A Free Digital Society - What Makes Digital Inclusion Good or Bad?
Transcription of a lecture by Richard M. Stallman
at Sciences Po in Paris, October 19, 2011.
video of this lecture is available.)
Table of Contents
Projects with the goal of digital inclusion are making a big
assumption. They are assuming that participating in a digital society
is good, but that's not necessarily true. Being in a digital society
can be good or bad, depending on whether that digital society is just
or unjust. There are many ways in which our freedom is being attacked
by digital technology. Digital technology can make things worse, and it
will, unless we fight to prevent it.
Therefore, if we have an unjust digital society, we should cancel
these projects for digital inclusion and launch projects for digital
extraction. We have to extract people from digital society if it doesn't
respect their freedom, or we have to make it respect their freedom.
What are the threats? First, surveillance. Computers are Stalin's
dream: they are ideal tools for surveillance, because anything we do
with computers, the computers can record. They can record the
information in a perfectly indexed searchable form in a central
database, ideal for any tyrant who wants to crush opposition.
Surveillance is sometimes done with our own computers. For instance,
if you have a computer that's running Microsoft Windows, that system is
doing surveillance. There are features in Windows that send data to some
server, data about the use of the computer. A surveillance feature was
discovered in the iPhone a few months ago, and people started calling it
the “spy-phone.” Flash player has a surveillance feature
too, and so does the Amazon “Swindle.” They call it the
Kindle, but I call it “the Swindle,” l'escroc,
because it's meant to swindle users out of their freedom. It makes
people identify themselves whenever they buy a book, and that means
Amazon has a giant list of all the books each user has read. Such a list
must not exist anywhere.
Most portable phones will transmit their location, computed using
GPS, on remote command. The phone company is accumulating a giant list
of places that the user has been. A German MP in the Green Party
[correction: Malte Spitz is on the staff of the Green Party, not an
elected official] asked the phone company to give him the data it had
about where he was. He had to sue, he had to go to court to get this
information. And when he got it, he received forty-four thousand
location points for a period of six months! That's more than two hundred
per day! What that means is someone could form a very good picture of
his activities just by looking at that data.
We can stop our own computers from doing surveillance on us
if we have control of the software that they run. But the
software these people are running, they don't have control over. It's
nonfree software, and that's why it has malicious features such as
surveillance. However, the surveillance is not always done with our own
computers, it's also done at one remove. For instance ISPs in Europe
are required to keep data about the user's Internet communications for
a long time, in case the State decides to investigate that person later
for whatever imaginable reason.
With a portable phone… even if you can stop the phone from
transmitting your GPS location, the system can determine the phone's
location approximately, by comparing the time when the signals arrive at
different towers. So the phone system can do surveillance even without
special cooperation from the phone itself.
Likewise, the bicycles that people rent in Paris. Of course the
system knows where you get the bicycle and it knows where you return the
bicycle, and I've heard reports that it tracks the bicycles as they are
moving around as well. So they are not something we can really trust.
But there are also systems that have nothing to do with us that exist
only for tracking. For instance, in the UK all car travel is monitored.
Every car's movements are being recorded in real time and can be tracked
by the State in real time. This is done with cameras on the side of
Now, the only way we can prevent surveillance that's done at one
remove or by unrelated systems is through political action against
increased government power to track and monitor everyone, which means of
course we have to reject whatever excuse they come up with. For doing
such systems, no excuse is valid—to monitor everyone.
In a free society, when you go out in public, you are not guaranteed
anonymity. It's possible for someone to recognize you and remember. And
later that person could say that he saw you at a certain place. But
that information is diffuse. It's not conveniently assembled to track
everybody and investigate what they did. To collect that information is
a lot of work, so it's only done in special cases when it's necessary.
But computerized surveillance makes it possible to centralize and
index all this information so that an unjust regime can find it all,
and find out all about everyone. If a dictator takes power, which
could happen anywhere, people realize this and they recognize that they
should not communicate with other dissidents in a way that the State
could find out about. But if the dictator has several years of stored
records of who talks with whom, it's too late to take any precautions
then, because he already has everything he needs to realize: “OK,
this guy is a dissident, and he spoke with him. Maybe he is a dissident
too. Maybe we should grab him and torture him.”
