[Video] Discussion with Richard Stallman about Surveillance, the Future of Internet, Life, the Universe and Everything
Paris, 27 May 2014 — Richard Stallman, inventor of the principles of Free/libre software and founder of the Free Software Foundation gave us the immense pleasure and honour of sitting down with us for an open discussion.
Interviewed by Jérémie Zimmermann when he was still a full-time employee of La Quadrature du Net, Richard speaks in great length about surveillance and how to take back control of our communications, as well as about the future of the Internet and computing. Through the philosophy of Free/libre software he delivers his vision for better democratic processes and for a better society. He also brushes topics related to life, the Universe, and Everything ;)
The video is available here for watching and downloading under a CC-BY-ND licence.
Thanks to Valentin Drean for the editing <3
JZ: Dear Richard, it's a real pleasure to have this occasion to discuss a bit. It's extremely meaningful to me because as you may know, I will step aside from my position as a full time operational of La Quadrature du Net.
Richard Stallman (RMS): Oh, I'm sad to hear it, why is that?
JZ: No no, don't be sad, it's a very good news.
RMS: Who will do it?
JZ: Well, all the fine people you see around are very much willing to do it. It's a good news for me because people who know me were a bit afraid that I would burn out, so they will be reassured. It's a good thing for me because I will be able to work on various projects and pilot La Quadrature du Net from the board and try to give it a strategic input. And it's a good thing for La Quadrature du Net because we've been structuring it over the last year to make it sustainable and turn it from a one man army non structure to a proper scalable structure that we hope to make sustainable.
RMS: I guess so.
JZ: So see that as a good news. But it is super meaningful to me because you are a very important inspiration for me, and I can trace back, I told this story recently, the beginning of my political commitment, my political enlightenment in a way, to seeing you, in 1998, in Paris. And I understood that day that what I thought was a cool obscure operating system, that, with my level of knowledge at the time, was some kind of more complicated MS-DOS. Please don't shout :)
RMS: Oh I like to call it MS-Dog.
JZ: MS-Dog :) That this cool technological tool was actually a project for a better society, and a political project. And this is this year that I really figured out what was happening and that I needed to do something.
RMS: That's the point most people don't get.
RMS: You find so many people talking about the GNU+Linux operating system and they don't even mention GNU, they call it Linux and since they don't wanna talk about free software, logiciel libre, they don't wanna hint at issues of human rights, they would call it open source because that doesn't allude to freedom. And then they will present it purely in teRMS of advance of technology and convenience and say nothing about things that are more important.
JZ: Of course. And it's about political consciousness, it's about understanding the political impact of technology. And so, you were right about this 30 years ago when you founded the GNU project. It was already to show the world that computers and software can be used to either control individuals or to give them more freedom. Do you think that today more and more people are understanding that, with the recent revelations of Edward Snowden?
RMS: Well, I think that the number of people who appreciate the issue of free versus user subjugating software is growing. However, that's partly because the number of users of computers is growing and sad to say, most of them are using systems that are jails or tyrants. A large fract — actually I don't know if it's most of them — Android isn't quite as bad as the others, and maybe Android I guess is the majority now. So OK, it's not quite as bad as it could be.
But a lot of people are using iThings which are tyrants, meaning they don't allow replacing the operating system and they are jails meaning that they have censorship of application programs. And then there are the Windows phones which are just as bad. And they all have the universal backdoor in the radio modem processor, which as far as we can tell, can take control of the main processor and thus through the modem processor, whoever activates the universal backdoor, can replace your operating system. Whatever you put in it, they can replace it, and they can turn these things into listening devices. It's been done, this is established fact. And put it together, and portable phones are an immense system of tracking people the way Stalin would have loved to do.
JZ: I tried to stop calling them “phones” myself, because they’re actually computers.
RMS: They are computers, yeah!
JZ: They’re computers with an extra spying chip, this baseband chip, the modem chip you just mentioned, but you’re jumping ahead of my plan, it’s a good thing…
RMS: So, the point is: the size of the problem we have to correct is growing. Meanwhile, aside from what goes on in your own computer, there is the question of the Internet and digital systems that don't belong to you, and more and more of those are designed to keep track of people, which is wrong. That's why I don't pay with credit cards, why I don't have a mobile phone. And I don't identify myself when I connect to the Internet. I refuse to connect to the Internet in a way that has my name in a database.
JZ: Interesting. I want to come back to many of the technological aspects you mentioned. Including maybe Android. But I'm really curious to know your view about the political situation we're in right now. Do you want to put that on?
RMS: No, I want to show people the button that's on it. If I can…
JZ: Oh, yes.
RMS: …find. Oh, here it is. It says: “Don't be tracked, pay cash”.
JZ: Yes, that's one way of trying to avoid… On the political level, I'm very much curious about this notion of commitment. You know, how we happens in individuals. How somebody who believes one day that he or she has nothing to hide, could the next day become a political activist, how somebody who think…
RMS: Why do you think that you need to have something to hide to fight for privacy rights? Most days I don't have anything to hide. I'm not fighting for my secrets, I'm fighting for your secret, for everyone's.
