Tilting at Windows

By MIKE MILIARD  |  December 18, 2009

"Stallman's idealism is killing open source," wrote one poster on the tech message board ZDNet. "While there was a time to be a rabid idealist fighting corporate foes, that time is fast changing, and Stallman is stuck too deep in his philosophy to act on the practicalities of the matter."

(All the same, if many are frustrated that Stallman's rigidity hurts their cause, one of his strokes of genius was coining the idea of liberalized "copyleft" — as opposed to "copyright" — specifically, GNU General Public License, which has been widely adopted, thereby allowing his philosophy to propagate in subtler ways; learn more in Jeff Inglis's sidebar "GNU and You".)

"It's not about petty politics or ego with Richard," says Eric Raymond, a major popularizer of open source who's known Stallman for decades but has been cast (against his will, he says) as something of a political rival. "It's that he's so consumed with his mission that he has trouble seeing anything outside. I'll say things in public like, 'I think victory is more important than ideological purity,' and that just infuriates him."

And while most open sourcers still laud Stallman as a pioneer and patron saint, acknowledging that his copious lines of code are the bedrock for the movement, some — especially younger programmers — don't.

"He really is brighter than almost everyone else on the planet," says Raymond. "His IQ is up in the range where trying to measure it starts to get silly. Sometimes he doesn't get the credit he's due as a programmer. Yet to a significant extent, that's his own fault. He's tangled up his programming with the ethical/moral/ideological thing. When people reject that, they end up poor-mouthing his programming, too — and that's really unfair."

Convenient injustice
Scuffles with the open sourcers aside, it's still the obvious culprits who are presenting the biggest hurdles to the FSF's mission, says Stallman. "Microsoft, mainly, is the company that actively works to prevent free software from spreading. Mostly by buying the support of institutions that have influence in society — for instance, schools. Microsoft hands out gratis copies of Windows the way tobacco companies used to hand out gratis packs of cigarettes."

(When reached for reaction, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company had no comment.)

Everywhere he looks, says Stallman, he sees corporations and centralized authority trumping or co-opting basic liberties. The FSF is just another front in that war.

"It's part of the general importance of freedom and human rights. What's generally going on in the world today is that freedom is being taken away."

As such, Stallman refuses to travel on Amtrak, because he chafes at being asked for an ID. "It's an injustice to forbid people to travel anonymously." (He can't boycott airplanes — impossible for the globe-trotting public face of free software — but does take the bus whenever he can.)

He says he doesn't own a cell phone or do much Web browsing because he doesn't want anyone to know where he is or what he's reading about. "Cell phones," he says, "are tracking-and-surveillance devices." When surfing the Net, he warns, "if you use Google, you should not identify yourself — don't log in."

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