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Stallman joins the Internet, talks net neutrality, patents and more

Credit: Fabian Rodriguez

Famous RMS keynotes LibrePlanet 2015 conference at MIT


According to Richard Stallman, godfather of the free software movement, Facebook is a “monstrous surveillance engine,” tech companies working for patent reform aren’t going nearly far enough, and parents must lobby their children’s schools to keep data private and provide free software alternatives.

The free software guru touched on a host of topics in his keynote Saturday at the LibrePlanet conference, a Free Software Foundation gathering at the Scala Center at MIT. Excoriating a “plutocratic” corporate culture and warning of severe threats to freedom and privacy around the world, he nevertheless said his own positions on the technology issues of the day had evolved.

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Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman

For one thing, he said, he now connects to websites from his own computer – via Tor and using a free software browser. Previously, he used a complicated workaround to more or less email webpages to himself. The announcement brought a surprised gasp and a round of applause from the 300-plus attendees.

“At one point, I used to believe that the Firefox trademark license was incompatible with free software, I found out I was mistaken – it does allow the redistribution of unmodified copies,” he said.

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Stallman also walked back criticism of Google Play, saying that he’d erroneously believed that the software’s automatic update feature couldn’t be deactivated by the user.

But he also advocated strongly for user privacy and his own view of software freedom in his address, which covered a broad range of subjects.

On patents

“Big companies that don’t really want to get rid of software patents but do want to get rid of nuisance patents have launched a competing, weak, not-worth-bothering campaign to quote ‘improve patent quality,’ unquote,” Stallman said, presumably in reference to the lobbying group United for Patent Reform, which launched in January.

On the DMCA

The community has also softened on its activism against the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Stallman said, particularly where tools to circumvent DRM are concerned. Rather than asking for exemptions to permit the use of such tools, free software activists should be working to get that provision of the DMCA off the books.

“These exceptions don’t solve the whole of the problem … they are only for narrow fields, and they only last for three years, so even if you win, you haven’t ‘won’ anything for very long,” he said. “We have to hammer on the real problem, which is that that part of the DMCA exists at all.”

On Net Neutrality

Stallman dismissed an assertion from the floor that recent changes to Title II rules represented a dangerous increase in government control over the Internet, similar to CISPA or SOPA.

“It’s a mistake to lump them all together, they’re totally different in what they do – that’s like saying ‘there was an unjust law, so don’t pass a law!’”

However, he was critical of the government for not going far enough to protect the ability of users to share.

“It falls short of true network neutrality in that it fails to tell the ISPs that they can’t examine the data to check for unauthorized copying. It fails to tell the ISPs that they can’t punish their customers based on what their customers are transmitting.”

On systemd

The systemd init software has rocked the Linux community, causing forks of popular distributions and sparking heated debate.

Stallman, however, has long stood apart from the world of open-source and Linux – he regards “open-source” as a weak form of openness, and insists on referring to Linux as GNU/Linux. Thus, it wasn’t a surprise that, when asked whether he had an opinion on the systemd controversy, he replied with a flat “no, I don’t.”

“I’ve never seen it, I’ve never used a system that had it; I know it’s free software, so ethically speaking, it’s not an issue – it’s just a convenience question.”

Cracking wise

Stallman got a big laugh – though, it must be said, one not unmixed with groans – when he characterized his political views thusly:

“I have to explain that I’m not an anarchist – I have a pro-state gland.”

He also amused the audience with a haiku about opponents of the GPL’s sharing requirements, which they say make the license less free: “Using GPL / is encroaching on our rights / to encroach on yours.”

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