JZ: It's not as much about having anything to hide, than understanding the very value of privacy.
JZ: And why it must be protected. And this, you don't learn at school, you don't see it on TV. What do you think is useful or powerful to make people understand how crucial are those links between the technology and the underlying communication facilities?
RMS: Lots of people have something they want to hide from someone. And without privacy you can't do that. But, beyond that, democracy involves opposition, dissidence and whistleblowers. There's a famous question: “Who will watch the watchmen?”.
JZ: Quis custodiet…
RMS: …ipsos custodes. Well, now we know the answer: whistleblowers watch the watchmen. Democracy means that the people maintain control of the state. This is essential because the state is the most powerful entity that we come in contact with.
JZ: It's not Google?
RMS: No, the state is much more powerful than Google. The state has lots of armed men. And doesn't even have to hide their existence. They're not limited to moving around secretly underground. They can go anywhere.
JZ: Google has killer robots now.
RMS: I don't know if that's true.
JZ: With the acquisition of Boston Dynamics, that is a U.S. military contractor.
RMS: Maybe, but Google wouldn't dare use them without permission of the state. Google may become an aRMS company but that's not the same as being the state.
JZ: That's true.
RMS: I mean these are flip responses, why, they just get in the way of saying the point. The point is the state can do us far more harm than any other entity. People are tremendously afraid of underground terrorist groups but they can't possibly do the kind of harm the state could do. Because they're not as powerful. They're far far less powerful. A state can kill millions.
JZ: And did already, yeah?
RMS: And some states have, yeah. So the point is, we've got to maintain our control over the state so it doesn't do that. We must have the state because we need a welfare state. We need social programs that can only be carried out be the state, we need regulations that can only be, on business activities, that can only be implemented by the state. Not to mention things like investigating crimes and national defense and…
RMS: And many, yeah education, healthcare, all sorts of activities. Funding research and not allowing it to be corrupted which private funding for research tends to do. So, we've got to have a state but we've got to make sure that it doesn't become rogue and start attacking the people. For that we need democratic control but in order to control the state we need to know what the state does. However states tend to do things secretly. How can we maintain any control over them? Through whistleblowers. So democracy requires whistleblowers but whistleblowers are greatly deterred if they will be caught and punished and the state tends to call whistleblowers criminals. And try to crush them by any means possible.
JZ: Yes. We see that with Chelsea Manning being in jail for 35 years…
JZ: With Snowden being chased, with Assange…
RMS: Yes, exactly, with John Kiriakou as well who as been jailed for telling Americans that the government was torturing.
JZ: And Jeremy Hammond, Barrett Brown, also in very difficult situation right now, we have…
RMS: Wait listen to me, the point is that, how can we have whistleblowers if whistleblowers are persecuted? But the state, in order to persecute them, needs to find them. That's why surveillance of our communications endangers democracy. When the level of general surveillance of everyone activities reaches the point at which the state can generally find whistleblowers, democracy can't function. Therefore, we must reduce the general level of surveillance to the point where the state can no longer generally find whistleblowers. Which means we have to redesign digital systems to the point where they don't collect enough information for the state to use it to find the whistleblowers. The state must not be able to tell who has spoken with a journalist not even who's spoken with a particular journalist. It has to be impossible to tell so the state can't find this people and persecute them. Now, when people start condemning general surveillance as it's happening now in the U.S., it's become a real political issue with bills being considered in Congress, but the usual suggestion, the change that's usually proposed is to limit the state's access to the databases which are often collected by companies. This is not enough and the reason is the conditions for access to the database will always permit it when the state says it's investigating a crime and can point to a crime that it's investigating. Well, if whistleblowing is a crime then the state will be able to get permission from a court to access the databases and find the whistleblower. So, this change while it would be an improvement is not enough, we've got to change the systems, there have to be laws requiring systems to be designed so they don't accumulate data, they don't accumulate dossiers about everyone. And then, even if the state get permission to look to try to find a whistleblower, the data won't have been saved, it won't be possible to find a whistleblower. This is what we need.
JZ: So, in a way what you say is that the whistleblowers are the ones who watch the watchmen and we in turn as society should watch the whistleblowers to make sure they are…
RMS: We don't want to watch them, we have to protect them.
JZ: No, to watch them in the sense, no to watch after them.
RMS: We have to protect them.
JZ: To watch after them.
RMS: Well, you don't say watch after in English, you have to say, you can say: “look after”.
JZ: Look after! Oh yeah.
RMS: It's better to say: “protect”. That's clearer.
JZ: So we need to protect them, and we can…
RMS: But the way we protect them is by making sure they can retain their anonymity. You see, if there is a law saying: “whistleblowers are inviolate”, the government can come up with an excuse to ignore that. They're very good at coming up with excuses to prosecute someone or with John Kiriakou they didn't prosecute him for whistleblowing. They looked through all his email and they found some place where he mentioned the name of a CIA agent and they prosecuted him for that. Although it wasn't published.
