Monday, April 4, 2011

Richard Stallman: "A Free Digital Society?"

About a month ago I was fortunate to attend an IET-hosted lecture by Richard Stallman, entitled "A Free Digital Society?". Probably most famous as the originator of the GNU project (out of which came GNU/Linux) and initiator of the free software movement, Stallman has for many years been an active and vocal advocate for free software, and has a campaigned against excessive extension of copyright laws

He began the talk with the observation that there is an implicit assumption in the recent movement towards "digital inclusion", that using computers and the internet is inherently good and beneficial. However, as the question mark in the title of his talk indicated this assumption merits closer attention, as (in his opinion) there are various issues and threats associated with these technologies. These include:
  • Survelliance: technology now makes it possible for ISPs, websites and other organisations to monitor and analyse what individuals do online (e.g. the sites that they visit, things they buy, search terms they use etc) to an extent to which (in Stallman's words) "Stalin could only dream".
  • Censorship: for example, governments or corporations blocking access to particular websites (think Google in China), or even forcing them to close.
  • Restrictions on users imposed by data formats: both proprietary (e.g. Silverlight) and patented data formats (e.g. MP3) restrict what the end user is able to do with the data they encode.
  • Non-free software: here "free" is in the sense of "freedom", rather than price. Non-free software is essentially software that isn't under the control of you, the user - in the case of proprietary software, it's controlled by the owner (for example Microsoft, Apple, Amazon) who is able to insert features (e.g. to track user behaviour) that serves their interests rather than those of the user. By contrast, free software - which by the way you can still charge money for - gives the user four basic freedoms: 0. to run the software for any purpose; 1. to study how the software works, and make changes to it; 2. to redistribute the software as-is; 3. to redistribute the software with your changes (see the free software definition). In this way malicious features can be detected and removed, and control is returned to the user.
  • "Software as a service" (SaaS): in Stallman's definition, "software as a service" is anything where the computation is done by programs that you can't control - this is like non-free software above, because someone else has control and can change how your computing is done at any time without your permission. He made a distinction between things like e-commerce, online storage storage (e.g. Dropbox), publishing (e.g. Twitter) and search (which are about "data" or "communication", and so are not SaaS), and e.g. Google Docs (which does do computation for you, and so is SaaS). (See Stallman's article Who does that server really serve?)
  • Misuse of an individual's data: essentially doing something with your data without your permission, or even your knowledge - for example, passing on personal data to the authorities, unilaterally modifying your data, or even (for example in the case of Facebook) using it for commercial purposes.
  • "The War on Sharing": according to Stallman, sharing is "using the internet for what it's best at", and the war on sharing - whether digital rights management (DRM) technology or threatening internet users with disconnection (as under the UK's Digital Economy Act) - is an attempt by commercial interests to unfairly restrict what users are allowed to do (see Stallman's article Ending the War on Sharing).
  • Users don't have a postive right to do things on the internet: essentially, all the activities that users perform on the internet - communications, payment etc - are dependent on organisations who have no obligation to continue providing those services to you.
This is a pretty long list of issues (hopefully I've accurately captured the essence of each), and while many of them can be mitigated by moving to free software; others (for example, monitoring by ISPs) require other solutions - and Stallman admitted that he's quite pessimistic about the future. Aside from that, it was a fascinating and entertaining talk (including the auctioning of a GNU gnu soft toy to raise funds for the Free Software Foundation) and the subsequent audience Q&A session provided many opportunities for elaboration and clarification on many of the issues.

I'm still mulling over many of the issues raised. On the one hand there is a fundamental question about what moral rights you believe individuals should have, both generally and with specific regard to the digital world; and on the other there is the question of what you should do if you feel those rights are not being upheld. Stallman's position is clear and uncompromising: for example, not owning a mobile phone and not using a key card to enter his office (to avoid the possibility of being tracked), and using a netbook that allows him to run 100% free software (down to the BIOS level). It's certainly given me plenty to think about, and I'm looking forward to reading his book of collected essays "Free Software, Free Society" - which might be a good place to start if you're also interested in learning more.

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