Richard Matthew Stallman (aka RMS) can be best described as a genius or a maverick. He graduated from Harvard in physics while working at the Artificial Intelligence Lab in Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1984, he started developing the GNU operating system, then in 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation and invented the concept of copyleft—a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights of free software. How have things progressed? How happy is he with the current state of affairs? Given the increased awareness and use of free software, we had (wrongly) assumed that he would be happy with the progress. He not only reiterated the weakness in defence of freedom but also outlined the threat humanity faces when “progress” (in the purely practical sense) is promoted at the neglect of freedom. Let’s see what he has to say.
Q. For the benefit of our readers, who are new to the concept, what exactly is ‘free’ software?
A. It’s best described by the phrase, “Free as in Freedom, and not Free as in Free Beer.” So, when I talk about free software (aka Swatantra software), I am not referring to the cost of the software but to the level of freedom it provides to the user.
Q. How satisfied are you with the progress in the free software world?
A. We are moving towards horrible tyranny. People are being pressurised to use devices having non-free software for their day-to-day activities. And non-free software is malware. We have listed over 500 examples on gnu.org/malware. If a company has control over the software you are using, then it is almost sure to use that control to mistreat you. However, it is possible to refuse, as I do that myself.
I refuse to have a portable phone as every portable phone is a tracking device, which can be modified into a listening device. These so-called smartphones—I call them ‘snoop’ phones—invite you to talk to various online services or ‘disservices.’ But in the process, they snoop on you terribly; they can manipulate and pressurise you. It’s not an acceptable kind of technology.
Q. How do you define malware?
A. Malware is software designed to mistreat, harm, or annoy the user. Users might be expected to stop this abuse if they could control what the software does.
Q. Do you consider marketing messages as malware?
A. Yes, because most users tend to turn those off in the settings. Software taking user permissions during installation is a racket. Users often don’t understand what a program will actually do. But also in many cases, the choice is, either give permission for the program to do all these things, or it doesn’t work at all.
Q. How is then the choice of users determined?
A. Suppose there are no taxis anymore. And the only kind of vehicle you can get is a Uber car. So then, when the Uber app says that it will track your location, to what extent is this a choice? In a theoretical and some literal sense, it’s a choice. And I prove that because I absolutely refuse it; I boycott Uber. But most people don’t believe they have another choice.
Practically speaking, in society as it is now, it’s not optional. If your boss or your school asks you to use certain software, say, if they tell you to use Zoom, which has malicious functionalities (like the company Zoom can cut off your discussion, can also snoop on you), what will you do? There may be another side we don’t know about. We haven’t looked through the source code.
So, malware of non-free software is a real injustice which, in practice, people can’t easily escape. This is an outgrowth of the free software issue, because when the program’s not free, the developer will make it malware. S/he has an interest in making the program malware.
Q. What could be the alternative to such services in the free software world?
A. There are some services which ask for your location in order to provide you with the service. Though the service and the app are different, they’re tightly associated and go together. The way things are you can’t use the service without the app. But they’re still conceptually distinct. And both carry out their own bunch of injustices.
I object to being required to identify myself to get a ride. With a taxi, I don’t have to. Because I’m going to pay cash. Uber won’t accept cash. I say any business that won’t let you pay cash, unless it’s for something very expensive like buying a house or a car, it’s an injustice.
In general, a house owner or a car owner has to be registered. But a person taking a ride downtown today does not have to be registered, and in a free society must not be registered. The practice of tracking where people go is the kind of surveillance that puts all human rights in danger.
The most dangerous things to surveil are where you go, what you do there, and whom you’re talking with. If those things are surveilled, human rights are gone. So that’s my ultimate objection to any company that acts this way.
Now, in principle, digital payments can be anonymous. In fact, we’ve developed free software to make anonymous digital payments; it’s called the GNU Taler. Switzerland seems to be very interested in using it as it has a tendency, to some extent, to oppose tracking people.
So, if there was something like Uber where I could request a ride without having a mobile phone and without running any non-free software (like calling someone), and if I could pay using free software like GNU Taler where I’d be paying digitally through the internet but not identifying myself, that would be okay for me. I would be willing to use that.
Q. Are you saying that digital cash, like the RBI introducing digital currency, is not a problem as long as it can be done without identifying users?
A. Digital cash is an ambiguous term because it means many different things. Taler is not digital cash, it’s digital payment. You get other tokens that are denominated in some currency. The point is that you have a way of paying.
Totally anonymous payments have a problem as they lead to hiding lots of money from taxation, helping the rich steal from everyone else. We don’t want to cause that problem. I think digital payments are okay if the payer is anonymous. Here’s a crucial point. With GNU Taler, the payee is always identified and hence, it does not promote tax dodging.
We identify the payee. So, if you paid for a service, it’d get something that it can submit to a bank or a similar entity, and get exchanged for money. This way, the transaction would get recorded with the bank.
Q. How does GNU Taler differ from cryptocurrencies?
A. GNU Taler has several advantages compared with cryptocurrencies. First, it doesn’t fluctuate relative to the currency. And you’ll avoid the speculation of cryptocurrencies. I’ve never used crypto; I don’t like speculating.
Another difference is that it’s more anonymous for the payer. With Bitcoin at least, every transaction is public because there are ways of figuring out who owns or uses a particular wallet. And the other thing is that it’s always identified for the payee. And it’s also much more efficient.
Q. How does it prevent the payer’s information from being stored?
A. It uses blind signatures. Using an algorithm similar to RSA, you can arrange for someone else to sign a number for you and not know what number is signed. Essentially, you take a number and multiply it by a large prime and submit the product to be signed. Since you know that it’s signed in a certain way, such that you know what the two factors were, you can deduce the signed version of the original number by dividing out that other prime. So, you now have a token that can be validated by the bank. But no one can tell that it came through you.