Richard Stallman – "The US is democratic in form, but its democracy is so sick that it hardly functions."
Although digital freedom is a popular issue today associated essentially with the Internet, its roots go back to over a generation, a time when mostly hackers were concerned with the threats against it.
It all started when software companies decided to keep the source code of their software (from hardware drivers to web servers) away from the users, in order to make them more dependent, and ask higher sacrifices (pecuniary or otherwise) from them. The reaction to this abuse has been the advent of the free software movement, whose founder we interview here.
– Interview by Mehdi
- First published on 14-05-2012
Can you tell us about yourself?
I am Richard Stallman, founder of the free (libre) software movement.
In 1984 I launched the development of a complete operating system,
called GNU, whose goal is to be entirely free software (see gnu.org).
GNU is widely used, but its users mostly don't know they are using GNU
because they think it is Linux. (See http://www.gnu.org/gnu/linux-and-gnu.html and http://www.gnu.org/gnu/gnu-linux-faq.html.)
In 1980, your struggle against abusive power (that of some
companies) started with the poorly designed proprietary software driver of a printer... can you explain to us how software companies
have used proprietary software to expand at the expense of computer
A proprietary program (privateur, parce qu'il prive de liberté) is in
itself an attack on users' freedom.
With software, either the users control the program or the program
controls the users. The first case is free software; the second case
is proprietary software.
With proprietary software, the developer controls the program and the
program controls the users. As a result, the program is an instrument
of unjust power: power of the developer over the users of the program.
This is an injustice in itself, but it is also the basis for further
injustice. In many widely used nonfree programs, the developers have
made intentional malfeatures for surveillance or restriction of the
users. There are even back doors, which can do nasty things to the
user based on commands received from others (the user has no say).
Specific malfeatures are known in Windows, MacOS, the iThings, Flash
Player, the Playstation 3 (see boycottsony.org), the Amazon Kindle
Swindle (see DefectiveByDesign.org), and most portable phones. Other
proprietary programs might have them too -- we are blocked from
The only known defense against malicious features installed in a
program by the developer is for the users to have control over the
program. In other words, free software.
The accumulation of power by some of those companies has made them
much bigger (in terms of revenues) than many countries (Apple's 2012 revenues reached $108 billion, the equivalent of Morocco's GDP of the
same year). This provides them with a significant lobbying power. In
the same time the Free Software movement has won several fights, like
(although only partially) the one against DRM technology. How would
you describe the balance of power between those companies and the Free
Software movement today, and what are the areas where the fight is the
I am unable to answer the first question, because I have no way to
measure those companies' power or the free software community's
strength. However, I can tell you the areas where we face the most
- Device drivers and firmware. Many manufacturers often sell you a
device but refuse to tell you how to use it. Writing free
replacements for these is difficult when the hardware interfaces are
- Secret interfaces ought to be a scandal, but most computer users
are so accustomed to being spit on by computer companies that they
can't imagine complaining.
- Secret data formats used by nonfree software.
- Some areas where progress is slow because they are very hard; for
instance, speech recognition software.
- Schools that require or encourage use of proprietary software,
effectively directing their students into dependence.
The constitutions of today's democracies date back to several
decades, if not a couple of centuries, a time when the importance of
information technology was far from trivial. Can we attribute some
people's indecisiveness and skepticism surrounding digital freedoms in
relation to democracy to the fact that nothing is explicitly mentioned
about it in these old constitutions?
I don't know how much influence constitutions have on the strength of
public demand for freedom, but they do have an effect on laws that can
affirm freedom or deny freedom.
Most of the issues of freedom raised by digital technology are not
inherently tied to a specific kind of technology. They may concern
threats to human rights that technology made possible. It is best for
the constitution to avoid mention of specific kinds of technology
as much as possible.
Should we think of constitutions as programs that need patching and
upgrading every few decades, or can we hope that a certain
constitution will protect a country's citizens forever (as it may be
I don't think we should expect any constitution to be perfect. The
enemies of democracy from time to time find a new way to grab power
they should not have, or undermine previously respected human rights.
Then we have to fight to rescue human rights and democracy from their
grip. Sometimes (though not always) this requires amending the
constitution. It is normal to do that; that is why they have
For instance, the US Supreme Court ruled a couple of years ago that
corporations are entitled to the human rights guaranteed by the US
constitution. There is now a campaign, which I support, for a
constitutional amendment to reverse that decision.
However, we should not look for ways to change the text of a
constitution merely because time has passed since it was written.
Do you think that aspiring democracies like Tunisia and Egypt have
a unique chance to implement information technology's specifics and
importance in their new constitutions?
My proposals for constitutions are in http://stallman.org/articles/constitution-suggestions.html. As
you can see, I have tried to focus on issues rather than a specific
technology. One of the suggestions explicitly refers to "information
technology"; in the others, I was able to avoid mentioning technology.
