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Richard M. Stallman recently visited the Occupied Palestinian Territories for a series of talks on Free Software and related issues. After a false start when Stallman scheduled talks at Israeli universities, he acquiesced to the condition that on his Palestine-sponsored tour he would respect the boycott on Israel. Ultimately, his trip was sponsored by ISOC, an organization committed to bringing free internet to Ramallah, along with a community fundraiser free from any corporate sponsorship.
From Wikipedia: "Richard Matthew Stallman (born March 16, 1953), often shortened to rms, is an American software freedom activist and computer programmer. In September 1983, he launched the GNU Project to create a free Unix-like operating system, and he has been the project's lead architect and organizer. With the launch of the GNU Project, he initiated the free software movement; in October 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation."
At his request, he was given a tour around Ramallah of the Apartheid Wall and other highlights of the West Bank occupation. Specific points of interest were the neighborhoods cut off from Jerusalem by the Wall, formerly East Jerusalem neighborhoods, that now must drive around the wall and through a checkpoint, nearly one hour by car. The systematic control of water, accessible only a few days each week, is made obvious from the black tanks on the roofs of every building. Construction of buildings or the laying of communications lines all require a permit issued by Israel. Apartheid is truly made obvious when one sees the separation of Palestinian roads from Israeli settlement roads. The tour was dizzying as it wound around each small, now isolated village, dodged security checkpoints, and sometimes had to retreat backwards through former streets that now abruptly end at the Wall.
Stallman's message of freedom was particularly pertinent to Palestinians in the West Bank. His talk had a simple message; proprietary software is a form of dictatorship and digital colonization. The alternative is Free Software, where users control the program versus programs controlling the users. Indeed, he lectured on the value of freedom to Palestinians, which is apt since Stallman considers it his life's work to make people appreciate their freedom so that they will fight for their freedom. Palestinians certainly value their freedom, thus the lecture resonated. However, to value their digital freedom, they first needed to understand the concept.
Windows is by far the most commonly used operating system in the West Bank. In fact, most technologists have never even heard of or used a Free operating system. Like in most places, non-brand alternatives are assumed to be inferior. Stallman spent little or no time on the topic of performance because his message was much deeper; it's about freedom, solidarity with your community, sharing and cooperation.
For those unfamiliar with the basic definition of Free Software, the definition that Stallman gave that evening was more or less as follows:
Digital freedom is achieved in four ways with Free Software.
0. Users should be free to run the program for any purpose. Some licenses even contain restrictions that infringe upon freedom of speech.
1. Users and developers should be free to study and change how the program works. There are many, known malicious features in proprietary operating systems like Microsoft Windows that spy on users or that can install or uninstall software secretly. Likewise, most no-cost software, or freeware, such as Adobe Flash, does not charge its users money to be abused. Don't be fooled; hiding source code is not to prevent others from stealing their recipe, it is to protect themselves from being found out.
2. Everyone should be free to share the program. In a world where users license, rather than buy, their books from Amazon, there is no private property and no sharing; you can't own books anymore. This means that we can't be in solidarity with our community or passing things down to our children.
3. Developers should be free to distribute any changes to the program to others. Working together and in collaboration is required to ensure bug-free and helpful software. There is no conflict between free software and business. Programmers are paid to write, study, and modify code using their expert knowledge and experience. Free software doesn't mean developers don't make money, it just rejects the idea that profits come before people.
On the question of "software piracy," Stallman immediately answered that the term "pirate" demonizes community cooperation. Helping other people becomes the equivalent of attacking ships. But sharing is sharing; it's a form of cooperation.
He finished by telling the story of Free Software. Begun in the 1980s, the non-proprietary GNU operating system sought to create a space for freedom. Developing an alternative to proprietary operating systems began with technical skill only, yet today there exists a Free Software Movement. He said that it was like seeing someone drowning; he just had to do something to help. So he used his technical know-how, recruited other people, and adopted the existing Unix community for a start. Linux Torvalds added the final piece to the project. This last tiny piece is also the OS's namesake today since many people, albeit rather inaccurately, call the entire project Linux. Stallman admits that credit is not as important as freedom, though still asks that users refer to the OS as GNU/Linux.
After his speech, we all went to the old city in Ramallah to watch traditional dancing, called Debka, and have dinner. Mostly, he and I went back and forth on the issue of accessibility, at which proprietary software is remarkably better. The Free Software Movement must be inclusive. Free Software must be just as, if not more than, accessible as Windows and Apple OS. While he agreed, he argued that this only becomes difficult when we look at how to prioritize accessibility against other goals. Essentially, people with disabilities must wait. But the FSF already does have the framework, which was set it up in the 1990s. Ultimately, we both discovered that groups like Arab Eyes have devoted themselves to language accessibility. It's hopeful that in the future collaboration between the FSF and advocates for disability access and language justice will increase.
Stallman's tour also included appearances at universities in two other West Bank cities, Jenin and Nablus, as well as various meetings with local organizations and institutions. Later, I conducted an interview with Stallman over email regarding additional topics that were discussed at the lecture.
Do you consider website hosting a kind of Software as a Service?
I use the term "SaaS" for services that do your computing for you, but not for services that do only communication. Thus, gmail.com is not SaaS. Wordpress is not SaaS. Github is not SaaS, or perhaps only in trivial ways.
Website hosting in the simple case is just publishing files that you supply. That isn't a matter of doing any of your computing, so it is not SaaS.
The article you sent me uses the term "SaaS" in a very broad way, including many services that do communication, which I would not call "SaaS". For services that are truly SaaS, nothing can make it acceptable. There is no remedy except not to use them. However, using services for communication is not in general bad.
Financial arguments for not adopting Free Software are often given by institutions who commonly receive grant money for their technology infrastructure. What is your long-term vision for getting Free Software in more institutions?
So what if Windows is pre-installed? That doesn't stop the school from defenestrating the computer after receiving it. They could get volunteers to do that. So I don't see how this could even start to be a reason not to run GNU/Linux.
I wonder if these schools consider the issue based on the mistaken idea that free software means zero-price software. If the school decision makers think that this is just an issue of price, and if they are forced to pay for Windows so they can't save any money on Windows licenses, they might reach the erroneous conclusion that free software would not do them any good. Schools need to teach free software for ethical reasons whether it saves them money or not.
I don't think the supposed financial reasons are an obstacle at all. At worst they would reduce the positive motivation to migrate. Another thing which does so is the lack of appreciation of why teaching non-free software in schools is harmful. The biggest obstacle is inertia of various kinds.
My strategy is: first explain the general ethical issue of free versus proprietary software, then the malicious features found in non-free software (to show that the problem is not merely theoretical). Once they see the real reason to move, then present the arguments to make it concrete.
Historically, what has been the role of financial capital in developing Free Software? Also, what is the role of capital (or capitalism) in the development of Free Software?
Large companies contributed a lot to development of some free programs in the 2000's. It is somewhat less now, as a result of changes in the industry -- at least in the US. At the level of ideas, free software combines ideas from capitalism, socialism, and anarchism. It is not against capitalism, but it rejects the idea that profit overrides ethics and that profit justifies mistreating people.
It was very meaningful that Richard Stallman was brought to the West Bank by communities of technologists interested in the Free Software movement. There are many projects and conferences in the West Bank on the topic and it seems that increasingly, campaigns and organizations are adopting its use, including even secondary and higher education institutions. The FSF's political message of liberation and freedom really works here because there is a real humanitarian struggle among people for freedom. Truly, it was a great outreach effort; technology activism at its finest.
Originally posted for May First/People Link's monthly newsletter, The Lowdown