JZ: So, there are ways to protect whistleblowers maybe by law, there are ways to protect whistleblowers by technology and there are probably social, cultural mechanisms that we must put in place so people understand…
RMS: The social mechanism is simply strong support for human rights and democracy and recognition of what it requires. Social patterns can't protect somebody very well from a manhunt. So, you can't expect that to do the job. Active technology such as Tor may help, but it's not really enough. What we need is to put an end to the general surveillance that tracks everyone's communications and just about everyone's movements. We are surveilled far more that the inhabitants of the Soviet Union were. Is that a good thing? Should we have more surveillance than the Soviet Union had or should we have less? That's a fundamental question. We shouldn't look for ways to reconcile ourselves to completely intolerable levels of surveillance, we've got to get rid of it. We have to firmly say to all governments: so much surveillance that you can tell who speaks with whom is an injustice in itself, we will not tolerate it, we're going to stop you from doing it, we don't care what justification you offer because whatever problem it's supposed to solve is less dangerous than the problem it is.
JZ: It's well put. You announced, so this year was, well, 2013 was the year of the thirtieth anniversary of the GNU project, and you announced that the thirtieth anniversary that now among the objectives of the Free Software Foundation will be, if I understand correctly, to fight surveillance and to protect…
RMS: With technology to the extent it can be done that way.
JZ: So can you tell us a bit more about what it means for the Free Software Foundation.
RMS: It means, developing peer-to-peer communication software that uses encryption so that there is no server, which is a centralized point of surveillance.
JZ: So now this is officially one of the goals…
RMS: That's one of our goals.
JZ: Are you changing, in some way, the structure of…
RMS: No, there's no structure to change.
JZ: So are you…
RMS: Our structure is actually very decentralized, there is many GNU packages being developed by different groups of people.
JZ: So it means reordering the priorities in the project?
RMS: Yes. Well, it means just saying to the public we'd like you to work on this. That's all we… Directly, that's all we can do anyway. The work we do in software development is whatever volunteers decide to do for us. So, what we can directly do is just invite and encourage.
JZ: And so what…
RMS: And so I hope the people watching this will get involved with GNU software development, things like GNU Net, GNU SecuShare, GNU Social…
JZ: That was exactly my next question. What do you think, that's an answer for the GNU project, what do you think are the most promising technologies that are being developed…
RMS: I'm the wrong person to ask, I'm sorry, I'm not an expert on encryption. But as I said, it's a mistake to think we can protect ourselves from massive surveillance by active technological self-defense. It can't do the job. Lamp posts now sometimes have microphones. In buses, there are microphones, in San Francisco. In Australia, in some cities, the taxis have microphones. I once was in such a city, I saw on a door a sign saying “You will be photographed and your voice will be recorded” so I didn't speak, I refused to speak. I wrote on a piece of paper “Don't speak, cab is bugged. Please take me to such and such address” and I handed it to the driver. And he laughed 'cause he got the joke. He got the point. The point is I wasn't going to give them anything they could listen to. But if they're listening everywhere, how can you have any conversation that's private. Really, we have to stop them from putting in the recording devices, we have to make them remove the recording devices. We have to insist that systems ranging from cameras that look at the street and maybe recognise car license numbers, to the “carte navigo” in the metro and similar equivalents in other cities…
JZ: Or RFID chips…
RMS: We have to make sure that they don't know who is doing what, except in special cases. For instance, recognising license plates, it should have a list of all the valid license plates and if a court orders surveillance of a particular car then they can remove that number from the list. And any car that's in the list is invisible. The camera just won't notice, it will make a record of where it sees any other car, but those are invisible, wherever they go, they are not followed.
JZ: But then we will need to trust the technology, trust the manufacturers…
RMS: Right, but the point is, well but you can tell right. Anyone using it will be able to tell if it is making records of other cars. So it's not as if a dishonest system could be hidden so easily. We've got to make sure that there are no Internet accessible cameras fixed, pointing at public places because those are basically asking for the state to watch everywhere. There should be a law that such systems cannot be installed, that any security camera watching a public place can't be on the Internet. It has to record internally and that's all.
RMS: So that it's difficult to access. You see, if the information is held locally and difficult to access, then, when there's a real reason, it can be accessed. But it can't be accessed all the time 'cause it would cost too much, so that's a protection for our privacy against general surveillance but not against court-ordered specific surveillance.
JZ: Exactly, that is a difference that, I think, is extremely important to make is that some targeted surveillance can be legitimate…
JZ: If properly framed democratically, encadrée.
RMS: We've got to make sure that it's only targeted surveillance under the control of the court because we want the state to investigate crimes. But we don't want to allow the state to have so much information that it can always catch the culprit of every crime. Because then it would also catch all dissidents and all whistleblowers and we don't have democracy anymore.
JZ: You mentioned this hardware and software system that would look at the license plates for instance, and…
RMS: Not would, they do! They exist.
