Stallman at UCSD

Saint IGNUcius at UCSD

Richard Stallman gave a talk at the UCSD CS department yesterday, and packed the auditorium despite just one email announcement the afternoon before. There were some people I recognized from SDSC, plenty of students and faculty, and even a bunch of people from the nearby tech companies. His talk was about his philosophy of Free Software, which you can read more about here - I went to the talk to see him in person, even though I was pretty sure I'd heard most of what he had to say on the topic already, from his writing on the web and his biography, "Free as in Freedom", by Sam Williams.

As I expected, there wasn't much new (for me) about his main points, but it was interesting to watch him make his argument very carefully, proceeding logically, as if constructing a proof. He spoke for more than an hour, completely without notes and without pause. It was a great example that if you have a strong point to make and believe in your topic, bullet points are completely unnecessary.

I was a little surprised that he was completely accepting of proprietary software if you never release it - in the Q&A; someone asked him about a situation where their company had internal software that was a competitive advantage, and about his opinion of the ethics of keeping that secret. He said that as long as there were no users of the software who don't have the four freedoms, there's nothing wrong with it. If it only has one user, it's free enough if that user never shares it.

He did allow that if there were some custom software that would be very useful and important to society, he might argue it'd be unethical to not release it, but said that was a separate issue.

His entire crusade is about the freedom of "your computing". I noted that he made a pretty fine distinction about what your computing was. Someone asked him about "apps running on the web". He pounced on that phrasing, describing it as "a confusion", pointing out that the software's running on someone's server. He then defined the computing that's being done when you visit a web site as "their computing", and said it's as free as it needs to be, at least as long as it's not your data - so, for example, all Google software is free enough by his definition - but he recommends against using GMail because you don't have control over your data, and it's more your computing at that point (but it's a separate issue from the software's freedom).

An interesting talk. If you're interested in the history of computing, and especially in the ethical issues of software, I'd suggest reading some of his essays. Even if you don't entirely agree with its philosophy, it's important to know about the social movement behind the software that runs the web, and most likely runs parts of your personal computing.


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