A packed room at KTH’s main campus welcomed Richard M. Stallman to talk about “The Free Software Movement and the GNU/Linux Operating System”. Stallman (also known as rms) is the founding figure of GNU, a project started in the ’80’s as an attempt to protect the freedoms of software users by building a free operating system.
Figure 1. rms about to sign something
A free operating system is an example of free software. Free does not, in this case, refer to gratis, it rather means free as in “free speech” [www.gnu.org].
“Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:
0. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
1. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
3. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.” [www.gnu.org].
Those four freedoms are encoded in the GNU General Public License (GPL) and thus software distributed for use according to this license is free software (it must be said though that there are other so called open source licenses and some of those are even less restrictive for the end user than the GPL). But why is all this important? What motivates thousands of developers (themselves software users) around the world to produce software of sometimes amazing sophistication and then release it as free software?
According to Stallman the main motivation is to ensure the freedom for users [Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. http://www.gnu.org/doc/book13.html]. According to me, trust has something to do with it as well (but this can perhaps be derived from the concept of freedom as defined above. I don’t know). As so much of our daily life now is dependent on software a few obvious questions are: how can we be sure that this software does what it is supposed to (from a user’s perspective)? On what grounds can it be trusted?
The short answer is that it shouldn’t be trusted. It may contain bugs, strange logic, or other even worse problems. Furthermore, those problems may have been put there deliberately or not. In a closed non-free software world, or “proprietary” as Stallman calls it, a user has no way of knowing. He is completely in the hands of the software producer. This situation alone, this asymmetry of power, is, according to Stallman, so serious that non-free software should be avoided whenever possible. Free alternatives should always be considered.
I understand that the talk was a real eye-opener for several people in the audience who had not heard of this aspect of software before or just never thought of the implications of proprietary software. Philosophy aside, a security consultant that I spoke to found the talk interesting since a mundane property of free software is that it is always open for inspection.
Maybe I should say something about what is written on the black-board behind Stallman. That’s a few URLs that he recommended.
The first one, www.defectivebydesign.org, concerns a thing called Digital Restrictions Managent (DRM). DRM is a way for software producers to limit what your computer can do for you. Microsoft and Apple are two well-known businesses that are really interested in this. Do you want to copy that CD that you bought so you can listen to music on your mp3-player? Forget it. In the future your Microsoft or Apple powered computer won’t let you.
The second one, www.badvista.org, is related to the first one. It details how Microsoft’s latest and greatest operating system Vista can and does restrict its users. Among other things there’s an interesting analysis on the reasons why you need to buy all that new hardware to run Vista.
The remaining three URLs, fsf.org, fsfeurope.org, and gnu.org are gives arguments against non-free software, software patents, and other related stuff.