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So Much for the “Tireless Campaigner for Freedom”*

I’m a big fan of free and open-source software – none of my computers runs a proprietary OS, and I try to stick to open-licenced apps on my Android (Linux-based) phone wherever possible – but I don’t talk about it here because… well, it never came up, I suppose.

It just did.

The Palestinian boycott has spread to the Israeli high-tech world. Richard Stallman, who initiated the free software movement and launched the Linux operating system,

Not actually true, by the way: that was Linus Torvalds. He’s responsible for much of the gubbins that makes Linux useful though – the GNU toolchain – and, as importantly (if not more so), the licence under which it’s released, the GPL. He gets quite agitated if you call it anything other than “GNU/Linux”. Anyway…

has cancelled his lectures in Israel following Palestinian pressure, according to Gal Mor’s blog “holes in the net.”
Stallman was scheduled to visit Israel in July and to speak at Haifa University, Tel Aviv University and Shenkar College. The Palestinians initiated the visit, but when they understood that Stallman would also be speaking at Israeli universities they told him they would no longer fund the trip. In response, Stallman announced that he would cancel the speaking engagements in Israel, and would be satisfied with visiting the Palestinian Authority regions only.

Now, to be fair to RMS, it does look like this is purely to do with money, and not a deliberate political gesture on his part:

“I am sorry for the disappointment that I have caused,” wrote Stallman.

But to anyone familiar with the man and his activism over the last three decades, that doesn’t really cut a lot of ice. In the software world, he’s famous for being a free software fundamentalist to the point of refusing to use hardware that might be useful to him if it would mean “contaminating” the system with proprietary drivers. His spats with Torvalds and other open-source pragmatists are legendary. The tension between Stallman’s Free Software Foundation and the likes of The Open Source Initiative is actually very reminiscent of that between Randian objectivism and mainstream libertarianism, and for similar reasons. So is the grudging one-sided respect of the pragmatists for the intellectual bloody-mindedness of the hard liners, come to think of it.

So Stallman claims to care deeply about freedom. He’s made a career out of caring about freedom, and not simply in the manner of many better known professional worriers: he’s done a great deal of practical work to promote and enable “the freedom to distribute copies of free software (and charge for this service if you wish), [to] receive source code or [...] get it if you want it, [to] change the software or use pieces of it in new free programs”, as the GPL has it. Without him, we probably wouldn’t have Linux, Android, or WordPress, since they’re all GPL-licenced (or, in the case of Android, based heavily on GPL components). Although he has nothing to do with them directly, Wikipedia and Creative Commons both borrow heavily from the ideas he pioneered nearly thirty years ago. This move is all the more disappointing since his contention has always been that software freedom and freedom of speech are one and the same.

The visit isn’t until July. I suspect we haven’t heard the last of this.

*As he was described in a Linux Format interview last month.

One Comment

  1. Lynne says:

    Since the Palestinians apparently hate Americans as much as they hate Israelis, let’s hope Stallman’s visit doesn’t take a turn for the ironic if some Hamas fuckwit shoots him dead.

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