Freedom and democracy are said to be guarantees of human rights, but as the NSA spying scandal and the Arab Spring recently showed, that isn't always the case. Are all people inherently qualified for freedom and democracy? What happens when it's thrust upon them before they are ready? And what does it mean to be free? Oksana is joined by the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, to discuss these issues.
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Oksana Boyko:I’m joined by world famous technologist and philosopher Richard Stallman. Dr. Stallman, I know that you’ve been a very vocal advocate of freedom for many, many years and you define freedom as having control, and I think…
Richard Stallman: No, having control of your own life.
OB: Exactly, and I think that whenever we speak about the use of software or even about governance, having control presupposes some sort of knowledge, some sort of expertise. Does that makes freedom a privilege, something that you have to actively work for, something that you have to earn and deserve rather than a universal right?
RS: I disagree totally. First of all we need to distinguish freedom from power. Freedom is having control of your own life, but power is when one person has control over another person’s life. And freedom, it’s certainly not a privilege, everyone’s entitled to freedom to the extent it is at all possible.
OB:You just said everyone is entitled to freedom, but my question to you is whether everyone can really use freedom?
RS: Of course. You know, even if you don’t know all the details about how a computer system is implemented, you can still exercise control over what that computer system does. Now this is an interesting point because when you’re using a program, freedom means having control over what that program does. Now there can be, there’s individual control – one user at a time, and then there’s collective control – groups of users up to the size of the whole world exercising control over that program. But all of those are the opposite of power. Power is what happens with a non-free program, where there’s an entity that’s the owner, and that owner controls the program and the program controls the users. So this is the injustice, when there isn’t freedom.
OB:If we can transfer to the political aspect of things, I know that you’ve been involved in politics as well. It’s almost anathema in Western political thought to suggest that certain countries or certain people may not be qualified for freedom, but I think it’s a very interesting idea to ponder. Let’s take the example of Libya: I know that it caught your attention back in 2011. You were a very vocal critic of Gaddafi, you called him a butcher and I think by now it’s been well-established that the extent of Gaddafi’s butchery was exaggerated greatly and maybe even purposefully.
RS: Umm, I’m not convinced. I don’t know if I’ve seen the estimates but I’ve certainly seen that Gaddafi was quite a butcher. And of course, Western countries such as the UK, and maybe the US as well, delivered people up to Gaddafi. His dissidents from Libya who had fled, they were delivered up to Gaddafi to torture and punish. So I don’t at all regret that Gaddafi was kicked out of power. Now, bad things have happened in Libya since then. I don’t know if it was possible to predict them. I didn’t.
OB:But my question to you is, you know, those people who sought to oust Gaddafi and, by no means would I like to condone his leadership as well, but the people who sought to replace him - they were calling for freedom, they got that freedom, and by now that freedom has been extended to freedom to kill, something that even Gaddafi couldn’t afford at that time.
RS: There are factions, armed factions, in Libya that are fighting. I don’t think that’s a good outcome but what can you say? Should you support every dictator because, maybe, if you get rid of a dictator there might be a civil war? I don’t know.
OB: But why should we have this choice between supporting or not supporting? My question is…
RS: Well, it is a choice, the West was supporting Gaddafi.
OB:Absolutely, but my question to you is whether you think the people of Libya at that point of time were ready for that freedom, if they had enough knowledge, if they were enough…
RS: How can you tell? You can’t tell except to see what happens when they try. In neighbouring Tunisia things are not perfect, but they do seem to have a democracy that’s - the party in power is Islamist, which means not respecting, not wanting to respect human rights properly - but it looks like they’re going to have another free election. So…
OB:But in neighbouring Syria, they have an even bloodier war.
RS: Yeah, in Syria things have gone horribly badly as in Iraq. Of course, in Iraq it wasn't because of a democratic revolution, it was because of foreign conquest and occupation. The saddest case, I’d say, is Egypt, where it appears they’ve gone back to the sort of government that they had under Mubarak. But I don’t know whether it’s possible to predict these things and I question the idea that you can assert in a general sense “These people are not ready for democracy.” Maybe it’s just that they haven’t been able to win a democracy. Maybe they were thwarted trying to set one up by various power structures and foreign influence.