JZ: Yes. Those that would be targeted surveillance devices instead of mass surveillance devices and it raises the question. We are now understanding, everybody starts to understand what you were saying for so many years, is that part of the solution to mass surveillance, on a technological level, is to get away from those hyper-centralised services, from the closed-down systems…
RMS: I don't call them closed down. Let's not use the words open or closed when we're talking about free software, OK?
JZ: The jailed, jailed systems. All the illusion of security that relies on delegating…
RMS: All non-free software has zero security against its developer. For instance, Windows has zero security against Microsoft…
JZ: Therefore the NSA…
RMS: Right. 'Cause Microsoft, according to Bloomberg News, shows the NSA the security flaws in Windows before it fixes them. So Windows has zero security against the US government but, you know, Windows also has a universal backdoor. This means that Microsoft can cause Windows, a Windows system, to load changes in software by remote control and thus it can do absolutely anything…
JZ: Same with Apple…
RMS: I don't know, is there proof?
JZ: Yes, the iTunes Updater through which everything is being updated on the system, has this silent upgrade function that you cannot disable.
RMS: Oh! Can you show me an article to prove this?
JZ: Sure sure.
RMS: 'Cause I've never heard this before.
JZ: It has been documented years ago.
RMS: Please show me, please show me.
JZ: It's an iTunes updater bug that Apple never fixed.
RMS: I've never heard this before.
JZ: And it's so interesting that Finn Fisher, that company from the Gamma Group, that sells to police services and other entities across the world, software to monitor what's on your screen, what's on your keyboard, what's in your webcam. It was shown in one of the videos in the spy files in Wikileaks that they use this iTunes updater as a way of entry. They do this installation proxy that use this iTunes installer bug. That is evidence that the behavior of this company is enabling surveillance.
RMS: Oh wow! I'd never heard this before.
JZ: I'll send you details.
RMS: I'll be very interested in publicising this.
JZ: Well the point is that Microsoft, Apple, it's the same.
RMS: Well Apple is actually the worst enemy of our freedom. Remember that it's Apple that pioneered general purpose computers that are jails. In other words, platfoRMS for censorship of application programs. The evil genius of Steve Jobs was to have figured out how to make computers that are jails and make millions of people beg to be jailed.
JZ: And jail systems, are one of the roots of mass surveillance.
RMS: Actually no. Non-free software is part of the root of mass surveillance because being a jail is actually another evil but it's not the evil that brings you mass surveillance. That happens with non-free software already because with non-free software means the users don't have control over it. With any program, either the users control the program or the program controls the users. With free software, the users control the program, with user subjugating non-free software the program controls the users. So even before Microsoft and Apple systems were jails, they were proprietary software, non-free, and surveillance functionalities have been found in Windows. Windows on a PC is not a jail but it is proprietary and it has spyware functionalities. But many other proprietary programs are spyware, including FlashPlayer, Angry Birds, the Amazon Swindle and the software-importable phones which sends GPS location data on remote command and the user can't stop it. So basically, when the program is proprietary, that means the users don't control it, therefore it controls the users, and the owner controls the program. So that program is an instrument giving the owner power over the users, power that no one should have, so it's unjust power. That has always been true, 30 years ago when I started the Free Software Movement I didn't know how to formulate the issue like this but it was true already. However, 30 years ago you could expect the proprietary software developers to be honest. At least they developed the program to try to make it do what users would like and it was a shocking rare exception if they put in anything malicious. You know, it was a scandal. But gradually…
JZ: The Bullrun program that was unveiled where we see the NSA investing $250 million a year to sabotage all the commercial technologies that are supposed to protect…
RMS: It's not just the NSA, it started long before the NSA. The point is, in the 90's it was already starting to happen and what happened was, companies started putting malicious functionalities into programs and the users didn't all say “We reject this, we're going elsewhere”. And therefore they got away with it, and it was known they got away with it so other companies started doing likewise and the ethical standards went down and then it went down again and again to the point where nowadays it's normal to find malicious functionalities in proprietary software. They spy, they restrict the users, which is known as digital handcuffs or digital restrictions management, DRM, and there are backdoors. And the result is, before the NSA even started to get interested in this, the companies were already turning proprietary software massively into systems to mistreat the users. So basically proprietary software is software for suckers.
JZ: Information suckers and suckers in general.
JZ: Today there were revelations. I think it came from “Der Spiegel” where Jake Appelbaum, Andy Müller-Maguhn, Laura Poitras and others are doing this fantastic job of documenting the technology of surveillance and oppression. There were revelations about how the “apps” and the jailed mobile computers, how the apps were used to send back information and that each upgrade of, I think each upgrade of Android is sending 500 lines of history of what the phone was doing, what it was used for, etc. And indeed, intelligence agencies access…
RMS: Well, Android is not a jail.
RMS: Keep… These issues are not exactly the same: they don't go hand in hand.
JZ: I would…
RMS: Android is not a jail.
JZ: I would slightly disagree if I may.
RMS: No… Android, I'm told, allows people to install programs of their own choice.
