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Putting freedom back in software

Free software movement founder speaks on software human rights

The father of the free software movement descended into a packed room at Concordia Monday explaining to 125 people why freedom is just as important in software as it is in the rest of life.

Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and lead architect of the GNU Project – which developed part of the GNU/Linux operating system – stressed that there is an ethical requirement to use software that is “free as in freedom, not as in beer.”

“People are not taught to ask ‘how will it affect my freedom?’” Stallman said of software. “A program is free software if it respects a user’s freedom and the social solidarity of its community.”

He argued all ethical programs must allow the four freedoms: the freedom to run the program for any purpose, the freedom to study how it works and adapt it to your needs, the freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour, and the freedom to improve the program and release it to the public to benefit the community.

The vast majority of computer programs are proprietary software, containing licences that make it illegal to exercise some or all of the four freedoms. This leads to ethical dilemmas, according to Stallman.

“Whenever a friend says, ‘I like this program, can I have a copy?’ you have a dilemma,” he said. “[One solution] is don’t have any friends; the other is to reject proprietary software.”

Stallman has always focused on freedom since beginning the GNU Project in 1983 and maintains that software is undemocratic if it fails to provide the four freedoms to users.

In his own life, Stallman tries not to use propriety software, such as Microsoft Word and iTunes. His boycott leaves him unable to use cell phones, taxis with map finders, and most laptops. He admitted in the talk, though, that his flight to Montreal likely used some proprietary software.

“If someone offers you a proprietary program to use, you should say no, for your freedom’s sake,” he said, emphasizing that the relative freedom of programs concern all consumers, not just programmers.

While Stallman supports free software, such as Firefox, OpenOffice, and different distributions of the GNU/Linux operating system, he said that calling these projects “open source” dilutes the emphasis on freedom.

He also encouraged schools to teach students how to use free software, so that students are not locked into using proprietary software from a young age – a preference which becomes costly once they leave school.

“If we want freedom to prevail, we have to fight for it,” he said. “If you teach people about freedom, they’re more likely to care about yours.”