Do We Need A New Richard Stallman?

Posted on by ejames

A heretical thought struck me recently, while at a dialog session with Free Software founder Richard Stallman. Could it be that the Free Software movement is — today — irrelevant? This notion is repulsive: we owe so much to rms’s multi-decade crusade for Software Freedom and universal digital liberties.

Once I got over the initial revulsion, however, I realized that there is a small kernel of truth in the idea. The biggest dangers to digital freedom today is no longer with proprietary software (vs Free Software) — arguably, it is with addictive, networked applications that collect our data and hold us hostage to their services.

What do I mean by hostage? Well, if Facebook were to turn evil in the future, you do not really have any alternatives. You cannot say: “I will take my data and my friendships and go elsewhere” because the truth is there is no elsewhere. The alternative is to live without Facebook, which is to live without all the benefits that social networking has given humanity. This is not a real alternative after all.

Social networking services matter to us because the Internet is quickly becoming a defining social structure of our lives. If a regime were to crack down on its people, Facebook (or services like it) will likely be a tool used by that Government to control its people. More control makes regimes happy; the Gestapo would probably be very pleased with Facebook. It is, after all, the biggest directory of Jews on the planet.

But it’s not just crazy extreme scenarios that we should think about. You’ve probably heard of the dangers of giving your information to big companies. As an example, you might buy a wig from one website, and read a few articles about chemotherapy on another. Taken separately, these pieces of data say little about you. But if that data is combined, a person may deduce that you have cancer. This is a breach of privacy. It doesn't matter if you don't mind people knowing; you should still be given the choice to withhold that information.

Addictive, networked applications compound these dangers. You willingly give your data because the application is addictive, and the application is allowed access to different facets of your digital life because it is networked. And there’s no good way out of it.

Trying to get out of Facebook, for instance, is an interesting experience. When you attempt to delete your account, it throws pictures of friends in your face. “Tom, Bob, and Alice will miss you!” it says. This doesn’t strike me as good behavior. In fact, it smells slightly abusive, as if the service were holding you hostage with your friendships. If you wanted to, you should be given the choice of taking your data, your friendships, and your profile information with you. And you should be able to use that data in an alternative social network, the same way you may switch email providers or telephone providers, but still keep your your email address and phone number. This is fair to you as a consumer. You shouldn’t be punished because you are choosing to opt-out of Facebook. [1]

Stallman does not see this as something directly related to the Free Software movement. “What is the Free Software movement’s response to addictive, networked applications?” I asked. “That’s a meaningless question.” he said, “That has nothing at all to do with Free Software. It’s like asking ‘what does animal cruelty have to do with computers?’ I may have an issue with Google using non-Free Software, and that’s a valid Free Software objection. But the issue that you’ve described is a different thing entirely.”

And then, almost as an after-thought: “The answer to this is to store your own data, instead of storing it all on Facebook.”

Perhaps we need a Richard Stallman for the Internet.

When Stallman saw that proprietary software was threatening the hacker culture he grew up in, he responded by creating a credible alternative. It took him a few decades, and a couple hundred people, but he did it. Similarly, we may need someone to create a credible alternative to Facebook.

This is a lot harder than it seems. Stallman’s primary challenge when writing the GNU operating system was technical: it took a lot of man-months to write an OS from scratch. But if the resulting software was technically superior, hackers would eventually flock to use and contribute to it.

Writing an alternative to an addictive, networked application is a lot harder. Even if you were to produce a technically superior social network, you’d still have a hard time convincing people to join it. And why should they? Their friends are all on Facebook. This is what we call a network effect. [2]

You wouldn’t be done if you solved this problem, however. To truly protect Freedoms, you’d still have to come up with a protocol for importing and exporting friendships, and photos, and personal information. Ideally, you should find a way to convince Facebook to implement this protocol — something that’s going to be hard to do. And on top of that you’ll want to write a distributed social network that’s as bug-free as is feasibly possible.

The good news is that hackers are already making some headway on this problem. The open alternative to Twitter is The open alternative to Facebook is Diaspora. If you are a hacker who cares about such things, you should probably consider contributing to both projects.

The bad news, however, is that neither have figured out a way to solve the network problem. While they are still busy building out their platforms, Facebook and Twitter are growing at tremendous rates. Every new user they add to their site increases the overall value of their network; making it harder for new social networks to challenge existing giants.

So the network problem is a big one. But I don’t think it’s impossible to solve. Paul Graham suggests that the right way to solve a big problem is to approach it indirectly. The way to create an alternative social network probably isn’t to say that you’ll create an alternative social network. The right way is to probably say that you’re building an

A Stallman For The Internet

Let me go back to the original assertion of this essay: “what if the Free Software movement is irrelevant?” It isn't, of course, not entirely. But I do believe that the biggest threat to our digital freedoms is no longer in the realm of proprietary software. If anything, it lies now in the realm of unfree data.

My generation needs a Free Data movement, just as Stallman’s generation needed a Free Software movement. Free Software has arguably made the world a better place: better for programmers, and better for users. Free Data is but an extension: the same principles, applied to networked applications in a networked world. The challenges are different. The liberties at risk are the same.

Here’s one last thought: in 1983, people needed Stallman to show the way. We’ll probably need someone like that today. I hope we find him soon.

[1] A logical extension of this argument seems to be: social networking is so important that it should be a public utility. But that's an idea for a different essay.

[2] To be exact, this is known as Metcalfe's Law.

comments powered by Disqus