So we need to campaign to put an end to digital surveillance
now. You can't wait until there is a dictator and it would
really matter. And besides, it doesn't take an outright dictatorship to
start attacking human rights.
I wouldn't quite call the government of the UK a dictatorship. It's
not very democratic, and one way it crushes democracy is using
surveillance. A few years ago, people believed to be on their way to a
protest, they were going to protest, they were arrested before they
could get there because their car was tracked through this universal car
The second threat is censorship. Censorship is not new, it existed
long before computers. But 15 years ago, we thought that the Internet
would protect us from censorship, that it would defeat censorship. Then,
China and some other obvious tyrannies went to great lengths to
impose censorship on the Internet, and we said: “Well that's not
surprising, what else would governments like that do?”
But today we see censorship imposed in countries that are not
normally thought of as dictatorships, such as for instance the UK,
France, Spain, Italy, Denmark…
They all have systems of blocking access to some websites. Denmark
established a system that blocks access to a long list of web pages,
which was secret. The citizens were not supposed to know how the
government was censoring them, but the list was leaked and posted on
WikiLeaks. At that point, Denmark added the WikiLeaks page to its
censorship list. So, the whole rest of the world can find out how Danes
are being censored, but Danes are not supposed to know.
A few months ago, Turkey, which claims to respect some human rights,
announced that every Internet user would have to choose between
censorship and more censorship. Four different levels of censorship they
get to choose! But freedom is not one of the options.
Australia wanted to impose filtering on the Internet, but that was
blocked. However Australia has a different kind of censorship: it has
censorship of links. That is, if a website in Australia has a link
to some censored site outside Australia, the one in Australia can be
punished. Electronic Frontiers Australia, that is an organization that
defends human rights in the digital domain in Australia, posted a link
to a foreign political website. It was ordered to delete the link or
face a penalty of $11,000 a day. So they deleted it, what else could
they do? This is a very harsh system of censorship.
In Spain, the censorship that was adopted earlier this year allows
officials to arbitrarily shut down an Internet site in Spain, or impose
filtering to block access to a site outside of Spain. And they can do
this without any kind of trial. This was one of the motivations for the
Indignados, who have been protesting in the street.
There were protests in the street in Turkey as well, after that
announcement, but the government refused to change its policy.
We must recognize that a country that imposes censorship on the
Internet is not a free country. And is not a legitimate government
Restricted data formats
The next threat to our freedom comes from data formats that restrict
Sometimes it's because the format is secret. There are many
application programs that save the user's data in a secret format, which
is meant to prevent the user from taking that data and using it with
some other program. The goal is to prevent interoperability.
Now, evidently, if a program implements a secret format, that's
because the program is not free software. So this is another kind of
malicious feature. Surveillance is one kind of malicious feature that
you find in some nonfree programs; using secret formats to restrict the
users is another kind of malicious feature that you also find in some
But if you have a free program that handles a certain format,
ipso facto that format is not secret. This kind of malicious
feature can only exist in a nonfree program. Surveillance features,
well, theoretically they could exist in a free program but you don't
find them happening. Because the users would fix it, you see. The users
wouldn't like this, so they would fix it.
In any case, we also find secret data formats in use for publication
of works. You find secret data formats in use for audio, such as music,
for video, for books… And these secret formats are known as
Digital Restrictions Management, or DRM, or digital handcuffs (les
So, the works are published in secret formats so that only
proprietary programs can play them, so that these proprietary programs
can have the malicious feature of restricting the users, stopping them
from doing something that would be natural to do.
And this is used even by public entities to communicate with the
people. For instance Italian public television makes its programs
available on the net in a format called VC-1, which is a standard
supposedly, but it's a secret standard. Now I can't imagine how any
publicly supported entity could justify using a secret format to
communicate with the public. This should be illegal. In fact I think
all use of Digital Restrictions Management should be illegal. No company
should be allowed to do this.
There are also formats that are not secret but almost might as well
be secret, for instance Flash. Flash is not actually secret but Adobe
keeps making new versions, which are different, faster than anyone can
keep up and make free software to play those files; so it has almost
the same effect as being secret.
