Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Richard Stallman, Meet Your Worst Nightmare!

Richard Stallman is probably the best-known advocate of the concept of free software, which may be characterized as the freedom to use, study, distribute, and modify software, regardless of who provided it and whether or not obtaining it involved a financial transaction. His GNU Project has made a variety of software tools available that are consistent with this policy, one of the best known being the GNU Emacs text editor. It is interesting to study those who passionately embrace Stallman's philosophy. I worked in one laboratory in which one Emacs user had reprogramming the entire interface, making it impossible for anyone else to ever do anything at his workstation. Whether that is a vice or a virtue is in the eye of the beholder.

I would assume that Stallman believes that his philosophy is grounded in the principles of a free and open democratic society. Whether or not that concept is purely theoretical should not cloud the discussion. Nevertheless, it raises the question of what happens when free software finds its way into a repressive society.

This possibility was explored last week by John Hempton on his Bronte Capital blog. The title of his post was "Speculating about the future of Apple in China;" and it is important to note that, through the course of this blog, he emphasizes its speculative nature early and often (although there is a Postscript with a quote from the Wall Street Journal that can be taken to warrant at least some of his claims). The basis for speculation comes from the purchase of an Android phone in eBay that seems to have originated in a Middle Eastern country. It turned out that the functionality of the phone was almost non-existent, presumably because the operating system had been modified to prevent access to "undesirable" data and software.

Even if this is no more than speculation, it makes for an interesting case study in the extent to which the very concept of "freedom" is a double-edged sword, a concept that goes back at least as far as Plato and has been recognized by "enlightened" society as a major reason for a system of governance with the power to regulate. Free software may make for an admirable ideology. The real world, on the other hand, does not take kindly to just about any form of ideology.

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