OB:But I think what that may attest to is that the quest for freedom is open to all sorts of manipulations. And you were a very vocal supporter of that revolution, at least when it came to Libya.
RS: Which one? Yes.
OB:And maybe your voice, you are an influential person, many people listen to you, you’re also a very sophisticated user of media, sometimes a very vocal critic of the media, so even if you were somewhat misled about the nature of that revolution, because from the very beginning it wasn’t that black and white.
RS: They were living under a tyranny and I could see that for myself when I was there. I was there about two months before.
OB:Well, I was there in March of 2011 when it was already happening, and those people were armed, and some of those people were killing security officers, were killing policemen, so they were not idealists, [not] all of them at least.
RS: Well, I can’t criticise that under those circumstances, but the point is you can’t treat it as if somebody had the ability to predict all these things. When you see masses of people protesting, you’ve got to try and prevent them from being crushed, and what we see is that in many countries in the Middle East, masses of protesters were crushed by violent force, often with the support of the US or its allies, as in for instance, Bahrain. You can’t be sure but people have to be able to try.
OB:Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher and scholar of the French revolution, said all the way back in the 19th century that “Revolutions are initiated by idealists, they are carried out by fanatics and they are later hijacked by scoundrels.” And I think this is pretty much what we’ve seen in the Arab world so far, but my question is a little bit different. You are now also pushing for a revolution of sorts with the free-software movement, and I wonder, can you really be sure that the results of that revolution, if it ever happens, won’t be hijacked by people who have nefarious intentions?
RS: It’s a silly question and the reason is that, first of all, you’re saying ‘revolution’ but that’s using the term in a figurative sense, because if the users have control over their software, that doesn’t involve changing the organisation of the state, so it's not a revolution, literally speaking. It simply means returning to users of computing the autonomy that they have in non-digital life.
What we see happening is a transition from non-digital life, in which people mostly have a lot of autonomy. Of course there are exceptions. There are slaves today, but we consider that an injustice - there shouldn't be slaves today. There are countries that don't respect human rights, but we call that an injustice.
The point is that you should have human rights in your digital activities as well. So, we need to put an end to this in order to have effective democracy. And we need to change a lot of things about digital technology so that they're not surveillance engines, but part of it is that we need to use software that the users control. Even those of us who are not programmers and won't personally exercise the control, if the users control the program, and since most of the users don't want to be spied on, each of us can count on the other users to make sure the program isn't spying on us.
OB:But when we count on the other users, how can we ensure that their intent is benevolent?
RS: Even though depending on other people in a society doesn’t guarantee things are going to be OK, being under the power of a tyrant pretty much guarantees it’s going to be bad. So with non-free software, the decisions about that program are all made by somebody whose interest is to exploit the users and you can pretty well expect the decisions to be bad for the users, whereas when you’re depending on other users, you’ve got a pretty good chance it’s going to be more-or-less good. So it’s not perfection, but you’re making a mistake in saying unless we can find perfection, it’s all lousy.
OB: But Dr. Stallman…
RS: I’m sorry but I prefer to depend on other users rather than on somebody whose interest it is to take advantage of users.
OB: You just used the word ‘tyrant’ in a metaphorical sense so I think I can also do the same thing and use the same analogy. Gaddafi wasn’t the perfect leader for Libya.
RS: He was a horrible one who didn’t respect human rights at all.
OB:Probably - absolutely, I agree with you on that. But he was the one who for some time prevented the Libyan people from killing each other and prevented…
RS: They’re not killing each other that much.
OB:They do, they do. If you go to Benghazi.
RS: There’s some violence in Libya.
OB:Well, I mean, just a couple of weeks ago the prime minister of Libya was abducted on the street, and if that could happen to a prime minister of a country, then imagine what could happen to people who don’t have much position.
RS: It’s not clear that it’s as bad there as in Mexico for instance, I don’t know.
OB:Well, I mean, Mexico is a different case but my point was that it wasn’t the best solution possible but in those…
RS: It isn’t over yet, it isn’t over yet. It’s not clear, Libya may make it through.
OB: In those circumstances it was the lesser of the two evils at least.
RS: I don’t think so. I don’t think Gaddafi was the lesser of the two evils. Even now, as far as…
OB: So you think what is happening in Libya is better than it was?