JZ: No. Not by default on most instances where you cannot even be root of your device without “rooting” it, which mean making a bit of a complex technical operation.
RMS: Yeah, but you can do it.
JZ: Yes, but my mum wouldn't do it because she wouldn't know how to and she would be too afraid of breaking it and it's not all mobile computers that allow you to do that.
RMS: Sorry. I spoke with an expert, namely a developer of Replicant – Replicant is the free version of Android – who says that in general app, Android is not a jail, you can install free applications from places like F-Droid.
JZ: Oh yeah, sure. I do this myself, I do this all the time.
RMS: But that's different from being entirely free software.
RMS: Android has it comes in any product is not a jail but it contains proprietary software, in particular Google Mark… Google Play, I believe it is, which is what connects to the Android market, is proprietary software. So, of course any proprietary program is likely to mistreat you. And some Android devices are tyrants, meaning they don't allow replacing the operating system. These are generally… in many cases these are the ones that are locked to a phone company.
JZ: My point was… there is a difference… indeed you can do that with many Android terminals. This is what I do. You'd be proud: I use 100% free software.
RMS: Do you use Replicant?
JZ: Hum… No because…
RMS:Then you haven't got totally free software.
JZ: I didn't finish my sentence. It's that I use 100% free software in the space in which I have quite an easy control and access which is mostly userland.
RMS: But you need to move to Replicant.
JZ: I know, I know, and I will soon, because I'm aware that a very important part of the problem is those parts of the hardware we cannot really control for which there is no free software driver and what I've seen when you describe this rise of a proprietary software going against the user, in the same period of time, we went from when I was younger I had a computer that was a friendly machine. That was a machine I could open and understand what it was doing and that came with a documentation that allowed us to hack, understand it, and push it limits…
RMS: What year was that?
JZ: 8 bit machines, the Amstrad CPC…
RMS: What year was this?
JZ: 1985, 1987.
RMS: Yes, I guess back then they were.
JZ: And since then there was a slow drift. When I saw you in 1998, and understood the political link between technology and freedom. I was still… I was born and I was raised with my technological education in this era of the friendly machines and we slowly drifted to this era of the enemy machines. Those machines that we have in our pockets work against us.
RMS: Not in mine!
JZ: Not in yours.
RMS: Not in mine!
JZ: That people have in their pockets.
RMS: You shouldn't say “we”, right?
JZ: You're right
RMS: Because everytime you say that “we do this thing” you're endorsing the practice and that basically says to people “Of course no one would expect you to refuse.”, well I refuse!
JZ: Yeah, you're right.
RMS: And you should refuse and everyone should refuse.
JZ: Of course, of course… So those devices that people carry in their pockets.
RMS: Some people.
JZ: That some people carry in their pockets, increasingly now, do not allow them to even remove the battery.
RMS: Right, that's to make sure they're always listening.
JZ: Yes, exactly. And some of the hardware we still cannot control with free software. And to me this is becoming an increasing concern. Is there such a thing as free hardware? Is this an area in which…
RMS: Well, if we want to apply the concept, the same concept of free that applies to software to hardware, let's see what it would mean. Free software concretely means that the program comes with 4 essentials freedoms: freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program as you wish; freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code and change it so it does your computing as you wish; freedom 2 is the freedom to make and distribute exact copies; freedom 3 is the freedom to make and distributes copies of your modified versions. So with freedoms 0 and 1, users separately have control over the program, with freedoms 2 and 3 as well groups of users are free to cooperate and exercise the control over the program. Well let's apply these concepts to hardware. You'll find pretty soon that it doesn't make any sense because there is no copiers for chips or circuit boards but what you can have is a free hardware design. The question is: is it any use? Can you turn that hardware design into a computer? Is it reasonably feasible? Well, for a chip: no. For a chip with today's technology we're dependent on factories to make our chips. With circuit boards, you can do it. But it's a lot of work to make each one. To the point where it's almost prohibitive. But not quite. But this may change. So, free hardware designs don't give use as much control as free software does. But free hardware designs are good because we may be able to verify the hardware that's made by the factory against the design and see that it doesn't have malicious edition and then since people can check the design, they can see that the hardware is not malicious. Not corrupted by the NSA or any other country's secret agencies. After all you know in France, the government can now legally listen to anything. There are no restrictions.
JZ: With the “Loi de programmation militaire”, yes.
RMS: So France is now subject to… is now a total surveillance state. And France will have to organize to demand correction of this. But anyway, so, free hardware with today's technology is important but doesn't directly give us the same control over hardware that free software can give us over software that we use. But the technology may advance.
JZ: So for instance, today, there is almost no WiFi chip that we can use with free software.
RMS: There is Atheros.
JZ: Atheros, yes, but it's not very common.
RMS: Well, so get it anyway.
JZ: Of course.
RMS: Maybe you need to get an external WiFi device. I've done that. The point is, if some of the hardware in your machine can't function in a free world, that's not a reason to install a non free program, it's a reason to do without that particular piece of hardware, and find some other solution.
