Software freedom activist speaks at SOU

Software freedom activist and computer programmer Dr. Richard Stallman gave a lecture Wednesday on global inclusion in the digital age and how to approach threats to freedom in a digital society as part of Southern Oregon University’s Campus Theme lecture series.

Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in the 1980s and authored the GNU Project, to date the most widely used free software license. He began Wednesday’s nearly 2-hour presentation with a call to campaign for digital exclusion if the stated goal of inclusion includes restrictive and unjust laws. He then proceeded to outline eight ways in which digital projects pose what he considers a threat to personal freedom. The first and most significant of these, according to Stallman, was surveillance technologies.

“If you’re carrying a portable phone, you’re carrying Stalin’s dream,” Stallman said, adding that modern surveillance technologies represent the “perfect dream” of secret police whose interest is in keeping complete records on citizens.

“Surveillance is sometimes done through our own devices, particularly non-free programs that have spy features,” Stallman explained. “Spy features are possible when users do not have control over their products. This means we must demand free software from developers.”

Stallman explained that while a free society does not and cannot guarantee public anonymity, public information is still too diffuse, making the job of collecting and systematizing it in a free and just society difficult and impractical. He pointed to social networking web sites such as Facebook as an example of a surveillance system that is only acceptable in a society not conducive to freedom.

Stallman pointed to seven other threats to freedom posed by digital technology, including censorship, restrictive data formats he called “digital handcuffs,” all non-free software, which he collectively classified as “freedom-trampling,” network services that take control of customers’ computing after requiring users to provide vital data, computerized voting, the government’s “war on sharing” (non-commercial distribution of exact copies of intellectual property), and finally all digital Internet activity that could be performed offline (“When done on the Internet, it’s done on severance,” he said).

Stallman also directed a number of pointed questions to the university administration at large. “Does this university require students to be registered online? That’s surveillance, too,” he said.

Stallman then presented an ethical challenge for all schools to begin using what he referred to as “free software,” saying that the conventional term “open source” develops a discourse that “avoids the ethical level of the issue,” and compared higher educations’ use of proprietary computer programs to drug use.

“Schools have a moral duty to use only free software,” Stallman added. “They cannot teach dependence. But using proprietary systems to teach teaches dependence, and in so doing they can then pull the rest of society into dependence. Gratis or not, any school would reject any offers of drugs, so they need to start rejecting proprietary software, which is the enemy of the spirit of education. School becomes essentially hypocritical if it does [use proprietary software].”

Stallman made a number of other comparisons, for example likening the corporate disconnecting of users from the Internet, based solely on accusations of illegal sharing without trial, to the process by which prisoners of war enter Guantanamo Bay, and implicated President Barack Obama in both activities.

“Obama arranged for ISPs [Internet Service Providers] to make deals with Hollywood,” Stallman said, calling government measures to prevent illegal sharing “cruel and draconian.” He criticized both the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 and the Blu-ray Disc Association for being complicit in what he called the “DVD conspiracy,” by which the government “schemes to prevent user modification by updating the technology too fast.”

A number of other corporate companies were made the target of Stallman’s criticism, including the Coca-Cola Company and Amazon.com, whose online database Stallman called “an attack on human rights” due to its “contempt for private property.”

Stallman ended the lecture with a call for grassroots communities to start imposing requirements on digital services provided by the government, a move he said will discourage controlling, “tyrannical” features that severely limit users’ ability to distribute copies and make their own modifications.

“It is every citizen’s duty to stick a finger in Big Brother’s eye,” Stallman stated.

More information on Dr. Stallman’s GNU Project can be found on the project’s website, www.gnu.org and on the Free Software Foundation’s website at www.fsf.org.

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