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Richard Stallman: The Free Software Movement *Is* Politics

The Free Software Movement teaches computer users to value freedom

[Dee-Ann LeBlanc mused recently here at LinuxWorld.com on the vexed question of whether in the Linux community we are letting politics have too much sway over and above the technology. Here are Richard Stallman's thoughts on that same issue, just received...far from sharing this worry, on the contrary he is concerned that a narrow focus on technological developments "might distract our best activists from doing their best work..."  ]

"Dear editors of LinuxWorld,

When I read Ms LeBlanc's surprised reaction to the idea that "Linux" is about politics - initially negative, followed by an acknowledgment that it may have become so - I was struck above all by the irony. This operating system was launched to be about politics, starting with its announcement 20 years ago this month:

Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete
Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not
Unix)... I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like
a program I must share it with other people who like it... So
that I can continue to use computers without violating my
principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of
free software so that I will be able to get along without any
software that is not free.

If the idea that the GNU/Linux operating system is about politics comes as a surprise to many of its users today, this is because they have forgotten its origin. The practice of calling the entire system "Linux" has led many to suppose it was started by Linus Torvalds in 1991. (Torvalds developed a kernel which, once freed in 1992, filled the last gap in the nearly complete GNU operating system.) They often say that the GNU project developed "tools," diminishing its real aim.

The only idea of the GNU/Linux system's purpose that they have encountered is Torvalds' self-described "apolitical" vision, the vision of the Open Source Movement, so many of them make this vision their inspiration. 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.

The Free Software Movement teaches computer users to value freedom, so they will defend it. Recognizing the value of freedom yourself is the first step in helping to do this.

Richard Stallman
Chief GNUisance of the GNU Project"

More Stories By Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Gnu Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free operating system GNU (an acronym for "GNU's Not Unix"), and thereby give computer users the freedom that most of them have lost. GNU is free software: everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to make changes either large or small. He is the principal or initial author of GNU Emacs, the GNU C Compiler, the GNU Debugger GDB and parts of other packages. He is also president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Any copyright notice in his articles supersedes all copyright notices on the SYS-CON and Ulitzer sites.

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