The Stallman affair and what it means for Open Source

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Last week the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard M Stallman, who was also a visiting professor at MIT (right), resigned from both of those roles after remarks he had made on an MIT email list about one of the people implicated in the Epstein affair were made public, first on Medium and then through the Vice news site. The remarks were to the effect that the 17-year-old that this individual may have had sex with (at one of Epstein’s ‘retreats’ in the Virgin Islands) may have appeared willing, and that her being technically under the age of consent does not make it rape. Some of his comments were arguably true; there is a tendency to refer to any breach of age-of-consent laws as rape, regardless of whether the age in that particular state or country is above average (e.g. 18 rather than 16), whether the law even calls it “statutory rape”, whether force was used or whether the ‘victim’ was in fact quite willing, whether the two participants were close in age or indeed whether the ‘perpetrator’ was also under the age of consent, and if these comments were the only issue, I would regard his firing from his positions as an injustice. However, in the wake of this revelation, a whole lot of Stallman’s past writings about such things as paedophilia and people with Down’s syndrome (i.e. that they should be aborted) but also about his long history of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour with women at MIT and the conferences he attends came to light which I am sure many people in tech but outside MIT, or the US tech scene, were unaware of. It also led to calls to shut the Free Software Foundation he founded down and to abandon the whole concept of Free Software or Open Source and to stop using software such as Linux. These calls are misguided, in my opinion. (More: FOSS Force, Daring Fireball.)

I’ve been on the fringes of the tech community for some time as a one-time Linux user and occasional application developer. I’ve attended a few Linux events here in the UK and read interviews with Stallman as well as other pioneering but controversial figures such as Eric Raymond (who has also come under criticism this past week for a past blog entry in which he stated, correctly, that sexual activity with someone in their teens was not paedophilia and that the distinction matters). Stallman is well-known as a divisive figure in the tech community. He originated the idea of “free software”, which meant software which was free to redistribute and modify. Later on, a younger group of developers coined the term “open source”, which in terms of the licences under which the software is distributed is identical but is based on a different philosophy: that openness means more scrutiny, which means better software. Stallman despised this concept and, although he could not change the fact that this became dominant in the tech scene, insisted that his organisations did not use the term “open source” or that community’s coinages except when criticising them. The upshot is that we hear phrases like “FOSS” (free and open source software) used in community publications as authors and editors seek to dance around Stallman’s and his fans’ preoccupations and resentments and minimise emails from the electronic equivalent of the “green ink brigade”.

One of the articles about Stallman’s fall from grace claimed that he regarded his life’s work as a failure: his operating system, which he called GNU (GNU’s Not Unix, a reference to the system it was meant to replace), has never been completed although large parts of it are used in Linux-based operating systems daily. (He insists on calling these systems GNU/Linux, another of the stipulations he makes to anyone who works with him or uses the FSF’s facilities.) It is more true to say that he achieved something other than what he set out to, a little bit like Upton Sinclair who said that his book, The Jungle, about conditions in the Chicago meat industry was aimed at the nation’s heart, but hit it in the stomach instead; it was intended to prompt a movement for workers’ rights and conditions, but instead resulted in improvements in food hygiene and safety. Stallman’s ideas were about the right to share code, the right to know how the computer you own and the software that runs on it works, and to change it if you like, or if necessary, but the majority of computer users now, even if not in the 1970s or early 80s, have neither the time nor the inclination to do any of this or to learn how; they just want to get things done. The “right to share code” is not an ideal that would inspire many young people to join a campaign when there are human rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights and the environment to consider. Stallman has never accepted this, but the fact that his work has made software development much more accessible to many people (and certainly cheaper) and has made it a lot easier to develop better programs is hardly a failure.