One of the reasons cited behind the Arab Spring revolution, which
started in Tunisia, is the fact that Tunisian activists knew - thanks,
amongst other things, to Wikileaks' revelations - that the US
government would not stand with former dictator Ben Ali in case of a
row with the (politically neutral) Tunisian military. When compared
with the Pentagon Papers, these revelations by Wikileaks, part of a
massive publication of secret information of public interest, shows
just how much power can information technology give back to the people. Was it imaginable in the '70s and '80s that information
technology could have such an enormous impact on global politics and
How many people must imagine something before it qualifies as "imaginable"?
In the 70s, Ted Nelson published Dream Machines, which envisaged a
computer network which everyone would use to publish documents,
including edited versions of other people's documents, and it would
show the history of editing the document. This was in the 70s. Those
who read the book (including me) imagined the idea too. Other ideas
along the same lines were imagined as early as the 1930s.
What I could not imagine at the time was how the hobbyist computers
of the day might lead to real computers available to most people.
Today, governments and companies still significantly rely on humans
to perform their tasks. One of the consequences of this is the
whistleblowing phenomenon, in which individuals witness to illegal,
criminal, or simply immoral behavior by their organizations make the
case public (often after unsuccessfully raising the issue within the
organization). This phenomenon, which stems from the basic human
ability to distinguish right from wrong, insures a certain level of
morality in government and business practices. What do you think could
happen if humans in government and business offices keep on gradually
being replaced by programs, and for that matter proprietary ones? Would we be running toward Dystopia?
Someone defined bureaucracy as a computing machine made out of human
parts. Using computers instead of humans does not necessarily make a
system less ethical; conversely, we can't count on human functionaries
in governments or businesses to make them ethical. This is why
whistleblowers are so important and must have public protection.
Thus, I don't think that the presence of computers in the system
necessarily makes it worse. It does, however, facilitate total
surveillance of everyone's activities, which enables corrupt and
tyrannical states to crush opposition. It may turn out that is the
most important effect of the use of digital technology.
You run a personal website, stallman.org, on which you publish
activist news and invite people to join campaigns. When did you start
this website, and what was your motivation?
Around 2000, I recognized that I was somewhat known to the public, and
felt I ought to make use of that to support campaigns for human rights
on other issues beyond free software. So I started stallman.org to
publish articles and links about those other issues.
Many in the US, and also outside of the US, have placed enormous
faith in Obama when he was elected to office in 2008. What is your
opinion on his presidency so far?
I did not support Obama; compared with candidates such as Kucinich and
Nader, Obama was clearly too right-wing. His slogans, "hope" and "change", were so vague that they inspired me to feel distrust, which
his subsequent conduct has justified.
Obama has done more to attack whistleblowers than any previous
president. He protects torturers and people such as Bush who ordered
torture; he protects those guilty crimes against the peace, again
including Bush; the Guantanamo "military tribunals", obviously unjust,
are meant to suppress consideration of that torture.
Obama also protects the banksters from prosecution for massive
fraudulent foreclosures. He panders to big business at almost every
opportunity, and only rarely and grudgingly does anything for the
It seems that, in the last few decades, whoever is elected to the
White House, the true power lies in the hands of two or three lobbying
groups, which define (dictate?) foreign policy and more and more the
domestic one: the military-complex lobby (which is now expanding in domestic markets and turning them into heavily armed surveillance
states), the financial lobby, and the colonialist pro-Israeli lobby.
Can one still speak of a democratic (as in demos kratos) state when
talking about the US?
The US is democratic in form, but its democracy is so sick that it hardly functions.
The purpose of democracy is for the many non-rich to join together and
be more powerful than the rich. If it fails to do that, it isn't
effective democracy. These days, business interests have converted
the US government into a government of occupation on behalf of the
empire of the megacorporations.
The colonialist lobby you refer to is that of the Israeli right wing.
However, it is not correct to call it the "pro-Israel" lobby; supporting
Israel (which I do) is not the same as supporting the occupation of
the West Bank and the siege of Gaza (which I don't).
Is the widespread belief in 'bipartocracy' - the perceived idea
that only the alternation between the two main parties can create some
kind of democracy - also a part of the problem?
I never heard anyone say that having only two parties is a requisite
for democracy, or even that it is desirable. In the US, people
generally think that having two major parties, which deny other
parties the chance to get elected, is an unfortunate flaw which nobody
Are voters trapped in
some kind of dogma that reinforces the establishment and prevents new
blood from gaining political momentum?
It isn't a dogma, it is a flaw that results from details of the
electoral system in the US. It is almost impossible for a third party
to get started in the US. If it is on the left, it would split the
vote of the Democratic candidate and help a Republican win. Most
voters who want someone on the left would vote for the Democrat
instead. A third party on the right would face a similar problem of
splitting the Republican vote.
I support the Green Party despite that logic because I consider the
Democratic Party so right-wing I can't stomach it. Obama is not much
better than Bush, and I doubt McCain would have been much worse than
Obama. In other words, the Democratic Party is so bad that it can no
longer win my support by warning that Republicans might win.