Then there are the patented formats, such as MP3 for audio. It's bad
to distribute audio in MP3 format. There is free software to handle MP3
format, to play it and to generate it, but because it's patented in many
countries, many distributors of free software don't dare include those
programs; so if they distribute the GNU+Linux system, their system
doesn't include a player for MP3. As a result if anyone distributes some
music in MP3, that's putting pressure on people not to use GNU/Linux.
Sure, if you're an expert you can find a free software and install it,
but there are lots of non experts, and they might see that they
installed a version of GNU/Linux which doesn't have that software, and
it won't play MP3 files, and they think it's the system's fault. They
don't realize it's MP3's fault. But this is the fact.
Therefore, if you want to support freedom, don't distribute MP3
files. That's why I say if you're recording my speech and you want to
distribute copies, don't do it in a patented format such as MPEG-2,
or MPEG-4, or MP3. Use a format friendly to free software, such as the
OGG formats or WebM. And by the way, if you are going to distribute
copies of the recording, please put on it the Creative Commons, No
Derivatives license. This is a statement of my personal views. If it
were a lecture for a course, if it were didactic, then it ought to be
free, but statements of opinion are different.
Software that isn't free
Now this leads me to the next threat which comes from software that
the users don't have control over. In other words, software that isn't
free, that is not libre. In this particular point French
is clearer than English. The English word “free” means
libre and gratuit, but what I mean when I say
“free software” is logiciel libre. I don't mean
gratuit. I'm not talking about price. Price is a side
issue, just a detail, because it doesn't matter ethically. You know, if
I have a copy of a program and I sell it to you for one euro or a
hundred euros, who cares? Right? Why should anyone think that's good or
bad? Or suppose I gave it to you gratuitement…
Still, who cares? But whether this program respects your freedom, that's
So free software is software that respects users' freedom. What does
this mean? Ultimately there are just two possibilities with software:
either the users control the program or the program controls the users.
If the users have certain essential freedoms, then they control
the program, and those freedoms are the criterion for free software. But
if the users don't fully have the essential freedoms, then
the program controls the users. But somebody controls that program and,
through it, has power over the users.
So, a nonfree program is an instrument to give somebody power
over a lot of other people, and this is unjust power that nobody should
ever have. This is why nonfree software (les logiciels privateurs,
qui privent de la liberté), why proprietary software is
an injustice and should not exist; because it leaves the users without
Now, the developer who has control of the program often feels tempted
to introduce malicious features to further exploit or abuse
those users. He feels a temptation because he knows he can get away with
it. Because his program controls the users and the users do not have
control of the program, if he puts in a malicious feature, the users
can't fix it; they can't remove the malicious feature.
I've already told you about two kinds of malicious features:
surveillance features, such as are found in Windows and the iPhone and
Flash player and the Swindle, sort of. And there are also features to
restrict users, which work with secret data formats, and those are found
in Windows, Macintosh, the iPhone, Flash player, the Amazon Swindle,
the Playstation 3 and lots and lots of other programs.
The other kind of malicious feature is the backdoor. That means
something in that program is listening for remote commands and obeying
them, and those commands can mistreat the user. We know of backdoors in
Windows, in the iPhone, in the Amazon Swindle. The Amazon Swindle has
a backdoor that can delete books, remotely delete books. We know this
by observation, because Amazon did it: in 2009 Amazon remotely deleted
thousands of copies of a particular book. Those were authorized copies,
people had obtained them directly from Amazon, and thus Amazon knew
exactly where they were, which is how Amazon knew where to send the
commands to delete those books. You know which book Amazon deleted?
1984 by George Orwell. [laughter] It's a book everyone should
read, because it discusses a totalitarian state that did things like
delete books it didn't like. Everybody should read it, but not on the
Amazon Swindle. [laughter]
Anyway, malicious features are present in the most widely used
nonfree programs, but they are rare in free software, because with free
software the users have control. They can read the source code and they
can change it. So, if there were a malicious feature, somebody would
sooner or later spot it and fix it. This means that somebody who is
considering introducing a malicious feature does not find it so
tempting, because he knows he might get away with it for a while but
somebody will spot it, will fix it, and everybody will loose trust in
the perpetrator. It's not so tempting when you know you're going to
fail. And that's why we find that malicious features are rare in free
software, and common in proprietary software.
The four freedoms of free software
The essential freedoms are four:
- Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program as you wish.
- Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code and change it,
so the program does your computing the way you wish.
