Archived content:

This page is in the Ind.ie archive.

Go back to the Ind.ie homepage.

Conversation: Freedom

Download the ‘Conversation: Freedom’ video in .ogg format.

Transcript

(applause)

Aral:

Where'd you like to sit. Is this cool. And then we'll start our conversation. What was the question, Danny. You had a question; let's take that.

Danny:

I was just going to ask…

Aral:

Did you lose your microphone. We're like, very stingy with those. Yeah; go ahead. Ask.

Danny:

I was just going to ask, you talked a lot about Google and Facebook and I'm interested, given that Apple often presents itself as having a different business model that isn't so consumed with pulling people's data…

Aral:

Of course. There you go,

Richard:

I happen to know something about it.

Aral:

Richard will answer your question, Danny. That's Danny O'Brien from the EFF, the International Director of EFF.

Richard:

Hello. Anyway…thanks to documents which I don't think Apple gave up willingly, but you can find it in the article, we know that Apple can extract a lot of data remotely from an i-Thing, and you can find that through gnu.org/philosophy/proprietary/malware-apple.html…

Aral:

How do you remember these things?

Richard:

Well, these are names that I give people frequently, you know.

Aral:

OK.

Richard:

It also should be…

Aral:

Can we shorten it?

Richard:

philosophy/proprietary/proprietarysurveillance.html was the other. We have them indexed by perpetrator and by type of malware.

Aral:

I'd love to shorten those URLs. I've got this, it's cool.

Richard:

OK.

Aral:

Make it more accessible. Awesome; can we start this then. Is that…let me answer as well then, the way I see it: Apple of course is a closed silo and I'm not going to in any way predict their future behaviour; I can't. But what I see as different is that their business model is different to Google, because they still make most of their money by selling you a thing at a price that makes them happy, instead of having to monetise your data. Now, they have a huge amount of data, and if you saw the WWDC announcements recently, they are going to be collecting a lot more data with Cloudkit, etc, and data, I recently read a quote, someone said, "Data is like a yummy snack in the fridge; you say you're not going to touch it, but you know it's there and at some point, you are going to touch it", so while I don't think they're at the same place, I do think that we need free alternatives that we control and that we own, because those are the only ones we can actually say for sure.

Richard:

Even if Apple doesn't eat the yummy snack, Big Brother can get it whenever it wants.

Aral:

Right.

Richard:

Big Brother can get it from Apple, you see.

Aral:

Exactly.

Richard:

Big Brother doesn't have to spy directly on you if you're making the mistake of using an i-Thing.

Aral:

So what is the relationship between free and surveillance then. Are there any limits, natural limits of surveillance in society?

Richard:

First I'd better explain what free software means.

Aral:

Go. Yes. What is free. As in gratis.

Richard:

There are two possibilities; either the users control the program or the program controls the users. When the users control the program, that's free software. Because what enables the…what gives the users control over the program is freedom, and these freedoms, the same freedoms are what defines free software; Freedom Zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom One is the freedom to study the source code and change it so the program does your computing the way you wish. These two freedoms give each user separately control over the program, but if you're not a programmer, that's not enough; you won't know how to exercise Freedom One; we need more than separate control. We need collective control, which means any group of users are free to work together to control this program; that requires two more freedoms. Freedom Two; the freedom to make exact copies and give or sell them to others when you wish, and Freedom Three is a freedom to make copies of your modified versions, if you've made any, and give or sell them to others when you wish. So these two freedoms enable some group of users to work together to control what this program does, and to make their version available to the public if they wish, so when the users control the program, the users generally get what they want.

But if the users don't have these four freedoms, then it's the program that controls the users and the developer controls the program, so that program is an instrument for the developer to subjugate the users of that program. That we call a non-free or a proprietary program. So, any non-free program that you might use gives somebody power over you, unjust power that no one should have; this is why all software must be free and why you should do the same thing I've done, which is escape from non-free software, reject it completely; I don't allow any non-free program to run on my computer.

Aral:

Richard, some of the people in this room can do that, because they have the technical knowledge to.

Richard:

Well they can get others to help.

Aral:

What if you don't?

Richard:

Others, you can get help, you know. I've never installed the GNU plus Linux system on a computer myself.

Aral:

Really?

Richard:

I always found someone who knew how to do that. Got someone to do it for me.

Aral:

So it was so difficult that you have not installed… .

Richard:

No, it's just that I was so busy, I didn't wanna learn how.