JZ: I agree. Can you tell us about your Lémoté computer?
RMS: Lemote. Well you should think of remote with a Chinese accent.
JZ: ahah, Lemote, OK.
RMS: Well, it uses a free BIOS, and free drivers, and a totally free GNU+Linux operating system. That's why I chose it. But it's not made anymore.
JZ: Oh. My next question was: “How can I get one?”.
RMS: Well, you can't. But you can order a reconditioned ThinkPad that works with free BIOS and free system from Gluglug.
JZ: Gluglug in the UK.
JZ: But GCSQ has jurisdiction over Gluglug in the UK.
JZ: No I'm mostly joking here. Yeah, I heard of, what's the name again of this… Coreboot is the free software BIOS. I've heard that you could install it on a X60 and this is, I think, what I will do for my own communication in the future. But thinking about it the X60 is now a platform that is about 10 years old.
RMS: Well it's better than nothing.
JZ: Oh sure!
RMS: This is the first computer product that we've been able to endorse, ever! The first computer product you could buy with all free software. This [showing his Lemote laptop] was normally sold with non free software in it. Yeah you could buy and you could replace the system. That's what we did. But we couldn't endorse it. So this is progress.
JZ: Of course.
RMS: You know, if it's not as much as you'd like, please keep in mind that it's much better than the situation of the past.
JZ: Of course.
RMS: But yeah we would like a modern computer to be built that runs with all free software. So there is a design developed by Bunnie Huang which almost runs without non free software. The problem is, it has a video processor that can only be run with a non free program. Well you could deactivate it. You could not install the firmware for that video processor but we can't endorse it, unless all the hardware works with free software because otherwise it would basically be an attraction for people to install the non free program that isn't there. And we don't want to fool ourselves. We don't want to endorse a product that is obviously incomplete and is going to attract most people to install a non free program. It would be self-delusion to say that's a product that respects your freedom. So, what's needed? Reverse engineering is needed. People have got to reverse engineer that video processing unit and then, publish the specs. The same people who reverse engineer the VPU shouldn't write or replace the program. Other people would do that. The people who figure out how to run that hardware just have to publish what they've learned about that hardware and they can publish it anonymously. So they don't have to worry about whether the company would try to harass them somehow.
JZ: I wasn't saying that about the X60 to say that “things are not good” and I agree we are making progress, especially that people are increasingly understanding the political implication of technology. This is really for me the key. What I was mentioning that for is that this reconditioned X60 is a 10 years old hardware.
JZ: Does it mean that we are 10 years late in a way?
RMS: Maybe. But better late than never. Remember 30 years ago we started from zero.
JZ: Yeah exactly. So we are progressing. What, do you think, are the most important or the most difficult challenges that we have ahead. Whether it's in the hardware, or the software or the network?
RMS: I can't judge that, I'm sorry. Asking me to take these things that are totally different, they're different kinds of things and just measure their difficulty, I don't know. And I don't really care. Because I just look at the things that need to be done, I'd rather talk about what needs to be done.
JZ: What's need to be done for instance in the software area. What are the areas where we need man power, we need energy.
RMS: Well, we need better free CAD [Computer Aided Design] software. We need free accounting software that's interoperable which again requires reverse engineering, both CAD and accounting software require reverse engineering to figure out the formats used by the market dominating non free programs that try to keep their users captive.
RMS: We also need, of course, the firmware and driver replacements for lots of hardware. We need schools to stop teaching proprietary software. The school has a social mission: to educate good citizens for a strong, capable, independent, cooperating and free society. For a school to teach kids to use non free software is implanting dependence on a private entity which is completely antisocial. It should be illegal for schools to do that. There must be no non free software in a school where kids can find it except in reverse engineering practice. Of course, since every program embodies knowledge, if it's a free program the students can learn this knowledge but if it's proprietary the knowledge it withheld from the students. So, a proprietary program is the enemy of the spirit of education. It's an obstacle to those who are interested in programming and want to master the skill, the craft of programming. You do that by reading lots of code and writing lots of code. Only free software gives you the chance to read the code of large programs we really use. And then to learn how to write the code for large programs you've got to write code in large programs. But you've got to start with existing large programs at first until you get really good at it. So only free software gives you the chance to write changes in existing large programs that we really use. Schools for the sake of those who want to master the craft of programming must be environments of free software, of knowledge the students are welcomed to learn. But in addition schools must teach the spirit of good will, the habit of helping others, this is education and citizenship. Therefore, every class must have this rule: students, if you bring software to class, you may not keep it for yourself. You must share it with the rest of the class, including source code in case someone here wants to learn because this class is the place where we share our knowledge. Therefore, it's not permitted to bring proprietary software to class except for reverse engineering practice and the school must follow its own rule to set a good example. So we must legislate that school may not have proprietary software except for reverse engineering practice, which of course will only start probably at age 13 in most cases.
JZ: Well maybe we will see that emerge somewhere in Latin America.
