FB can and should enforce standards in their users, and chucking people off for dangerous disinformation or hate speech is fine. Just as a pub has the right to chuck out an aggressive drunken customer. \8
But that's based on a different principle. If you create a communal space, you have rights and responsibilities to keep that space healthy.
In summary, GPL is actively against imposing restrictions on particular uses. And I think that's fine. That's how it should be. \9
But that's because of the kind of thing the GPL is and software is.
People running platforms / communities can and should worry about the codes of practice, netiquette, policing abusive behaviour and the political fight against fascism.
That's where it should happen \10
Most importantly, EVERYTHING we face today was predicted in web.archive.org/web/2005061408… and everyone should go back, read, and think seriously about that. You cannot separate tech. from politics. \end
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