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Stallman vs. LeBlanc: Freedom or Pure Technology?
Friday, September 26 2003 @ 02:47 AM EDT

Richard Stallman has answered Dee-Ann LeBlanc's cry from the heart about Linux losing its focus, on LinuxWorld. As usual, they both look beyond the immediate and speak about the big picture. First, LeBlanc, back on September 1 suggested that Linux was in danger of losing its focus:

"SCO, GNU, governments, megacorps, movements, distributions, projects, licenses ... Linux is no longer simply about building the best operating system and tools possible for the sheer joy of it. Our little operating system has grown up. . .but when the politics become more important than the work, will we have lost the heart and soul of what makes Linux great: a community that settles for nothing less than the best?

"I'm not saying that we shouldn't fight the good fight. But between circling the wagons against outer forces and fighting within the various inner factions, it's far too easy to lose focus. Yes, Linux is a movement. Open source is a movement. Let's just not forget that Linux is born of one part experimentation, one part innovation, and a whole lot of fascination with making a technology the very best that it can be."

Stallman now responds by pointing out, of course, that Linus didn't start the movement in 1991, but that because many think so, they don't realize that it began with what he describes as a political purpose. I think the word ethical is more accurate, but it's his purpose he is describing, so he gets to choose whatever word he thinks fits best:

"Some go so far as to say that technology should not be sullied by non-technical concerns - espousing an idea of 'pure technology' that explicitly rejects the lesson, so painfully learned from World War II, that engineers have a duty to consider how their work may affect society.

"But you cannot keep your freedom by making technical advance your only goal. In 1983, we computer users had lost our freedom to cooperate: the only way you could buy a modern computer and run it was to sign a nondisclosure agreement, promising not to share with your friends, you could not tell what the program really did, and you could change it only by patching the binary. Regaining this freedom required 20 years of persistent effort, but we can lose it again much more quickly if we fail to defend it."

What particularly grabbed my attention, as I'm sure you've guessed, was the description of computer use in 1983, the part about changing it only by patching the binary. Anything sound familiar to you in that phrase?

There is a modern effort to shove us all back to 1983, where you couldn't look at or modify a thing and were stuck in binary-only functionality. That is, to me, the subtext of the SCO story, including the FUD about indemnification.

There are forces that want to destroy the GPL and those freedoms, no doubt about it, either by tossing the GPL overboard legally if they can do it or by eroding its freedoms, bit by bit. The Marx Brothers' haircut scene comes to mind: a little snoop here, another snoop there and then, oops, all your freedoms are gone. I believe the push for indemnification is part of the plan. No "practical" considerations can be worth going back to 1983, and I see no reason to agree to anything that leads us that way. It's hard enough not to be forced there. Why volunteer?

If a company wishes to set some servers aside for the prison treatment in order to get indemnification, I can understand that, although I see no reason why they need it. If they needed it, HP wouldn't be offering it free of charge, in my opinion. But we must not undervalue the freedom of being able to look at the code and modify it by quickly being willing to give it up, not for money, not for safety from lawsuits, not for anything I can think of, even if we personally don't do either of those things. Being able to look at the source code, modify it, and share with others - those freedoms are the heart and soul of GNU/Linux, and they are why it is superior technically too, if you think it through to the end. No threats or fear or economic considerations or short-term self-interest should make us give up or give away away those hard-earned freedoms.

That is my opinion still. I got a lot of email and a lot of comments about this subject, and I thought I owed you an explanation. But having said that, is there any reason why we can't have both Stallman's freedom and LeBlanc's fabulous technology? Elegant and innovative technology written by ethical people for the good of all? Isn't that, if you think about it, what we actually do have and are fighting for? If we focus only on the tech and as a result end up back in 1983's bad old days, that's the end of LeBlanc's innovative technology, because no one will be allowed to modify and share. And if we ignore her cry from the heart, the operating system won't be the best it can be, and that is a large part of the enjoyment. If ever there was a time to unite and work together, this surely is it, no matter which side we come down on. There is room for all and a need to be alert to threats to the freedom GNU/Linux provides and to give room to the ideas and feelings of others. This, to me, is one area the community can beneficially address.

Let me explain: after the open letter came out, I was contacted by a number of reporters. One of them told me this story: he said that his impression of the Linux community was that they are weird, and he was trying to figure out how I could be so seemingly "normal". "Who are you?" he asked, only partly in jest. He meant how did a nice girl like you end up in a place like this? He was a pleasant guy, so I thought it was worthwhile to ask him what he meant and how he formed that opinion.

He explained that every time he writes about SCO, he gets angry email, telling him in essence that he is an idiot. Journalists, unlike bloggers, he said, can't introduce their personal opinions into stories, but he felt readers don't understand his position, namely that if SCO folks put out a statement, he has to write what they said, because it's his job. And that's the case regardless of what he personally thinks.

He's right about that. Of course, I pointed out the flaws we see in the media's coverage so far. But, as another reporter told me when I said the same thing to her, journalists are generalists, not specialists. They have to be able to write about a lot of different areas, but that means they aren't necessarily experts on the subject at hand.

These are rational answers. I told the first reporter it isn't Grokkers writing to him. "It must be the Slashdot crowd," I said. (Joke. Joke. I do read Slashdot myself. But you do know what I mean.) We laughed, but the truth is, there is a problem identified here, and winning the battle may require us to make whatever changes are necessary to be more effective. It might feel good in the moment to vent, but we can be smarter and more committed than that. Deeper, what is the point of writing ethical software if we then mistreat our fellow humans verbally?

We have been given a second big clue. Reporters may not all understand the details of this story, but that doesn't mean they are all idiots or sellouts, not that some of them aren't both. But for most, they just don't understand the tech. I enjoyed talking with both of the ones I mention here and liked them as people quite genuinely. We can respectfully help them to understand the tech and the community where help is needed.

So, if by any chance anyone reading this has written such a letter, and I meant it when I told him I doubted it was anyone here, would it be good to write again and apologize, explaining your frustration, if you like, or at least from this day forward write only thoughtful, helpful, and respectful letters to the media? The world at large doesn't have the same sense of humor tech people do, so it's easy to be misunderstood when we are horsing around online. After these two conversations with the reporters, I believe it can make a tremendous difference in the anti-FUD fight to consider thoughtfully their impression of the community and how we can shape it more accurately by what we write in email, in comments, and on our websites. If we want to do something about SCO, that's something we can do, and, after these two conversations, I think it could make a real and significant contribution.

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