Exclusive: Free software guru Richard Stallman on government IT and why he hates the cloud

The founding father of the free software movement tells Computer Weekly why government just doesn't "get it"

The UK government is pushing the boat out for open source software - but the IT establishment just doesn't "get it", or so they say in the free software community. The Cabinet Office may have taken to banging the heads of its biggest IT suppliers together, but what will it take to make them understand?

You can't implement a policy if no-one understands what you are talking about. Perhaps it is time to hear the gospel - and there is no higher authority on the free software philosophy than Richard Stallman, godfather and a lead developer of the GNU/Linux operating system, creator of the gold standard among free software licences and custodian of the scripture that founded a movement.

As Stallman talked to Computer Weekly over a three-hour dinner during a rare visit to London, it was as a man whose time has come. Yet as lamb masala gave way to dessert, it became apparent that while the industry is changing rapidly, Stallman refuses to budge one jot. Even as governments around the world introduce free software policies, cloud computing threatens to make free software an irrelevance, or a side-issue. Stallman hasn't yet figured out what to do about it.

More on cloud later though. There are good reasons why users like UK government have accepted the principles of free software, if not laid down the letter of its laws.

It offers a vision of an industry in which all computer code is free as all speech is free; where people are as free to adapt and distribute computer algorithms as they are mathematical algorithms; and where software suppliers are unable to extort monopoly prices from their customers by hiding their programming code in a black box.

The influence of proprietary software has been felt in no greater measure than in the UK public sector, where just 18 companies control 80 per cent of IT contracts. Government policy aims to break the IT oligopoly's power by ending its proprietary software terms.

The remedy is Stallman's. It's based on the idea that a free market in business is not enough to ensure fair play when you are dealing with something as ephemeral as computer code. There has to be a free market in ideas and the code within which those ideas are expressed. Anyone with the skills ought to be able to play with those ideas. Then anyone can modify or support the software we use.

Public interest

In such an environment, the market barriers that sustain the UK's IT oligopoly would be removed and the cost of IT to the public sector slashed overnight. That's the idea, though Stallman believes it wouldn't go far enough unless the government simply decreed all public software free of proprietary terms.

"The point of free software is either the users control the software or the software controls the users," says Stallman.

"A public agency should be doing things for the public interest, and maintaining control of its own computing is part of its responsibility to the public."

He says it is about protecting "the computing sovereignty of the state"; but also preserving people's democratic powers in a computerised world. If the government uses proprietary software and that forces the populace to use proprietary software, Stallman sees that as a form of dictatorship - as if people can only use Microsoft systems to arrange their benefits with the Department for Work and Pensions.

These ideas have caught on in the UK since the credit crunch. People sometimes share more when times are hard. And the government has realised it can save money and make its IT systems more efficient by using software that is free from proprietary control. But Stallman reckons they've missed the point.

"It's a fundamental mistake to try to measure the benefits of freedom in economic terms," he says. "Freedom is more important than more money. How much are people being paid to protest in Libya? Economics is secondary."

This is ultimately the view that differentiates the free software movement from an industry that largely believes it has a right to proprietary control of its software code and to use that right to earn as much money as it can get. Suppliers believe the free market is enough to regulate supply-side pricing.

Free software is easy to accept when considered in terms of those companies that have grown fat on the provision of proprietary public IT systems. It's less easy for those engineers who have to earn a living and find their employers want proprietary software.

Doubting the cloud

Stallman thinks programmers should refuse to work for proprietary software vendors at all, and refuse to use any proprietary code in their systems. If that means not taking a job, they should learn to live on less money.

A profitable free software industry has emerged, but there's no ignoring Stallman's dogmatism. He dismisses cloud computing as though it doesn't exist. He refuses even to use the term "cloud computing" just as he refuses to be associated with open-source software. It's not cloud, its software-as-a-service. It's not open, it's free.

The free software guru usually has good reason to choose such words carefully. He believes he's fighting a principled cause. Free software followers seek him out for advice on the fine points of precisely what instances of software in the labyrinthine world of computer programming can truly be deemed free.

By preaching dogma, however, the great man appears at risk of painting himself into a corner. Cloud computing is a pertinent example. Stallman won't stand for it; it's a matter of ethics, he says. State agencies that use software-as-a-service, as he insists on calling it, "lose control" of their computing. His philosophy of freedom is all about users having the means to take control of their computing. Cloud computing is inimical to this.

The public sector is meanwhile taking to cloud computing with unshakeable conviction. The cloud promises to save money. It also promises to free public computer systems from the proprietary yoke. It's freeing agency, it is proposed, is open standards of interoperability. It promises freedom to switch between any kind of computer system, free or proprietary.

But beware putting the case to Stallman that free software is an irrelevance to users of cloud computing, that the trend has broadsided his movement, and that computer systems abstracted to the level of the application have the advantage of being black boxes to users who want to shoulder the complexities of hosting and managing their own systems as much as car drivers want to modify their own ABS braking systems.

"I see absolutely no relevance," he says. "Software as a service doesn't change my conclusions at all. I don't see why it would change my conclusion here."

The principle of freedom

It appears as though when on uncertain ground, Stallman retreats to the safety of his free software principles. Perhaps he doesn't yet have the reasons to explain why he is such a staunch opponent of cloud computing. But it is late, he is in the middle of a European lecture tour, is hounded by doting acolytes, has just eaten a hearty dinner and has been talking for three hours.

He is also fighting a political cause in which dogmatism is a means of survival. Is it a lost cause? Don't count on it. The distinction he draws between the free software and open source movements illustrates why not. Open source software is a development model, free software is about the principle of freedom and democratic control.

What he really means becomes apparent when he is asked to explain why the ultimate freedom would not be to allow people to use proprietary software if that was their preference.

"No," he says, glad to be back on firm ground. "This is a fallacy. There is no moral entitlement to make proprietary software."

This implies, he says, the freedom to give up one's freedom. "If you try to talk about the freedom to give up your freedom it leads to the conclusion that you can't really defend any freedoms because you've got to let people give them up," he says.

"The concept of inalienable rights is the rejection of that idea. It says there are some freedoms people can't give away, they can't sell. You can't sell yourself into slavery. You can decide to obey somebody but you are still not their slave."

There is the reason why Stallman's movement is not the cult it can seem, nor the utility the open sourcers would make it, but a political movement that is only gradually beginning to make sense. He wants users - people - to have democratic power over the computer systems that govern so much of what happens in their lives. That is a principle he wants cloud computing and much else besides to have to accommodate.

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