Aral:

OK.

Richard:

I had other things to do. Now maybe you've got other things to do also, so you don't have to install the system yourself; there are other people who know how and are happy to do it for you.

Aral:

OK. And that's really the core of the problem that we're trying to tackle. I've talked about putting an X on the map for where we are, and I'm so glad you're here, because part of what I wanted to say was, we are closer to free or actually we are standing side by side with free, and not open. But I came to this from open source. Without open source, I would probably be working in proprietary software because I wouldn't have heard about it, and initially when I heard about free software and the GPL and I read it and I was like, that's going to…that sounds like it's going to put undue burden on me as a developer, and you know, look at MIT and it's all like, I don't have to do anything; what would you say to me…

Richard:

You have so many unrelated questions; I can't answer three different questions at once. That's really …

Aral:

What's the most important issue?

Richard:

I've gotta talk about them one by one because you just…

Aral:

Pick the one that's most important.

Richard:

That's the worst way to bring up an issue, by the way, which is to repeat a confusion and leave it up to someone else to set it straight. First of all, what's open source, and does open source lead more people to think about freedom. I'm afraid not. Open source is a business-friendly, essentially right-wing reaction and co-optation campaign against free software. I started the free software movement in 1983. In 1998, when we had the GNU plus Linux operating system and free software had some momentum and people were talking about it, the people who rejected our ethical approach to the issue and wanted to forget, wanted society to forget these issues, coined the term, open source. By the way, if you have a portable tracking and surveillance device, please turn it off and…

Aral:

That's probably a good idea in general during this conference!

Richard:

And if you don't want it to be listening to you all the time, you need to do more than push the off button, because it might just pretend to switch off; that's what they do when they've turned it into a permanent listening device; so you have to take the batteries out. And of course, if it's designed not to let you take the batteries out, there's some nasty reason for that.

(inaudible)

Exactly, well that's because it's designed to make it impossible to avoid surveillance. So, anyway, so they started, they didn't want the word "free" so they said, "open". They coined the term "open source" that hadn't been used before, so they were in a position to give it whatever meaning they wanted, so they associated it with just the practical level of free software and ignored the ethical questions, which I think are the most important questions, so they said, if the users are allowed to change and re-distribute the software, the users will improve the code quality. Which may be true; if that convinces some people to release programs as free software, and after all, nearly all open source programs are free software, well then at least that's a useful result. But at the same time, open source acts as an obstacle to teaching people about the things that really matter, such as that a non-free program is giving somebody power over you, and that nowadays, malware is so common in those programs that we can say, now that proprietary software is software for suckers.

Then you brought up the question of whether this leads people to free software.

Aral:

Whether it's a gateway drug, in effect.

Richard:

Well, it's not a…I don't think of political concern as a drug. But in any case the problem is, most people come across the pattern of thought among open source supporters that condemns the free software movement, and they…

Aral:

And that's what I used to think, you know, especially before we chatted.

Richard:

Well, most of them stop there; most of them don't become free software supporters. I wish more of them did, but what can I say?

Aral:

It was that realisation; it was when you sent me that letter that you'd written, that article that you'd written about the differences, where I realised that open source, like you were saying, is about business; it's about productivity. It's saying, the source is open and that's it; that's all we care about, whereas…

Richard:

Well actually, that's a common misunderstanding, but if you look at the official definition of open source, although it's written very differently, it comes out almost equivalent to our four freedoms, but almost everyone who hasn't read and studied that definition misunderstands what open source is supposed to mean, and they think it means just you can see the source code, and I can't blame people for misunderstanding in this way, because that's the natural meaning of the term, but nonetheless, it's a harmful result.

Aral:

But in terms of practice, wouldn't you say that that's basically how…

Richard:

No. In terms of practice, nearly all open source programs are in fact free software; they're released under a licence which is in fact a free software licence.

Aral:

OK, so what's your beef with open source?

Richard:

My beef is, at the deepest level, the level of values, open source focuses purely on practical convenience values and rejects the deeper values of freedom and community, the ethical values, and this weakens our community, because it makes no sense to struggle and sacrifice for convenience.

Aral:

I guess that's what I'm having trouble understanding, because if you strip the ethics and morality away, doesn't it essentially become about the source, and not the societal aspect?

Richard:

It becomes about convenience.

Aral:

Right, convenience.

Richard:

And that's the point; it's irrational to struggle and sacrifice for convenience.

Aral:

Exactly.

