By NIKI CHEONG
A COUPLE of weeks ago, I took the train up to Oxford in Britain along with my classmates to listen to Richard Stallman speak.
Stallman, or RMS as he is known, is a renowned software freedom activist most known for starting the Free Software Foundation in 1985. The FSF is a non-profit corporation, which aims “to promote computer user freedom and to defend the rights of all free software users”.
In his talk, titled “For A Free Digital Society”, RMS spoke about numerous ways in which digital and political masters are using technology to control the general public. He said that in fact, it should be the public who holds the power.
The fact is, people have long become “victims” of technological advancement, as much as we have benefitted from it.
RMS spoke about how authorities in many countries – indeed, even the democratic and liberal ones – have used technology against their people. Governments have used tools like surveillence cameras and used censorship laws to advance their agendas. As a programmer, however, RMS’ biggest “cause” is the battle for free software – free here meaning freedom, as opposed to gratis. He believes that all software should be available to users to edit and distribute, and not just be used.
It is no wonder then that RMS is not a fan of the likes of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, whom he believes produce software and products which are akin to a technological “jail”.
After Jobs’ death recently, RMS wrote on his website, “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died. Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr. Bill (Gates), not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.”
Obviously, no love lost.
He started his talk by reminding his audience to take the stickers he had printed for them.
One of these stickers was bright yellow and read: “iBad. Bad for your freedom.”
Another one read, “Warning DRM. Products restricts usage or invades privacy.”
DRM, or digital rights management, is another technological advancement that RMS feels jails people. Digital music, movies and books these days usually come with DRM attached which limit the way in which users can access, execute or distribute those works (many of which are usually paid for).
That is why he referred to it as digital restrictions management instead, and cited examples of how some e-readers and music management systems have backdoors which allow the creators to access a customer’s purchased item and manipulate or remove certain content.
RMS constantly changed names of popular products and items because he did not want to help with the marketing – he referred to Apple products as “those i things” and the Amazon e-reader as “the Swindle”.
In today’s social digital world, it is no surprise then that networks like Facebook and Google+ were not spared his wrath. Privacy is high on his list, as is the need to use real names on a users’ profile.
It is hard not to be impressed by such an eccentric but dynamic public speaker, and his passion for a cause he obviously believes in very strongly is admirable. He also made a lot of sense and his points were mostly valid.
Although the things RMS propagated made a lot of sense and he raised many valid points, it was hard to believe that his vision of a “free” world would ever see light. A member of the audience suggested that his were utopian ideals but RMS felt that the strides he had made in his campaign for free software indicated that is a viable goal.
The reality is that it is names like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates that the general public will recognise. They are associated with brand names that people trust, which is how the commercial world works. It is thus hard to imagine RMS’ vision of the free software world. Still, there is no reason for the people – you and me – to give in so easily. It never hurts to know what we’re getting into, educate ourselves and use these technologies for its benefits, which include speaking out anytime we feel that technological masters have wronged us.
We can be more aware of our online behaviour, think about the tracks we’re leaving behind and think before we share private and personal information online.
I think the middle ground really is for digital citizens to empower themselves in terms of knowledge and actions.
Niki is currently reading for his MA in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com or @nikicheong via Twitter.