RS: It may be and it’s not over. In a few years there might be peace and some human rights in Libya or it might go back to a tyranny more or less like Gaddafi. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
OB:But it was still worth trying?
RS: But your argument is basically “Never try to get rid of a tyranny because you don’t know what’s going to happen, just accept the tyrant.” I’m sorry, because that guarantees tyranny.
Now you’re right, when I compare the owner of a proprietary owner to a tyrant, yes it’s a metaphor, because that owner doesn’t have the power that a state has, but that owner does have power over the users. And although that owner can’t just put them in jail, that owner can mistreat them in a lot of bad ways. And that is what we escape from when we switch to free software.
OB:Dr. Stallman, you have a very interesting life philosophy. You are a very interesting person. You really are hard to miss in a room. But I wonder if you realise how different you are from the more conventional crowd, people who may sympathise with your ideas but who find them extremely difficult to implement in their...
RS: Well, I encourage people to find more willpower by looking for it, and many people have.
OB: But for example, I know that you've been… you don't use a mobile phone, and you've been advocating against the use of mobile phones because of all the tracking. And with the recent NSA scandal, I think many people are very conscious of what that may entail. But how can you really do that in these days.
RS: How can you not have a mobile phone? It's not that hard. When I need to make a call, I find somebody and say, "Could you please make a call for me," or send a text for me. But in any case, what we, what I'm doing, personal resistance, clearly is just a beginning. It's a way of protecting myself from being a part of the mistreatment. It's not the solution I have in mind for society. At the level of society, what we want is to make the mobile phone companies not maintain a dossier about each person.
OB:But what do you think an ordinary person, who has a family, who has kids, who has work…
RS: Of course, it's very unfortunate to have children...
OB:Well some of us do.
RS: ...and those people are now going to be scrabbling for money desperately all their lives, unless they're one of the richest few. That's why I decided not to do that. But still, that doesn't mean that they can't be concerned about surveillance, support campaigns to design systems not to surveil [sic] everyone, and thus bring about political change in countries which do have some democracy left.
OB:Now speaking about political change, I know that you also advocated paper voting over machine voting in elections, insisting that there was a better chance for an accurate recount, if there was some paper, ballot paper track.
RS: Yeah, if there are papers, you can count again, you can have a recount.
OB:And I think, in many of your ideas, you really try to advocate this return to a sort of pre-digital innocence, which is a very…
RS: Actually, no, you're mistaken. When I say we should have portable phones with only free software in them, and that the system should be designed, under legal requirement, not to track anybody but court-ordered investigation subjects, that's not saying go back to an innocent pre-digital world.
There are others who say using digital technology means total surveillance, just surrender to it. But since that surrender means no democracy anymore, because whistleblowers who tell us what the state is doing will be caught, and they have to flee to places like Russia in order not to be caught, that means it's too much of a sacrifice. We've got to keep our democracy, and that means we've got to limit surveillance.
OB: One of the things that technology hooks us upon is convenience, this comfort. And I know that you previously said that you're not going to trade your freedom for comfort. But I think some people may also argue that comfort is a natural outcome of human progress. And I wonder where do you stand on that issue, whether you believe that comfort and convenience is an outcome of progress?
RS: We can't tell. We can't tell, basically. Humans have been developing more comfort for thousands of years. To make a general claim about what comfort will do to the human psyche is far beyond me, and I suspect far beyond anyone. I agree though that a lot of people have been taught to think more about short-term convenience than about long-term things, such as how they want to live. But what is the cause of that? It's hard to be sure what the cause of that is. Maybe it's all the advertising that they're bombarded with, which often says “Think about the short-term.” Microsoft had an ad campaign, "Where do you want to go today?" So I said, our question is, "How do you want to live in five or 10 years?" Very different set of values.
OB:Now you just mentioned Microsoft and Facebook and other companies, and in the first part of the program, we had a somewhat heated discussion about nefarious motives of some companies, and possibly some of the digital volunteers. And I think all those companies that are benefitting from users, passive users of proprietary software, at least we know their motive. Their motive is to make as much money out of us, and to keep us as consumers.
RS: Does it matter that we know their motive?
OB: I think it matters because it allows us a certain safeguard. It allows us to have…
RS: I don't think so.