Richard:

If all you know is at stake is convenience, you're not going to think about struggling and sacrificing; you're not going to think, I'm going to fight for years for my whole lifetime if it takes that to win freedom, if you never thought about freedom. That's why open source makes our community weak. Sometimes, the way you keep your freedom is by not doing what's the easiest thing, the most convenient thing, especially when a giant company is in a position to make sure that the convenient thing is what is surrendering your freedom.

Aral:

So can we evolve that? Can we actually, through a lot of hard work, because it's going to take a lot of hard work, actually make it convenient for people to protect their freedoms?

Richard:

Maybe we can, but the point is, it's going to take a lot of work to get there, and before we get there, it's going to take a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice for freedom or…fortunately, we don't need big sacrifices; you need to give up some conveniences, and you need to put your time and effort into it. I don't really feel it's a sacrifice. What I've done for freedom has not really been a sacrifice. The sacrifice would have been if I accepted proprietary software; that would have been a sacrifice I couldn't stand. If you love freedom enough, you end up looking at it this way, and as for working hard, well, I wrote software. That's what I wanted to do anyway, but I found a way to write software that would build freedom for people.

Aral:

And I understand that. I mean, a lot of what I'm doing, if I'm perfectly honest, is for selfish reasons. I don't want to live in a world…I love working with technology, I've been playing with this stuff since I was seven, I was making games. I don't want to live in a world where the only outlets for me to create technology and to work are benefiting Facebook or Google, working at one of these corporations; I want alternatives. I want to love what I do, but not in a short term sense; I want to be able to create things that also protect freedoms and democracy.

Richard:

Yeah, well you know, people who want to defeat the idea of freedom and human rights like to claim that we're all being selfish 'cos we're all doing what we want to do, and that's true, but it's a narrow statement. There are various different kinds of personal desires you can have.

For instance, you can desire more things; you can desire to see other people be well and happy; you can desire to see other people suffer. Now, these different kinds of things you can desire are morally different. Some of them are good; some of them are neutral and some of them are bad. And if you want to be a good person, you've got to give some force to the good desires and you've got to stamp down the bad desires and there's room for some neutral, some personal desires that are neutral for everyone else, OK, as well, but this way you'll be a person who mainly does good.

Aral:

I think that's a great note to perhaps take a few questions from the audience.

Richard:

Well, actually you brought up an issue that we haven't touched on, and that is you mentioned the difference between free software licences.

Aral:

Did I? OK.

Richard:

You did. Because you mentioned together with so many other things, you brought them up all together, the way you make a program or any kind of written work free under today's copyright law, which says, every work is automatically copyrighted, which is a horrible thing, the Berne Convention needs to be torn up.

Aral:

Is that what got you started in this?

Richard:

No. I found out…what got me started is that I was doing free software in a lab at MIT as part of a software sharing community and then the community died.

Aral:

And that was not related to the introduction of copyright in MIT saying you have copyright over it?

Richard:

No, it wasn't, no, no. Totally unrelated. Parallel tracks in history. No; the community died and then I spent two years punishing the company that had destroyed it, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my life punishing; I wanted to build a replacement for the lost community and so I started the free software movement and started developing the GNU operating system, which you'll hear people talking about all the time, but by the wrong name; they call it Linux. If you look at gnu.org/gnu, you'll see some articles that explain this point. Basically, the system is basically GNU and Linux is one component, the kernel, and that component was written by Mr Torvalds starting in 1991.

Anyway, getting back to the point about licences, under today's copyright law, the only way to make a program free is for the copyright holders to make a declaration that gives whoever has a copy the Four Freedoms. There are various ways to do that, so there are various different free software licences. We call this declaration a free software licence, but it's not a contract; it's just a unilateral statement by the copyright holders, we're gonna let you do these things; you can do these things, and they have to let you have each of the Four Freedoms in order for the work to be free.

Well, there are many different ways to give people the Four Freedoms, so there are many different free software licences. It would be better if there were fewer, but hey, if somebody writes a licence and it qualifies as a free software licence, one can't deny that; it calls for judgement but it's an objective question; one can't deny that certain licences are free, even if we wish people weren't using them. But the crucial classification of free software licences is, copyleft licences or pushover licences. A copyleft licence, when it gives you the Freedom Two and Freedom Three, it puts on a condition about how you redistribute. It says, any work you distribute that contains some of this, you must distribute it under this same licence, and you must provide the source code; essentially, you must pass along to the next person the same freedoms you got from us.