- Freedom 2 is the freedom to help others. That's the freedom to
make exact copies and redistribute them when you wish.
- Freedom 3 is the freedom to contribute to your community. That's
the freedom to make copies of your modified versions, if you
have made any, and then distribute them to others when you wish.
These freedoms, in order to be adequate, must apply to all activities
of life. For instance if it says “this is free for academic
use,” it's not free. Because that's too limited. It doesn't apply
to all areas of life. In particular, if a program is free, that means
it can be modified and distributed commercially, because commerce is
an area of life, an activity in life. And this freedom has to apply to
However, it's not obligatory to do any of these things. The point
is you're free to do them if you wish, when you wish. But you never have
to do them. You don't have to do any of them. You don't have to run the
program. You don't have to study or change the source code. You don't
have to make any copies. You don't have to distribute your modified
versions. The point is you should be free to do those things if
Now, freedom number 1, the freedom to study and change the source
code to make the program do your computing as you wish, includes
something that might not be obvious at first. If the program comes in a
product, and the developer can provide an upgrade that will run, then
you have to be able to make your version run in that product. If the
product will only run the developer's versions, and refuses to run
yours, the executable in that product is not free software. Even if it
was compiled from free source code, it's not free because you don't have
the freedom to make the program do your computing the way you wish. So,
freedom 1 has to be real, not just theoretical. It has to include the
freedom to use your version, not just the freedom to make some
source code that won't run.
The GNU Project and the Free Software movement
I launched the Free Software movement in 1983, when I announced
the plan to develop a free software operating system whose name is
GNU. Now GNU, the name GNU, is a joke; because part of the hacker's
spirit is to have fun even when you're doing something very
serious. Now I can't think of anything more seriously important than
But that didn't mean I couldn't give my system a name that's a joke.
So GNU is a joke because it's a recursive acronym, it stands for
“GNU's Not Unix,” so G.N.U.: GNU's Not Unix. So the G in
GNU stands for GNU.
In fact this was a tradition at the time. The tradition was: if
there was an existing program and you wrote something similar to it,
inspired by it, you could give credit by giving your program a name
that's a recursive acronym saying it's not the other one. So I gave
credit to Unix for the technical ideas of Unix, but with the name GNU,
because I decided to make GNU a Unix-like system, with the same
commands, the same system calls, so that it would be compatible, so that
people who used Unix could switch over easily.
But the reason for developing GNU, that was unique. GNU is the
only operating system, as far as I know, ever developed for the
purpose of freedom. Not for technical motivations, not for commercial
motivations. GNU was written for your freedom. Because without
a free operating system, it's impossible to have freedom and use a
computer. And there were none, and I wanted people to have freedom,
so it was up to me to write one.
Nowadays there are millions of users of the GNU operating system and
most of them don't know they are using the GNU operating
system, because there is a widespread practice which is not nice. People
call the system “Linux.” Many do, but some people don't, and
I hope you'll be one of them. Please, since we started this, since we
wrote the biggest piece of the code, please give us equal mention, please
call the system “GNU+Linux,” or “GNU/Linux.”
It's not much to ask.
But there is another reason to do this. It turns out that the person
who wrote Linux, which is one component of the system as we use it
today, he doesn't agree with the Free Software movement. And so if you
call the whole system Linux, in effect you're steering people towards
his ideas, and away from our ideas. Because he's not gonna say to them
that they deserve freedom. He's going to say to them that he likes
convenient, reliable, powerful software. He's going to tell people that
those are the important values.
But if you tell them the system is GNU+Linux—it's the GNU
operating system plus Linux the kernel—then they'll know about us,
and then they might listen to what we say: you deserve freedom. And
since freedom will be lost if we don't defend it—there's always
going to be a Sarkozy to take it away—we need above all to teach
people to demand freedom, to be ready to stand up for their freedom the
next time someone threatens to take it away.