RMS: Well Ecuador already is working on the project of moving its schools to free software
JZ: Do you think public school should teach children how to code, how to do network…
RMS: Oh no, no. Most people don't want to do this. This is specialised knowledge that some people are interested in. You might as well say we should teach everyone to do accounting…
RMS: To be a painter… Most people will not be good at programming. It's a special talent just as most people will not be good painters. I wouldn't be a good painter, right, I don't have any talent for that. I have other talents like programming and puns.
JZ: You have hidden talents.
RMS: But the point is just 'cause I find programming to be a great pleasure doesn't lead me to conclude that everyone is supposed to do programming. You know there is a tendency for people who love a particular activity say “of course you should all do this, it's such great fun, try it, you'll certainly love it” but I know better: different people love different things. Schools should make it easy to learn programming. They should invite people to get to the depth of programming if they want to. But not everyone is gonna want to. You can't say that nowadays everyone has to be able to program, come on, it's like saying everyone has to be able to do algebra. Not everyone wants to do algebra. I love calculus. I love group theory 'cause I love mathematics but not everyone does.
JZ: My point was more how can you be a citizen aware of what is going on in this world if you don't have a minimum knowledge.
RMS: A minimum knowledge won't get you anywhere. It just won't help.
JZ: I mean, a minimum knowledge of the architecture of information infrastructure…
RMS: Oh yes, there is something you need to know and that is, there are different computers involved in activities and you need to know what part of what I'm doing is done in my computer and is under my control, 'cause of course you shouldn't allow any non free software to run in your computer, and what part is being done in someone else's computer and whose computer is it and where is it and what data is it collecting about me. Those are the things people need to pay attention to.
JZ: And how can you get this knowledge?
RMS: Well, you need to, people need to demand it and eventually laws will be required and forced by the state to make whoever run servers tell you. The point is, you don't need to know how to program to understand this kind of thing. Of course, there have to be much stricter legal limits on what data they can keep and who's allowed to have any of it.
Right now, if you visit a website, several companies are likely to get personal data about you, just because you looked at the home page of that site without typing anything at it, without clicking anything on it. The fact that you visited that page gives personal data about you to various companies whose business is tracking people. Well that should be illegal. The company whose page it is, the organisation more generally whose page it is, should not be allowed to set up that page so that anybody else gets any data about you.
JZ: You can see that very well using the free software NoScript for instance in IceWeasel.
RMS: Oh but even NoScript won't block it all. For instance, if you see a Facebook like button, Facebook knows your computer visited that page. Because the image of the like button comes from a Facebook server and the server knows which IP address it sent the image to and your browser tells the server I'm requesting this image for the following page. So, Facebook knows your computer visited that page. That's personal information about you when you didn't go look at Facebook. This has to be illegal.
JZ: And if you happen to have a Facebook account then Facebook knows it's you with your identity. So this raises the question…
RMS: And I just saw today, I haven't seen the article yet but I saw just the abstract of it, that logging into any site through Facebook means Facebook gives the site a lot of personal data as well.
JZ: Of course, of course.
RMS: I mean, this is… Of course Facebook could be called “Suckerberg”, because Facebook is a monster surveillance engine look at https://stallman.org/facebook.html for why you shouldn't buy… you shouldn't do business with Facebook, shouldn't be a used of Facebook and look at https://stallman.org/amazon.html for why you shouldn't buy from Amazon.
JZ: You mentioned those pieces of software that we execute from a remote computer. It is a global trend. Today the use of computing in general, sometimes not to know, sometimes not to even care where the software is being executed. So this is something that wasn't the case in 1983 when the GNU project…
RMS: It's a terrible mistake for the users. You can't trust software that's executed straight from someone else's site. Basically, the user needs to take control over that software. The first step is for it to be free software. Usually it's proprietary software. And obviously you can't trust proprietary software. But that's just the first step. Because the users need to start really exercising control over that software meaning being able to have their changes to it, control what it does and what it doesn't do. Partly though, this needs laws. It should be illegal for instance for a site to collect statistics about its visitors, how they visit the site by sending data about all the visits to a company like Google, which is called Google Analytics. Many websites send over data about their visitors to Google.
JZ: Or Google Adwords or the Google+ button, which is the equivalent of the Facebook button.
RMS: Actually it's not quite equivalent. I asked once and I was told the Google+ button as a long cache time so if you go to lots of sites, according to what I was told, and they all have the + button, Google doesn't find out about most of those pages. It just uses the same image that's already in your browser, cached. Well I have to agree that makes it a lot less of a problem. If Google is not finding out all the sites that you visit through that button, it's OK.
JZ: The way Eben Moglen puts it is that we are loosing anonymity in reading. I think it's a very interesting way of…
RMS: Absolutely! The Amazon Swindle which is an e-reader that swindles their readers out of their freedom, monitors exactly what page is being read at any time, as well as what books the user obtains. Of course Amazon won't let people buy anything anonymously, which is why I won't buy anything from Amazon, I won't identify myself to websites. So, you've got to reject these things.
