Tilting at Windows

By MIKE MILIARD  |  December 18, 2009

He's also a critic of the newly popular trend of "cloud computing," where users' data is stored on providers' servers rather than on their own hard drives. "It means 'ignore the question of who controls your computing and your data.' That's foolish. You should do your computing on your own computer with your own copy of a free program."

Yet Stallman shows just how hard his absolutist positions are to live by. He won't show ID to get on a train, but "could conceivably have someone else buy a ticket for me." He doesn't have a cell, but will "occasionally use other people's." He won't browse the Web on his own laptop, only "from a computer that I share with other people."

Clearly, he's an unusual case. For most people, the handiness of cell phones outweighs any symbolic protest against a nebulous threat of being tracked by corporate-owned satellites. And what about those many millions who fawn over their iPhones or their MacBooks? Who enjoy being able to download from a galaxy of apps, or who like the sexy graphics?

"I can understand, but their priorities are in the wrong place," says Stallman. "What do you say to anybody who gives up his freedom for some kind of enjoyment or convenience?"

Free China?
When I meet Stallman, he's recently returned from Indonesia and is about to fly to Mexico and Chile. He guesses he'll sleep at his rented pad in Cambridge just 84 nights this year.

If some say Stallman is tilting against windmills here at home, the FSF has made some inroads abroad. "There are governments" — Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil to name three — "that have established a policy of moving to free software," he says. That makes sense "for every government," of course, "except for one that is totally cowed by business, which is the kind of government nobody deserves to have."

(Most American government computers run Microsoft, but free software did score a high-profile victory recently when President Barack Obama adopted the content-management system Drupal — distributed under the GNU General Public License — for the whitehouse.gov site.)

Further east, interestingly — perhaps ironically, for a country that restricts Web access behind the infamous "Great Firewall of China" — the People's Republic is "one of the places where free software is growing by leaps and bounds," says Stallman. He holds up his Chinese-made netbook. "The company that makes this is a free-software supporter. And the head of the project that makes the processor chip is a free-software supporter. He had come to a speech I gave in Beijing in the late '90s."

I ask about the potential for free software to assist in a social-justice movement — à la Iran's "Twitter Revolution" this past June. "Any people who are in political opposition should use free software, because [that makes it] harder for police to spy on them through their own computers."

So, says Stallman, "in other countries, we're making progress." And in the US? "In the US, the propaganda that says 'business is everything, just bow down to it,' has brainwashed everyone so much that it's hard. We haven't abandoned working in the US. But I try to make my efforts where I see that they can do some good."

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