However, as many of us found out last week, his attitude and behaviour, and that of a number of others in the industry, actively put women off entering. Women at MIT had strategies to deter advances from him, often based on exploiting his eccentric dislikes (e.g. of plants, water, and rival software to his) while women visiting were advised to avoid the floor where he worked if possible. He was on a number of conferences’ “do not invite” lists partly for this reason (and, no doubt, partly because of his divisiveness). He was known to shower rarely and to have other disgusting personal habits which he did not hide; he preferred to stay with hosts rather than in hotels when attending conferences, and imposed on them to a ridiculous extent, issuing a rider which was pages long, and a number of these hosts have horror stories like this (auto-translation) about the experience. A number of people who worked with him tried to make him see that the way he treated people, especially women, was inappropriate, but to no avail. It might anger or upset some people to see people on Twitter demand that the whole edifice be torn down, that the FSF be closed, that the open-source or Free Software concepts be abandoned, but one can hardly blame them if they had been kept out of a career in something they had previously enjoyed because the industry and academia tolerated obvious sexual harassment just because the perpetrator was a major innovator. However, this does not mean we should tear it down.

As for abandoning Linux or anything else licensed under the FSF’s General Public Licence: to do this is to cut off your nose to spite your face. Neither Stallman nor the FSF benefits at all materially from you using a piece of software licensed that way; nobody pays royalties on the use of the licence. The FSF and GNU project are more than just Stallman; he contributed to some of the software but not all, and some aspects of the system have nothing to do with GNU, including the Linux kernel, the X-Window system and KDE desktop. Get hold of any Linux distribution (e.g. Ubuntu) or any other open-source package (e.g. LibreOffice) and you can install it on as many PCs as you like. The alternative is software developed on a closed basis that you may pay hundreds of pounds for, which you then may use only one copy of, and which comes out of a company whose internal culture you know nothing about; it may have a sexual harassment problem at least as bad as anything Stallman has been involved with, or a bullying problem, or it may pay its cleaners a pittance and employ them on zero-hours contracts.

One of the first and loudest voices advocating for Stallman’s dismissal and discredit works for Salesforce, a company accused of facilitating sex trafficking through one of its clients (a website called Backpage, closed by US federal officials in 2018); the lawsuit from women victims of this practice was dismissed yesterday on a technicality though the plaintiffs are appealing. I saw a tweet yesterday that read, “If someone would have told me in the 2000s that Bill Gates would be the hero and Richard Stallman would be the villain…..”, but Bill Gates’s foundation has announced that it is giving a humanitarian award (for sanitation improvements) to Narendra Modi, the Hindu chauvinist Indian prime minister, whose terms as both Gujarat state governor and prime minister have been marked by Hindu nationalist violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslims: a days-long pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, lynchings of Muslims and others by “cow protection” vigilantes in the north-west, state atrocities against Muslim natives in Kashmir, an ongoing campaign to expel Muslims from Assam. Gates’s association with this man makes Stallman’s defence of his friend look mild by comparison and he made his money peddling sub-standard, buggy closed software in the 90s and 2000s (his operating system had no major update for seven years); he helped water the swamp that Stallman operated in.

What does this mean for open source? My prediction is that the whole concept of “free software” will come to be seen as a dinosaur and that the circumlocutions the community uses to avoid offending Stallman and his dwindling group of supporters will be abandoned: we will see no more uses of “GNU/Linux” or “Free/Open Source Software”. It’s true that Stallman is not the only guilty party and there have been controversies about sexist behaviour and underrepresentation of women in other open-source projects, and some Linux events such as expos and conferences have been notable by a laddish culture which does not respond positively to criticism. People who object are often told to toughen up and not be so sensitive, even by women (as I saw in Linux Format after a previous sexism scandal). However, most of this behaviour has been verbal rather than physical. Open source has demonstrable advantages: it not only opens up important software to scrutiny of its source code, allowing the elimination of both bugs and backdoors, but also offers opportunity for developers to better their skills in their own time, to make improvements which, if accepted, become matters of public record, unlike in a closed software company, and just because some people find a community or project unwelcoming does not mean it should be closed down if it is doing good. To destroy all this because of the behaviour of a small number of unpleasant individuals would do everyone a disservice even if not everyone knows it.

Image source: Nick Allen. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 licence.

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