The FSF does not represent my views

Earlier this week, Richard Stallman announced that he was rejoining the board of the Free Software Foundation. You may recall that he resigned as president and board member in 2019 after making unacceptable remarks about the sexual assault of a minor. This was not the first instance of unacceptable behavior. The FSF made no real changes to address the issue and now has welcomed Stallman back.

I’m thankful that the people I choose to associate with have universally condemned this as harmful. I wrote in 2012 that I think he hurts his own ideological cause. At the time I wrote the post, I was thinking entirely of his rigid aherence to free software over all else. In truth, the harm he does goes well beyond that. For me, the licensing terms of free and open source software are not as important as the human impact.

As I wrote last month, free and open source software is not the end goal. What good is free software that is used to harm others? And what good is a free software movement that is not willing to include underindexed groups. We cannot tolerate nor enable this sort of behavior.

The Fedora Council spent a lot of time debating our vision statement.

The Fedora Project envisions a world where everyone benefits from free and open source software built by inclusive, welcoming, and open-minded communities.

Fedora PRoject vision

The inclusion of the “built by” is no accident. We want our community to be vibrant and healthy. That cannot happen when bad behavior is allowed to persist.

I think it’s too late for the FSF. They’ve painted themselves into a corner long ago. This only cements that. Still, perhaps with a new slate, the organization can be reborn into something that aids the cause it purports to champion. That is why I have signed the open letter calling for the resignation of Stallman and the entire FSF Board of Directors.

How Richard Stallman got me to ponder extremism

Note added 2021-03-23: I originally wrote this post almost a decade ago. At the time, I did not know about the harassment and other problems that would eventually lead to his resignation from the Free Software Foundation’s Board. “I think he hurts his own ideological cause” proved more true than I could have realized. In light of his rejoining the FSF board, I want to be very clear: he and the FSF do not represent the values of inclusivity and community that are, to me at least, more important than the licensing aspects of free and open source software.

This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a speech by a man whose work over the past decades enters into my life on a daily basis. The Network for Computational Nanotechnology at Purdue hosted Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. Stallman is a well-known and controversial figure, not only because of his technical work, but also (primarily?) because of his idealism and activism. His un-nuanced views and public lack of tact have driven fans of his work away from the FSF. I went into the talk expecting some pot-stirring. I didn’t expect to walk out deep in thought.

Stallman opened with a discussion of terminology, drawing a distinction between free (for the purposes of this post, free software means libre, not gratis) and proprietary software.  It is an ethical, social, and political distinction, not a technical one. Free software, Stallman argues, is a contribution to society. Proprietary software is morally unjust. Stallman prefers, given the choice between writing proprietary software and doing nothing, that developers do nothing. Even though free software is often available at no cost, encouraging the adoption of free software should be framed as a moral issue, not an economic or practical one. Software as a Service (SaaS) is morally equal to proprietary software in Stallman’s view, regardless of the licensing of the software, because users have no control over it.

During the question-and-answer session at the end, this view brought a heated discussion from NCN director Dr. Gerhard Klimeck. NCN runs nanoHUB, which is effectively SaaS for nanotechnology simulation. Stallman seemed to argue that it was a niche and not really important to discuss. He also semi-adroitly dodged the question of how developers can make money with free software, only asserting that it is being done without providing the [mostly student] audience any insights as to how.

Stallman’s views are based on his personal morality and seem to be absolute. This is what occupied my thoughts on the walk back to my car. Because I largely agree with Stallman, I’ve been inclined to see his extremism as an annoying, but useful thing. By being on the edge, he defines the middle. But why should extremism that I happen to generally agree with be more valid than extremism that I disagree with? While extremism does help define the middle ground, it also poisons reasonable discussion. I admire and appreciate his technical accomplishments, but I think he hurts his own ideological cause.