Nowadays, you can tell who doesn't want to discuss these ideas of
freedom because they don't say logiciel libre. They don't
say libre, they say “open source.” That term
was coined by the people like Mr Torvalds who would prefer that these
ethical issues don't get raised. And so the way you can help us raise
them is by saying libre. You know, it's up to you where you
stand, you're free to say what you think. If you agree with them, you
can say open source. If you agree with us, show it, say
Free software and education
The most important point about free software is that schools
must teach exclusively free software. All levels of schools
from kindergarten to university, it's their moral responsibility to
teach only free software in their education, and all other educational
activities as well, including those that say that they're spreading
digital literacy. A lot of those activities teach Windows, which means
they're teaching dependence. To teach people the use of
proprietary software is to teach dependence, and educational activities
must never do that because it's the opposite of their mission.
Educational activities have a social mission to educate good citizens of
a strong, capable, cooperating, independent and free society. And in the
area of computing, that means: teach free software; never teach a
proprietary program because that's inculcating dependence.
Why do you think some proprietary developers offer gratis copies to
schools? They want the schools to make the children dependent. And then,
when they graduate, they're still dependent and, you know, the company
is not going to offer them gratis copies. And some of them get jobs and
go to work for companies. Not many of them anymore, but some of them.
And those companies are not going to be offered gratis copies. Oh no!
The idea is: if the school directs the students down the path of
permanent dependence, they can drag the rest of society with them into
dependence. That's the plan! It's just like giving the school gratis
needles full of addicting drugs, saying: “Inject this into your
students, the first dose is gratis. Once you're dependent, then you have
to pay.” Well, the school would reject the drugs because it isn't
right to teach the students to use addictive drugs, and it's got to
reject the proprietary software also.
Some people say: “Let's have the school teach both proprietary
software and free software, so the students become familiar with
both.” That's like saying: “For the lunch let's give the
kids spinach and tobacco, so that they become accustomed to both.”
No! The schools are only supposed to teach good habits, not bad ones! So
there should be no Windows in a school, no Macintosh, nothing
proprietary in the education.
But also, for the sake of educating the programmers. You see, some
people have a talent for programming. At ten to thirteen years old,
typically, they're fascinated, and if they use a program, they want to
know: “How does it do this?” But when they ask the teacher,
if it's proprietary, the teacher has to say: “I'm sorry, it's a
secret, we can't find out.” Which means education is forbidden. A
proprietary program is the enemy of the spirit of education. It's
knowledge withheld, so it should not be tolerated in a school, even
though there may be plenty of people in the school who don't care about
programming, don't want to learn this. Still, because it's the enemy of
the spirit of education, it shouldn't be there in the school.
But if the program is free, the teacher can explain what he knows,
and then give out copies of the source code, saying: “Read it and
you'll understand everything.” And those who are really
fascinated, they will read it! And this gives them an opportunity to
start to learn how to be good programmers.
To learn to be a good programmer, you'll need to recognize that
certain ways of writing code, even if they make sense to you and they
are correct, they're not good because other people will have trouble
understanding them. Good code is clear code that others will have an
easy time working on when they need to make further changes.
How do you learn to write good clear code? You do it by reading lots
of code, and writing lots of code. Well, only free software offers the
chance to read the code of large programs that we really use. And then
you have to write lots of code, which means you have to write changes
in large programs.
How do you learn to write good code for the large programs? You have
to start small, which does not mean small program, oh no! The
challenges of the code for large programs don't even begin to appear in
small programs. So the way you start small at writing code for large
programs is by writing small changes in large programs. And only free
software gives you the chance to do that.
So, if a school wants to offer the possibility of learning to be a
good programmer, it needs to be a free software school.
But there is an even deeper reason, and that is for the sake of
moral education, education in citizenship. It's not enough for a school
to teach facts and skills, it has to teach the spirit of goodwill, the
habit of helping others. Therefore, every class should have this rule:
“Students, if you bring software to class, you may not keep it for
yourself, you must share copies with the rest of the class, including
the source code in case anyone here wants to learn. Because this class
is a place where we share our knowledge. Therefore, bringing a
proprietary program to class is not permitted.” The school must
follow its own rule to set a good example. Therefore, the school must
bring only free software to class, and share copies, including the
source code, with anyone in the class that wants copies.
Those of you who have a connection with a school, it's your
duty to campaign and pressure that school to move to free software. And
you have to be firm. It may take years, but you can succeed as long
as you never give up. Keep seeking more allies among the students, the
faculty, the staff, the parents, anyone! And always bring it up as an
ethical issue. If someone else wants to sidetrack the discussion into
this practical advantage and this practical disadvantage, which means
they're ignoring the most important question, then you have to say:
“This is not about how to do the best job of educating, this is
about how to do a good education instead of an evil one. It's how to do
education right instead of wrong, not just how to make it a little more
effective, or less.” So don't get distracted with those secondary
issues, and ignore what really matters!
