Richard Stallman: ‘Apple has tightest digital handcuffs in history’

Hazel Healy speaks to free software’s moral compass about Anonymous, licensing and digital freedoms.

One of the greatest hackers of all time, Richard Stallman is something of a roving prophet for the free software movement.

He invented the first ‘copyleft license’ that made the results of his mammoth feats of computer programming free to use, share and change - without falling foul of copyright.

Stallman now travels the world making the argument that software should be treated as public knowledge and warning of threats to civil liberties in an increasingly digitized world.

Richard Stallman at helm of his ever-present net book at a Bitcoin conference in London, September 2012.

Q It’s nearly 30 years since you started work on the GNU operating system, which went on to become GNU/ Linux, one of the leading examples of free and open source software collaboration. Yet Apple and Microsoft still loom large. How do you feel the free software movement is faring?

The free software movement has advanced tremendously but proprietary user-subjugating software has also spread tremendously. I would say the free software movement has gone about half the distance it has to travel. We managed to make a mass community but we still have a long way to go to liberate computer users.

Those companies are very powerful. They are cleverly finding new ways to take control over users. Nowadays people who use proprietary software [programs whose source code is hidden, and which are licensed under exclusive legal right of the copyright holder] are almost certainly using malware. The most widely used non-free programmes have malicious features – and I’m talking about specific, known malicious features.

Q Tell me about these malicious features.

There are three kinds: those that spy on the user, those that restrict the user, and back doors. Windows has all three. Microsoft can install software changes without asking permission. Flash Player has malicious features, as do most mobile phones.

‘Any change in the way protest is done is an opportunity for governments to criminalize it.’

Digital handcuffs are the most common malicious features. They restrict what you can do with the data in your own computer. Apple certainly has the digital handcuffs that are the tightest in history. The i-things, well, people found two spy features and Apple says it removed them and there might be more

When people don’t know about this issue they choose based on immediate convenience and nothing else. And therefore they can be herded into giving up their freedom by a combination of convenient features, pressure from institutions and the network effect. That’s why I focus now on spreading the awareness of the philosophy of free software and the issue of freedom that we’re fighting for. Because if you have some courage and you recognize the harm that they are doing, you can resist.

Q What do you think about the actions by hactivists Anonymous in defence of internet freedoms?

Well, their primary activity consists of a network protest where people send lots of request to a website. It’s the virtual equivalent to having a protest on the street in front of their office.

This is simply democracy. But we live in an age where governments that actually work for the banksters and other major businesses are trying to criminalize all forms of popular political activity. They look for clever ways to punish protests such as besieging protesters for hours. So any change in the way protest is done is an opportunity for them to criminalize it. If people used to protest in the street and now it’s in the network, well they can prohibit protesting in the network and call it an attack.

Q Has the internet killed privacy?

It’s true in the sense that most people are doing extremely foolish things on the internet. You can refuse to use Facebook though – you shouldn’t use it. I ask my friends not to do anything that would allow Facebook to do more surveillance of me. I don’t use it. And the Free Software Foundation doesn’t use it.

Of course Facebook is not alone. There are various companies doing surveillance of people on the internet. I don’t think they can find out very much about me. I only connect to the internet in ways that do not identify me – sometimes at friends’ houses or in coffee shops. I transfer my mail through SSH [Secure Shell], which is encrypted.

But most people are leaving themselves totally wide open to surveillance on the internet. And what really gets me is when people pressure their friends into using Facebook.

Q Can you protect yourself from cyber spying by using free software?

Richard Stallman spreads the message in New York.

mecredis, under a CC License.

It’s a necessary first step. A proprietary programme gives you zero security from the owner of the programme. The users are totally defenceless and the owners often wipe the floor with the users because every non-free program gives the owner unjust powers.

People are aware that Windows has bad security but they are underestimating the problem because they are thinking about third parties. What about security against Microsoft? Every non-free program is a ‘just trust me program’. ‘Trust me, we’re a big corporation. Big corporations would never mistreat anybody, would we?’ Of course they would! They do all the time, that’s what they are known for. So basically you mustn’t trust a non free programme.

Q What would you say to those who insist that free software is non-secure because the source code is open for all to see?

Mistaken. Good, free programmes are more secure, even against third parties – better than commercial proprietary competition. They just want you to be prejudiced that a company is doing something well because they are professional. We’re taught to believe that. It’s not always true.

Q How do you feel about peer-to-peer file sharing?

Sharing is good. And sharing must be legal. By sharing I mean something very narrow – non commercial distribution of the exact copy of a work. This applies to all non-practical works: documentary – which is testimony – statements of opinion, art and entertainment works. They are meant to contribute to society in a different way, and control over them is not important, so for those [permissive] Creative Commons licenses are fine.

But for all practical works [software, design, educational works, fonts, recipes] users should have total control over what that work does for them.

In the US and Britain, mass public protests have basically been crushed. They don’t want mass protests on the internet either.

Being free means you get the four essential freedoms: the freedom to use the work as you wish, the freedom to make changes if you wish so that the work does the job the way you want it to, the freedom to distribute copies (even commercially) and finally, freedom four: to produce modified versions.

I don’t believe all published works should be free. I believe that published works that can be used for practical jobs should be free.

Q On your website you have compiled a list of the newspapers which have put up paywalls. How do you feel about them?

I’m against them, but not because of paying. Every paywall is an identification wall and that I will not go along with. I don’t do e-commerce. I wouldn’t mind paying if I could pay anonymously – maybe Bitcoin is a solution – but I won’t buy things in a way that identifies me, like with a credit card. I don’t mind paying for a paper copy of a magazine but I’ll pay with cash. However on the internet there’s no way to pay with cash.

Q You’ve said that your work in free software is part of a wider battle against defending freedoms in general....

Yes. I didn’t see it in that context when I started [in 1983] but that’s because the empire of the mega corporations is something that developed mainly since the 1990s. And the state attacks on human rights and democracy in the so-called free countries have become tremendous since then. In the US and Britain, mass public protests have basically been crushed. They don’t want mass protests on the internet either. They want obedience. They represent the rich and subjugate the poor. These are not legitimate governments.

Q Anything else you’d like to say to our readers?

We need to organize to fight surveillance. Especially here in Britain, which pioneered the surveillance state and is trying to make it worse right now. Now they can imprison people on the suspicion of crime – put someone on trial and find them guilty of being suspect. And that doesn’t wash.

And now they are proposing secret trials specifically to protect US torturers from trial. And then there is the one-way extradition treaty, which is an evident injustice and must be torn up. It’s a unilateral declaration of surrender to the US government, which is clearly no friend of human rights. Tear it up!

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 458 This exclusive is part of our free software issue. You can buy this magazine, read the digital freedom keynote, or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe. This exclusive is part of our free software issue. You can buy this magazine, read the digital freedom keynote, or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.