Controversial free software pioneer makes his case at a Yangon seminar

Richard  Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, clearly enjoys making puns.

Richard Stallman speaks. Photo: Wikimedia CommonsRichard Stallman speaks. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

With a background in computer programming, he has become a leading advocate for free software, the concept that software should be open to use, modification and distribution by anyone.

Mr Stallman visited Yangon last week, bringing his often controversial message to local audiences.

Along with other wordplay, puns received particular preference in his talk on free software and much more at downtown Yangon innovation lab, Phandeeyar, and helped demonstrate his distaste for proprietary software such as Microsoft Windows. At the April 2 event, he called Apple’s app store the “Crap” store, and renamed Amazon’s Kindle reader the “Swindle”.

The re-christenings pop up during Mr Stallman’s stories about how user freedoms have been infringed upon. Amazon snatched copies of George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four off their readers in a move Mr Stallman described as Orwellian – the company told The New York Times in 2009 that the books had been uploaded to the Kindle store by an entity without permission to do so. And Apple limited app downloads to those approved by the company, an act of “censorship”, according to Mr Stallman.

Though computer users might feel like they’re in the driver’s seat, he said, someone else is steering.

“Who gives the instructions to your computer? You might think it’s you, but really it’s somebody else,” Mr Stallman told the crowd in Yangon on April 2. “With software there are two possibilities. Either the users control the program, or the program controls the users. It’s always one or the other.”

“When the users control the program, we call that free software.”

Local attendees agreed his views were unique, with one person saying, “he lives outside of our society.”

“I think it needs a lot of time here in Myanmar,” said Ko Phyo Min Thu, a student. “Myanmar is different from other countries ... All we need is people, and people need to change.”

Mr Stallman has been at the front of the free software movement for decades.

The year 1984, rather than ringing in an Orwellian apocalypse, saw Mr Stallman begin work on the GNU operating system. With the addition of Linux in 1992, it evolved into the “free world” of GNU/Linux – a place users could “escape to”, according to Mr Stallman.

He added free software guarantees users four essential freedoms: the freedom to run a program as a user wishes; the freedom to study and change a program’s source code; the freedom to redistribute the program; and the freedom to make copies of and redistribute a modified version of the program.

“Now that we use software for so many social activities, free software, control of the software we use, has become one of the essential human rights that we must fight for,” Mr Stallman said.

He presented the crowd gathered on April 2 with a dilemma: If you have a software program you have agreed not to redistribute, what do you do if a friend asks for a copy?

“You should choose the lesser evil, which is to give your good friend a copy and violate the licence of the program,” he said. “Your good friend deserves your cooperation, but the developer of this proprietary program has deliberately tried to divide you from the rest of your community. That is an attack on society.”

The redistribution of proprietary software – known in other circles as “piracy” – has become a fairly commonplace practice in Myanmar.

“What he’s describing is currently what’s happening here,” said Ko Thiha Aye Kyaw, an entrepreneur that attended the Phandeeyar event. “With this logic ... distribution of pirated CDs is good.”

But Mr Stallman regards redistribution of proprietary tech not as “good” but simply “less evil” than keeping it to oneself.

“An unauthorised copy of a proprietary program is a bad thing,” he said. “It’s not bad because it’s unauthorised, it’s bad because it’s a program that doesn’t respect users’ freedoms.”

In his view, to be good, users shouldn’t sign their name to licence agreements with developers.

Mr Stallman practises what he preaches. Though entrenched in tech history, he has refused to float along and use some of the industry’s developments, declining to own a mobile phone – a device he calls “Stalin’s dream”.

His non-ownership of a mobile handset certainly places him against the trend of the industry locally. The opening of two international telcos last year was seen as a landmark event, and mobile penetration rates have shot up in its wake.

Meanwhile, Mr Stallman said that because many people in Myanmar don’t have computers, their human rights as users of computing are currently “safe”.

“Do we want to be included in a Big Brother surveillance system that tracks us and listens to us? I don’t,” he said. “Unless we can have a just digital society, a free digital society, the proper goal is digital extraction.”

He acknowledged that proprietary software is convenient and its use “satisfies practical desires” – but said he was more worried about long-term harm than short-term good.

“When I weigh [these benefits] against the freedom I would be losing, I choose freedom,” he said.

“In the long term, we could have the same benefits and freedom if we reject proprietary software and we make free software to do whatever it is we want.”

At the end of Mr Stallman’s speech, he took questions from the audience. When one from The Myanmar Times began with the use of proprietary software being a fact of life for many, and in some business cases perhaps leading to better quality of life, he cut in.

“What difference does that make?” he asked.

“Better quality of life?”

“At the expense of your freedom? Will you sell yourself into slavery if your master would feed you better?” he asked.

“Basically it depends what your values are. Many unjust practices are a fact of life, sometimes for millions of people in the world. Is that an argument that we should accept them? I don’t think so.”