Looking at it from the other side, you can't turn our code proprietary on the excuse that you made some changes to it. Yes; your changes are you work, but if you want to be allowed to use our work to get as part of one work with your own contribution, you need our permission under copyright law, and we give that permission only if you respect users' freedom for the whole combination.

Aral:

And what you're doing there is in essence, I believe, I mean as I see it, building a commons as well?

Richard:

Yes; we're building a sphere of code which comes with freedom for all users. Now, let me describe the pushover licences. The pushover licence says, do anything you like with this code, or maybe, do anything you like with this code but you have to include this little notice…

Aral:

Like MIT, BSD, etc?

Richard:

Well actually there were two different BSD licences, and one of them has a really nasty condition about advertising, so you shouldn't say the BSD licence; there are two of them. It makes a big difference.

Aral:

OK. What should we say?

Richard:

Quote with the original BSD licence or the modified BSD licence. They're different.

Aral:

OK, which one's got the advertising clause?

Richard:

The original one.

Aral:

OK, so the modified. When we say BSD…

Richard:

I worked with a Dean at Berkeley to convince UC Berkeley to replace the original BSD licence with the modified BSD licence, and the reason I put so much effort into it is that the original BSD licence was incompatible with the GNU general public licence or GNU GPL, and the modified one is compatible. That's the crucial point.

Aral:

Awesome.

Richard:

In any case, with the pushover licences, they say they're so lax that they give permission to put that code into a proprietary program, so what happens if you get the version released by the original public spirited developer, you have freedom, but maybe the version that you want is modified by somebody else, maybe the original version doesn't run on your system, only a modified version runs on your system, and that's proprietary. Because I had seen this already in 1985 when I had a GNU program to release; I knew that if I used a pushover licence, lots of people would get modified, proprietary version of my program and if I just wanted to feed my ego, I'd have an excuse to say, look how many people are using my code, but they wouldn't be getting freedom from me.

Aral:

And we wouldn't be building the commons.

Richard:

That's right, you wouldn't have the free software world. There are important free programs which are under pushover licences, like the Apache web server, and they do a good job maintaining the Apache web server, so lots of people use that free program, but what you don't hear when you see statistics about how many web servers are running Apache is that a large fraction of them are actually running IBM's proprietary modified version, so those organisations don't have freedom.

Aral:

I think that's a great point to maybe take a question or two. Let's do that. All right. If we could run that one mic that we have…who's running the mic. There's Victor with the mic. Let's take a question from…I think…

Richard:

I suggest that we keep the mic here and have people come and line up; it's more efficient!

Aral:

Let's do the more efficient thing, all right, let's have people line up here for questions then.

Richard:

Here's a mic we can use.

Aral:

Oh well, you can use that one.

Richard:

If you don't have another one.

Aral:

Viktor, can you be the mic stand. All right, we have a Swedish mike stand…he's also an industrial designer, go.

Question:

So, most free software licences define distribution in a way that doesn't include the hosted services we see today, so using an API that's hosted by someone else does not count as distribution.

Richard:

It isn't distribution. What can one say?

Question:

Yeah, but do you think that a broader definition of distribution could have helped avoid the situation that we find ourselves in?

Richard:

I don't know if you can make a broader definition of distribution; remember, we're operating under copyright law, and copyright law in any given country defines how far it's actually applicable, so it's not entirely our choice, but there are two issues about such servers; one is, if a program is running on a server, well, why not. But the thing is, if the program is such that a lot of its use will be on servers and if those that improve it and put it into use are very likely never to distribute their modified versions, there's a problem that can happen which is that the public doesn't get those improvements, so in the GNU Affero general public licence, we have a condition that says, your modified version, if you put it into use on a server and you let others connect to it, you've got to let them download the source of that version. So you can prevent that problem. We didn't define distribution more broadly because we couldn’t; in fact, we didn't even use the term distribution in Version 3 of the GNU GPL because its meaning varies too much between countries, so we defined it different based, this is legal technicalities, but we wanted to get the extent of what copyright law would give us in any particular country.

But then as a separate matter in terms of modifying the program, we put this condition on. Looks like…if you want to record copies, please distribute them only in aug formats or the webm format. Don't put them on YouTube which will distribute them in mpeg4 wrapped in Flash And make sure people can download copies without running any non-free Javascript code, and also put on them the Creative Commons no derivatives licence, 'cos this is my personal opinions. And if you take photos of me, please do not put them in Facebook or Instagram. Don't help them surveil me. And I suggest, don't do that to your friends either. So, getting back to the point, so we didn’t' try to do it by defining distribution, but we did put on such a condition.