OB:…some sort of strategy, counter strategy, because at the end of the day, they are interested in keeping us as milking cows. But you can never be sure what are the motives of the digital volunteers that we may rely upon.
RS: They check each other. That's the whole point of the free software community. That the contributors to a free program, they don't have power over anybody. You can be one of the developers of a program and the other developers can accept you into the group, so you start writing changes. But other people are looking at the changes you write, and if you start trying to take it in a direction they don't like, they'll say we don't want you in our project, go make your own version if you want to. So the point is, none of the contributors has the kind of power that every proprietary software developer has over the program's users.
OB:But they're also operating under the market forces, so supposedly there's some competition. And they’re forced to compete on…
RS: Well, I don't know. There can be competition, but not in the same sense. You know, if there are two different versions of the same program, developed by two different groups of people, they may compete trying to attract the users. But, because their source code is available to everyone, other people are looking at it, and if either group put in something nasty, it would be seen and they would be likely to lose a lot of the patronage of the users. And someone will make a modified version that does not have that nasty thing, and this is what the users can do because they've got control.
So this doesn't mean that every contributor is an angel. It does mean, however, that none of the contributors faces the same kind of temptation to abuse power that a proprietary developer faces, because none of them has that kind of power.
OB:Now speaking about the abuse of power, the United States has a significant technological edge over the rest of the world, and it is now using that edge to spy on the rest of the world. And one factor that contributes to that is of course the tech people, the geeks and the technological crowd that allows that to happen. These people who, like yourself, tend to be a bit more idealistic, they usually have a reputation for non-conformism. Why do you think they are so ready to collaborate with the US government?
RS:Well for money, obviously. They're getting paid to work in these jobs. But I want to distinguish between governments spying on other governments, which is something that governments have been doing plenty [of]. We just read how the Russian government gave people attending a summit meeting spy devices to take home, but you know, that's just what governments do to each other. For me, that's not the scandal.
The scandal is not spying on other governments and their activities. It's spying on all the citizens. And of course there are countries that work together to spy on the citizens of these countries. We just found out that Spain was helping the US spy on everybody in Spain. And of course there was the deal between the US and England, where US spy agencies couldn't spy on people in the US, but British spy agencies could spy on people in the US, so the two governments said alright, each of us will spy on the other's citizens and then we'll trade, and that way we'll be surveilling our own people. So this is what I think of as the scandal.
OB:Do you still feel yourself, within this tech crowd, as one of the tribesmen, or more of an outsider, these days?
RS: I feel largely an outsider, because most of them are developing services to be available over the net that are going to collect data about their users, and I wouldn't use them. After all, if we look at US government surveillance of the people, it's mostly not the US government directly looking at everyone. No, it's businesses, various companies that collect data about people, and then the US government gets it from them. The systems that these companies run have to be designed so that they don't collect data about most people, only about those for whom there's a court order to investigate.
OB:And you've been trying to fight that system for many, many years. Do you…
RS: Well actually, no. This is a rather new thing. Thirty years ago, when I started the free software movement, this wasn't an issue really. Even 15 years ago, there wasn't the technology to keep track of everybody's internet contacts. That's known as deep-packet inspection, I believe, and it's something that has been put into place since then, and of course is being used by many governments for more or less nefarious purposes.
Thirty years ago we had phones, but they weren't in general being monitored. There wasn't a list of everybody's phone calls, but now there is. And now the US government is collecting that all the time, and in Spain as well, with the help of the Spanish government. So now we have to address that issue as well.
OB: Now since you just mentioned Spain, that leads me to my last question. I compared you to Don Quixote. Do you think…
RS: You're not the first.
OB:…that metaphor really stands? Do you see any similarities with that character?
RS: Not at all. First of all, Don Quixote was sort of an allegorical satire, a condemnation of the nobles and their old-fashioned ideals of chivalry, which were not applicable to the modern world in the 1500s. But the other thing is that the character Don Quixote was living in a fantasy world. The monsters he fought weren't real, they were windmills, say. Well, thanks to Snowden, we know a lot of the facts about digital surveillance. So check for yourself whether the monster I'm fighting is imaginary. Check for yourself whether there's a real free software that really does useful things.