So, moving on to the next menace. There are two issues that arise
from the use of Internet services. One of them is that the server
could abuse your data, and another is that it could take control of
The first issue, people already know about. They are aware that, if
you upload data to an Internet service, there is a question of what it
will do with that data. It might do things that mistreat you. What could
it do? It could lose the data, it could change the data, it could refuse
to let you get the data back. And it could also show the data to someone
else you don't want to show it to. Four different possible things.
Now, here, I'm talking about the data that you knowingly
gave to that site. Of course, many of those services do
surveillance as well.
For instance, consider Facebook. Users send lots of data to Facebook,
and one of the bad things about Facebook is that it shows a lot of that
data to lots of other people, and even if it offers them a setting to
say “no,” that may not really work. After all, if you say
“some other people can see this piece of information,”
one of them might publish it. Now, that's not Facebook's fault,
there is nothing they could do to prevent that, but it ought to warn
people. Instead of saying “mark this as only to your so-called
friends,” it should say “keep in mind that your so-called
friends are not really your friends, and if they want to make trouble
for you, they could publish this.” Every time, it should say that,
if they want to deal with people ethically.
As well as all the data users of Facebook voluntarily give to
Facebook, Facebook is collecting data about people's activities on the
net through various methods of surveillance. But that's the first
menace. For now I am talking about the data that people know
they are giving to these sites.
Now, losing data is something that could always happen by accident.
That possibility is always there, no matter how careful someone is.
Therefore, you need to keep multiple copies of data that matters. If you
do that, then, even if someone decided to delete your data
intentionally, it wouldn't hurt you that much, because you'd have other
copies of it.
So, as long as you are maintaining multiple copies, you don't have
to worry too much about someone's losing your data. What about whether
you can get it back. Well, some services make it possible to get back
all the data that you sent, and some don't. Google services will let the
user get back the data the user has put into them. Facebook, famously,
Of course in the case of Google, this only applies to the data the
user knows Google has. Google does lots of surveillance, too,
and that data is not included. But in any case, if you can get the data
back, then you could track whether they have altered it. And they're not
very likely to start altering people's data if the people can tell. So
maybe we can keep a track on that particular kind of abuse.
But the abuse of showing the data to someone you don't want it to
be shown to is very common and almost impossible for you to prevent,
especially if it's a US company. You see, the most hypocritically named
law in US history, the so-called USA Patriot Act, says that Big
Brother's police can collect just about all the data that companies
maintain about individuals. Not just companies, but other organizations
too, like public libraries. The police can get this massively, without
even going to court. Now, in a country that was founded on an idea of
freedom, there's nothing more unpatriotic than this. But this is what
they did. So you mustn't ever trust any of your data to a US company.
And they say that foreign subsidiaries of US companies are subject to
this as well. So the company you're directly dealing with may be in
Europe, but if it's owned by a US company, you've got the same problem
to deal with.
However, this is mainly of concern when the data you're sending to
the service is not for publication. There are some services where you
publish things. Of course, if you publish something, you know everybody
is gonna be able to see it. So, there is no way they can hurt you by
showing it to somebody who wasn't supposed to see it. There is nobody
who wasn't supposed to see it, if you published it. So in that case the
problem doesn't exist.
So these are four sub-issues of this one threat of abusing our data.
The idea of the Freedom Box project is you have your own server in your
own home, and when you want to do something remotely, you do it with
your own server, and the police have to get a court order in order to
search your server. So you have the same rights this way that you would
have traditionally in the physical world.
The point here and in so many other issues is: as we start doing
things digitally instead of physically, we shouldn't lose any of our
rights; because the general tendency is that we do lose rights.
Basically, Stallman's law says that, in an epoch when governments
work for the mega-corporations instead of reporting to their citizens,
every technological change can be taken advantage of to reduce our
freedom. Because reducing our freedom is what these governments want
to do. So the question is: when do they get an opportunity? Well, any
change that happens for some other reason is a possible opportunity,
and they will take advantage of it if that's their general desire.