April 20 2012 has marked the 500th day of detention of Julian
Assange, despite the fact that he hasn't been charged with anything
anywhere, not in Sweden, not in the US, not in the UK, not in his home
Australia... there is undoubtedly an international conspiracy lead by
the US that has as an agenda to get him on US soil to face an
inquisition-like trial (called a Grand Jury) where he wouldn't even
have the right to defend himself, and where a long prison sentence in
isolation awaits him, if not worse...
A grand jury is not a trial at all; it cannot find anyone guilty.
What it can do is lay charges which can subsequently be judged in a
I think the US wants to imprison Assange by hook or by crook. I don't
think it will hesitate to lay false charges or use false, coerced
testimony to prove them. There are unconfirmed reports that the US
has already used a grand jury to establish such charges against people
involved in Wikileaks.
...All this because Wikileaks (of
which he is the main public figure) revealed the true nature of US
foreign policy and its relationship with other pseudo-democracies like
Sweden (for instance regarding CIA rendition flights)... Is it fair to
say that Assange is the first international prisoner of conscience?
He's not a prisoner at present, but he may become one. If so, he
won't be the first international prisoner of conscience. Consider the
Saudi blogger who published a rather mild statement of disagreement
with Islam. He was arrested in transit through Malaysia, which sent
him to Saudi Arabia without an extradition hearing. He now faces
execution merely for stating his beliefs. It is hard to find a
nastier example of tyranny than that.
Freedom of speech means the freedom to criticize, denounce, mock or
insult any person, any institution, and any belief. It is easy to
support people's freedom to say things we agree with. The test of our
support for free speech is what we do when people say things we
Does the free software community work on developing cryptography
and anonymity tools? Is it seen as a strategic area for the protection of users' privacy, communications, and right to free speech?
Anonymity and privacy are a major priority for us, because we value
freedom so highly. Thus, it is no surprise that important privacy
tools such as TOR have come from the free software community.
The hacker group Anonymous (which defines itself more as an idea)
has become a major player on the international geopolitical scene
since its operations in protest against the attacks on Wikileaks, and
its support of Arab Spring activists in their fight against oppressive
regimes. Mainstream media calls Anonymous operations 'attacks'; is it
the right word, or should we use 'protests' instead?
Most Anonymous actions involve a lot of people sending many ordinary
messages to a web server, which therefore becomes overloaded. This is
the virtual equivalent of a protest on the street at the door of a
building. That is a normal aspect of democracy, and must be legal.
Another kind of Anonymous action involves drawing mocking graffiti on
a web site. That is the virtual equivalent of writing on a poster on
the wall. It is a normal aspect of democracy and must not be
Most of the organizations that Anonymous takes action against are
guilty of major crimes against society. We must take account of this
when we judge the Anonymous actions directed at them.
Current copyright laws not only make it harder for people to share
creative works with each other, but they have created an illegitimate
accumulation of wealth within publishing and collecting companies at
the expense of the artists, who earn a ridiculous share of the revenues. You have made a proposal for an Internet sharing license,
can you tell us which interests it serves, and how is works?
Sharing is good, and digital technology makes sharing of published
works easy. Therefore sharing must be legalized.
The existing copyright system is supposed to support artists, but it
does a lousy job of this (except in the case of a few stars).
This means there are two reasons to reform copyright: so we are free
to share, and to support non-star artists better. My proposal does
both. It legalizes sharing (noncommercial redistribution of exact copies),
whether using the Internet or not.
In addition, it suggests that the state collect taxes each year from
Internet subscribers, and distribute it among the artists based on
published rules. The rules would call for measuring the popularity of
each artist, then giving each artist a share of the annual sum in
proportion to the cube root of that artist's popularity.
The cube root is crucial--distribution in linear proportion would give
too much of the money to stars, wasting that money. With the cube
root, if A is 1000 times as popular as B, A gets 10 times as much
money as B. The effect of this is to shift most of the money from the
stars to the artists of middling popularity--the ones that really need
This would be in addition to other income streams for artists, such as
selling copies, royalties for commercial use of artistic works, and so
on. My proposal makes no change in those activities.
Are some countries discussing its adoption?
Not that I know of, but I am about to propose it again to the
government of Brazil, which is considering reforming its
copyright collecting system.
What are your projects in the near future?
My work nowadays isn't programming, and usually doesn't take the form
of projects. The closest thing to a project that I have nowadays is
an article or an interview such as this one. Mostly my work concerns
activities that continue for a long time.
Which laptop computer do you use, and with which operating system?
I use a Lemote Yeeloong, running the GNU/Linux system; specifically
the gNewSense distribution. See gnu.org/distros for a list of the
GNU+Linux distributions that are entirely free software.
I chose that machine because all the device drivers are free.
Even the BIOS is free.
A last word for our readers?
For more information about the GNU operating system and its variant,
GNU/Linux, see gnu.org. See gnu.org/help for a list of ways you can
contribute (mostly NOT programming).
For the Free Software Foundation, see fsf.org. You can join the FSF,
and we need your support.
For my other political views, plus humor and other things, see