I’ve been a supporter of Richard Stallman’s side—as opposed to Linus Torvald’s—of the Free Software movement for some years now, but I don’t think that I appear to be as zealous about it as I once was. One reason for this is that I don’t spend very much time at all anymore either writing computer programs or running more obscure ones, and so I don’t come up against choices about whether to use non-Free Software or not. I’ve got my default Debian Squeeze XFCE install and I have my Emacs, Alpine and ZSH configuration files and that’s about it. I think now, though, it’s more a case of supporting UNIX as the environment that I am used to, as opposed to explicitly supporting the use of GNU/Linux. I am perfectly happy with my NetBSD shell provider, and if I had to use an Apple Macintosh for day-to-day computing, the only thing that would annoy me, I suspect, would be the lack of focus-follow-mouse.

Other behaviour of mine suggests, though, that I am still very much in favour of Stallman’s politics, but that there is some disagreement too. I am very privacy and security conscious, taking care to protect my data and my identity online. My main worry with something like, say, Google Docs, is that one’s data is not under one’s control. It’s not so much that the software is non-Free, but that it’s not being run on one’s own machine.

Of course you need to be able to trust the software on your local machine if you are going to have control over your data, but here I am not convinced that software being Free automatically qualifies it for this, for someone without the technical skills of Stallman. I know a decent amount about operating systems and computer networks and I am therefore in a much better position than the average user to judge how well a given piece of software, Free or not, will help protect my privacy. For Stallman, who knows where to look for vulnerabilities, it makes sense to insist on Free Software as he does because there is a very real sense in which Free Software is safer for him, because of his much deeper level of understanding of computing. But for me this doesn’t apply: access to source code and a series of freedoms for developers to mess around with that code and run the program how they want does not actually help me that much, because I don’t know enough.

Consider the nightmare scenario, where a government or even perhaps just an advertising agency attempts to work in some kind of backdoor into a piece of software that is very widely used. As far as someone like me is concerned, this could happen equally easily within a Free Software project as it could within a large software company. Software is horrendously complicated, and only one person needs to be corrupt. They add a new feature that looks harmless, and in the end it doesn’t get adequately tested etc.etc.

The response to this is that the level of security-conscious oversight in a large Free Software project way exceeds that of a large software company: whistle-blowing is much more likely to happen if someone tampers with the Debian codebase than with the Windows one. And this is why, for anything important, one should insist on running GNU/Linux rather than Windows.

Where I disagree with Stallman, now, is in insisting on Free Software beyond the considered decision that it is the best way to protect one’s privacy that I have just described. Stallman thinks that the right to run software freely and to be able to modify it and share modifications is a kind of fundamental right as a human, and so he refuses to use a laptop with a non-Free BIOS and, if he had an interest in computer games, would only play Free ones. By contrast, I’m happy to have a Windows installation with which to play games. Ideally I have a game on a DVD, and I run this non-Free game on a non-Free OS, but at the end of the day I have all the relavant aspects of control: I can always just disconnect the computer from the network, wipe its hard drive and re-install the OS and the game from my read-only media and then I can play it whenever I want. The non-Free nature of the software isn’t really relavant to this exercise. Sure, I can’t change things about the game, but I don’t see that as a fundamental infringement, just a strange and most likely selfish choice on the part of the game’s designer.[1]

Similar things apply to Internet services running on non-Free software. I send my Anki deck of Korean voacbulary to be synced using AnkiWeb because I still have multiple local copies. I backup to Amazon S3, because my data there is encrypted.

Actual computing with data that I care about, though, is a completely different affair. My read-write data, how and where it is stored and backed-up, and how much I feel I can trust the software I am using, is very important, and this is why I use GNU/Linux, and support the non-commercial SDF, and stand by Stallman on all these issues.

Computers are such an important part of our lives. Knowingly or not, there is massive amounts of data about us and we must guard our privacy. My life is of no interest to the government, because men of action don’t care about wannabe philosophers, and only a little to advertising agencies, secured as I feel I mostly am from their consumerism. But we must protect our digital rights in order to safeguard the rights of those who need this protection in order to be politically active. With the amount of things that are now digital it is important to protect activists from the state making their lives very difficult through how much it knows about them.

Look at Julian Assange and the dirt being dredged up on him in order to try to extradict him, as an example. If it’s true that he hasn’t raped anyone, think how much harder it would be to prove his innocence if data was out there about the websites he has visited and documents he has written. It’s very easy to generate newspaper headlines from such things to turn the tide of opinion against him, given society’s deep-set taboos. In order that people like Assange can continue their important work, we must be concerned with our own privacy, and Free Software is an important route towards that.

There are three other points I want to make. I still view the ideal of a world where all software is Free as something worth aiming at, but perhaps for different reasons than Stallman. As noted he seems to view it as some sort of libertarian human right, but I don’t see how this works. Instead I see it as a socialist ideal of people being free to work together and to be respectful of the work of others without that turning into a kind of exhortation, as copyright basically has.

Secondly, my disagreement with Stallman does not mean that I am at all willing to write his extremism off as so many are. I don’t for a moment have the arrogance to say that what he does is definitely going too far; perhaps he is right, or perhaps what he does is right for him, if that’s the appropriate notion to use here. It frustrates me a great deal to see Stallman written off as an unpleasant guy; he probably is, but that vice does not mean he isn’t worth listening to as so very many people seem to think. It upsets me a great deal when I get that kind of line from my friends.

Finally, the thought that it is rather easy to get overly attached to one’s security precautions and privacy concerns, with two negative consequences. The first is a false sense of security. It is important to recognise one’s vulnerability. If the powers that be want to eliminate or capture and torture any one citizen, they could; if they are determined enough to break through any security in the virtual world they can, of course, since multiple very good minds beat a genius like Stallman and of course there are very many experts capable of beating the likes of me. And don’t forget the $5 wrench. Secondly while these things are important, there are plenty of other things in the world that ought to concern the liberal. The way political activists are treated in other countries is far worse than in places like the US and the UK, and we mustn’t forget those because they are further from home.

[1] As an aside, it will be seen that this leaves me very uncomfortable with services such as Steam, where the control I have described isn’t available.