JZ: Of course. A question that is a bit of a general question and I don't want you to be exhaustive about it but I think that is important to…
RMS: I'm exhausted already.
JZ: Ahah. What can people do to help? To help make the world a better place? To help take back control of technology?
RMS: Well first of all, look at https://gnu.org/help/ for suggestion for how you can help the Free Software Movement. Now, one way is by programming but there are many other ways, you don't have to be a programmer to help advance our movement. There are free software activists who are not programmers. You can do a lot.
JZ: For instance, what can you do to help free software.
RMS: Well you can organise people to campaign. That's tremendously important. You can learn how to present these issues and give speeches.
JZ: Write documentation as well…
RMS: Yes, exactly.
JZ: Graphic design… Web design…
RMS: Well, you can join organisations such as the Free Software Foundation or Free Software Foundation Europe or April or La Quadrature Du Net whatever there is in your country, wherever you are. You can, however, more generally, because free software protects you from having your own technology perverted to spy on you, or restrict you or attack you but it doesn't protect you from other systems that aren't yours. So, you need to organise politically to demand an end to general surveillance. Away with the excuses. We don't trust the authorities with power like the Soviet Union had.
JZ: And how do you think… What would you recommend for somebody who would like to start doing it right now and wouldn't know how to do it? To get committed, to politically change things?
RMS: Find an existing organisation and support it. It's the easiest way. There are organisations that champion limiting surveillance. Unfortunately most of them don't act against the collection of the data. They mainly campaign to limit government use of the data and as I said that's not enough. Look at https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/surveillance-vs-democracy.html and you'll see why, you'll see more clearly and fully stated, why it's not enough to limit the government use of databases that are held privately. We have to limit all the ways that the government collects information about everyone.
JZ: A question that is a bit of a troll to react to what you just said, that people could or should join existing organisations. Ain't we at risk of centralising…
RMS: It could decentralise it. Lots of people together in one organisation can achieve a lot more because they contribute their dues, the organisation can hire organisers, hire lawyers and thus achieve more.
JZ: Aren't there also maybe new ways of doing…
RMS: I don't know!
JZ: Decentralised political actions.
RMS: I don't know!
JZ: Because you've seen the SOPA, PIPA and the ACTA fights.
RMS: But those were carried out by organisations with substantial membership.
RMS: We need organisations with substantial membership. I'm sorry but I don't think that you can achieve a lot politically just by doing everything by yourself.
JZ: It's not…
RMS: I didn't do everything by myself. I launched a movement where I recruited other people to join in and thousands of people have and that's why we've achieved. You can't expect that thousands of people, each one operating by himself, will achieve a lot. It just doesn't work that way in politics.
JZ: It's not just being alone but those organisations, this is what we did with La Quadrature du Net on ACTA, those organisations sometimes play a role when they provide means of action, they provide way for individuals who may not want to join organisations to still be active…
RMS: Well that is participating in the existing organisation.
RMS: Those people, would not have achieved as much if they hadn't acted through the means set up by the organisations. But in order to set up these means, the organisation needs people. So, participating through the means set up on the net by an organisation is a way you can achieve a substantial amount with a small amount of work. If you want to do more than a small amount of work, we need people who are willing to do a lot of work. Of course, there will be more people who do a small amount of work. Yes, I agree it's useful to set up ways people can contribute, each one giving a small amount of work, but to do that you need people who are going to do a lot of work, if you really care you've got to do a lot of work.
JZ: That's what've been doing for some years now.
RMS: Right, but we need more.
JZ: Yeah. Yeah.
RMS: Don't imagine that we're going to win by having only lot of people who do a little bit of work. Freedom, sometimes requires a sacrifice and sometimes requires working hard for a long time. If you say “I want freedom as long as it's easy”, you can't expect to keep your freedom, let along regain it. It's a myth that people believe nowadays “I want freedom but my concentration is on making money. I can give a little bit to freedom…”. No, you're going to have to look for a way to live with somewhat less money so you've got time to dedicate to something that matters.
JZ: That's a very good advice. We have a question from the audience. Who would you consider to be a inspiring person for you?
RMS: Well, various people who have stood for causes have inspired me more or less. I couldn't give a long list of names.
JZ: Maybe a short one.
RMS: Most people have not heard of Doctor Ambedkar, who was the leader of India's Untouchables, who campaigned for their rights and won a certain amount but didn't ultimately win enough. But he did everything he could.
JZ: So that's all for the list.
RMS: Well, I don't want to give a long list. You've heard of a lot of people who've campaigned for freedom, who've influenced me to some extent. Once, I was walking around in Paris with a friend and I saw a cinema and it said “Celui qui a dit non.”, and I said “Is that a film about me?”. No, it was about General De Gaulle. Well, we both said no.
JZ: Yes, yes. Well, so I think we made it. It's a real pleasure and an honor, I want to thank you for everything you've did for… you've done for us. It's a… You're an inspiration to us, a very important one and yeah, very happy we could do that. Thank you Richard.
Thanks to Mayya, Roman and others for the transcript <3