Censoring My Software
by Richard Stallman
[From Datamation, March 1 1996]
Last summer, a few clever legislators proposed a bill to
“prohibit pornography” on the Internet. Last fall, the
right-wing Christians made this cause their own. Last week, President
Clinton signed the bill. This week, I'm censoring GNU Emacs.
No, GNU Emacs does not contain pornography. It's a software package,
an award-winning extensible and programmable text editor. But the law
that was passed applies to far more than pornography. It prohibits
“indecent” speech, which can include anything from famous
poems, to masterpieces hanging in the Louvre, to advice about safe sex
… to software.
Naturally, there was a lot of opposition to this bill. Not only from
people who use the Internet and people who appreciate erotica, but
from everyone who cares about freedom of the press.
But every time we tried to tell the public what was at stake, the
forces of censorship responded with a lie: They told the public that
the issue was simply pornography. By embedding this lie as a
presupposition in their other statements about the issue, they
succeeded in misinforming the public. So now I am censoring my
You see, Emacs contains a version of the famous “doctor
program,” a.k.a. Eliza, originally developed by Professor
Weizenbaum at MIT. This is the program that imitates a Rogerian
psychotherapist. The user talks to the program, and the program
responds—by playing back the user's own statements, and by
recognizing a long list of particular words.
The Emacs doctor program was set up to recognize many common curse
words and respond with an appropriately cute message such as,
“Would you please watch your tongue?” or “Let's not
be vulgar.” In order to do this, it had to have a list of curse
words. That means the source code for the program was indecent.
So this week I removed that feature. The new version of the doctor
doesn't recognize the indecent words; if you curse at it, it replays
the curse back to you—for lack of knowing better. (When the new
version starts up, it announces that it has been censored for your
Now that Americans face the threat of two years in prison for indecent
network postings, it would be helpful if they could access precise
rules for avoiding imprisonment via the Internet. However, this is
impossible. The rules would have to mention the forbidden words, so
posting them on the Internet would violate those same rules.
Of course, I'm making an assumption about just what
“indecent” means. I have to do this, because nobody knows
for sure. The most obvious possible meaning is the meaning it has for
television, so I'm using that as a tentative assumption. However,
there is a good chance that our courts will reject that interpretation
of the law as unconstitutional.
We can hope that the courts will recognize the Internet as a medium of
publication like books and magazines. If they do, they will entirely
reject any law prohibiting “indecent” publications on the
What really worries me is that the courts might choose a muddled
half-measure—by approving an interpretation of
“indecent” that permits the doctor program or a statement
of the decency rules, but prohibits some of the books that any child
can browse through in the public library. Over the years, as the
Internet replaces the public library, some of our freedom of speech
will be lost.
Just a few weeks ago, another country imposed censorship on the
Internet. That was China. We don't think well of China in this
country—its government doesn't respect basic freedoms. But how
well does our government respect them? And do you care enough to
preserve them here?
[This paragraph is obsolete:]
If you care, stay in touch with the Voters Telecommunications Watch.
Look in their Web site http://www.vtw.org/ for background information
and political action recommendations. Censorship won in February, but
we can beat it in November.