The other issue with hosted services is, if the basic thing the service is doing is something you could have done by yourself on your own computer with the right software, then it's SASS, which is Service as A Software Substitute, and that always takes away the user's freedom…

Aral:

Whole bunch of people here going…what, my CSS framework.

Question:

OK, thank you.

Tom:

Hey…

Aral:

Hey, Tom.

Tom:

So, the ethical question. The problem I have is, people's ethical objectives are diverse, right. So…

Richard:

People's objectives are diverse, and their views on ethics are diverse.

Tom:

The things which they value are diverse, so the problem it seems to me is you're giving people a counsel of perfection. You're saying, run all free software and then you'll be free.

Richard:

No. I'm not. First of all, there are other issues of freedom in life which we can't affect just by what software we run. What I am saying is, if you ever run a non-free program, you're giving somebody the chance to put shackles on you, and then you're at that somebody's mercy, and if you are wise, you won't ever do it. And it works if you use this program to communicate with other people, then you become part of the problem; if you ever encourage others to use this program, you are pushing them to be shackled, and that's very bad, very wrong.

Tom:

It just seems to me that if you live your life to try and optimise for essentially use of free software, you then prevent yourself from being able to pursue other objectives in terms of…

Richard:

Yes, sometimes freedom requires a sacrifice;

Tom:

Sure, but here's…

Richard:

You just repeated that freedom requires a sacrifice sometimes.

Tom:

Freedom requires a sacrifice, but there are other things which people value in terms of things which make them free.

Richard:

I don't know what you mean by that; that's so vague.

Tom:

If you're concerned about, I don't know, being able to get into a building while you're using a wheelchair and you have to use software that's non-free, are you going to say…I can't ride in my wheelchair…

Richard:

This is impossible. I once had a broken ankle and I went to California with a rented wheelchair that I would put in the back seat of the rented car in order to sit in the front and drive it, and it had no software at all; I don't believe that you have to run non-free software to use a wheelchair.

Tom:

You can't buy a camera these days which doesn't have…which has free software.

Richard:

OK, you're pushing into… you're pushing edges…

Tom:

You reach a point where…

Richard:

Please, you're pushing edges and if you want to push edges, you've got to realise that you're launching into a long sub-discussion, which is…

Aral:

He's into the big one that we're having though, because that's a consumer device, and it's not just software.

Richard:

The point is, I own a microwave oven, and when I started the free software movement, I had to think about microwave ovens, because I didn't know whether there was a computer and software in the microwave oven, and after a while I reached the conclusion, if you can't tell whether it's a computer and software, it makes no difference to you. So I realised that there's an area where there may be programs that we don't have to pay any attention to, and over the years, I've concluded the best place to draw the line is, if normal use does not include installing any, changing any software in something, then you can treat it as circuitry.

Tom:

This may not be a strictly logical question, but the issue is, if I say to a friend of mine who is homeless, can't get married because they're going in a country where they can't do that, and they're being oppressed by their government, the main source of their problem is Adobe or Facebook…

Richard:

I wouldn't expect it to…

Tom:

Might be a problem…

Richard:

Look, you're attacking a straw man. Please; you're being silly; you're being totally silly. You're attacking something that nobody here has said, and I find that offensive because I don't want you misrepresenting what I said.

Tom:

OK.

Richard:

There are other areas of human rights in life. Free software is now one of them; each new area of life, each new capability in life, way of doing things, may create additional new human rights that take their place alongside the old ones; the old ones generally don't cease to be important, but new ones join them, and when you lose some important human right, it becomes harder to defend the others. Nowadays, since we do so many things using software and computers, freedom in your computing becomes a human right that we need to defend because if we lose it, we can't defend the others, and making sure your software is free is one part of the freedom we need in our computing. That gives you freedom within your own computers.

And then there's the issue of freedom in communication with other people's computers, and free software is necessary for that, but not sufficient. If you're using non-free software, it's likely to spy on you, because non-free software's generally malware. But, just having free software doesn't guarantee you've got freedom in the internet; that raises other issues of freedom, and if we lose any of these, we're likely to lose our other human rights too.

Aral:

And I think that is a great spot to end this conversation; we've gone a little over…

(applause)