But the other issue with Internet services is that they can take
control of your computing, and that's not so commonly known. But it's
becoming more common. There are services that offer to do computing for
you on data supplied by you—things that you should do in your own
computer but they invite you to let somebody else's computer do that
computing work for you. And the result is you lose control over it. It's
just as if you used a nonfree program.
Two different scenarios, but they lead to the same problem. If you
do your computing with a nonfree program… well, the users don't
control the nonfree program, it controls the users, which would include
you. So you've lost control of the computing that's being done. But
if you do your computing in his server… well, the programs that
are doing it are the ones he chose. You can't touch them or see them,
so you have no control over them. He has control over them, maybe.
If they are free software and he installs them, then he has control
over them. But even he might not have control. He might be running a
proprietary program in his server, in which case it's somebody else
who has control of the computing being done in his server. He doesn't
control it and you don't.
But suppose he installs a free program, then he has control over the
computing being done in his computer, but you don't. So, either way,
you don't! So the only way to have control over your computing
is to do it with your copy of a free program.
This practice is called “Software as a Service.” It means
doing your computing with your data in somebody else's server. And
I don't know of anything that can make this acceptable. It's always
something that takes away your freedom, and the only solution I know of
is to refuse. For instance, there are servers that will do translation
or voice recognition, and you are letting them have control over this
computing activity, which we shouldn't ever do.
Of course, we are also giving them data about ourselves which they
shouldn't have. Imagine if you had a conversation with somebody through
a voice-recognition translation system that was Software as as Service
and it's really running on a server belonging to some company. Well,
that company also gets to know what was said in the conversation, and
if it's a US company that means Big Brother also gets to know. This is
Computers for voting
The next threat to our freedom in a digital society is using
computers for voting. You can't trust computers for voting. Whoever
controls the software in those computers has the power to commit
Elections are special, because there's nobody involved that we dare
trust fully. Everybody has to be checked, crosschecked by others, so
that nobody is in a position to falsify the results by himself. Because
if anybody is in a position to do that, he might do it. So our
traditional systems for voting were designed so that nobody was fully
trusted, everybody was being checked by others. So that nobody could
easily commit fraud. But once you introduce a program, this is
How can you tell if a voting machine will honestly count the
votes? You'd have to study the program that's running in it during the
election, which of course nobody can do, and most people wouldn't even
know how to do. But even the experts who might theoretically be capable
of studying the program, they can't do it while people are voting.
They'd have to do it in advance, and then how do they know that the
program they studied is the one that's running while people vote? Maybe
it's been changed.
Now, if this program is proprietary, that means some company
controls it. The election authority can't even tell what that program
is doing. Well, this company then could rig the election. And there
are accusations that this was done in the US within the past ten years,
that election results were falsified this way.
But what if the program is free software? That means the election
authority who owns this voting machine has control over the software in
it, so the election authority could rig the election. You can't trust
them either. You don't dare trust anybody in voting, and the
reason is, there's no way that the voters can verify for themselves that
their votes were correctly counted, nor that false votes were not added.
In other activities of life, you can usually tell if somebody is
trying to cheat you. Consider for instance buying something from a
store. You order something, maybe you give a credit card number. If the
product doesn't come, you can complain and you can… of course if
you've got a good enough memory you'll notice if that product doesn't
come. You're not just giving total blind trust to the store, because you
can check. But in elections you can't check.
I saw once a paper where someone described a theoretical system for
voting which used some sophisticated mathematics so that people could
check that their votes had been counted, even though everybody's vote
was secret, and they could also verify that false votes hadn't been
added. It was very exciting, powerful mathematics; but even if that
mathematics is correct, that doesn't mean the system would be acceptable
to use in practice, because the vulnerabilities of a real system might
be outside of that mathematics. For instance, suppose you're voting over
the Internet and suppose you're using a machine that's a zombie. It
might tell you that the vote was sent for A while actually sending a
vote for B. Who knows whether you'd ever find out? So, in practice the
only way to see if these systems work and are honest is through years,
in fact decades, of trying them and checking in other ways what
I wouldn't want my country to be the pioneer in this. So, use paper
for voting. Make sure there are ballots that can be recounted.
Speaker's note, added subsequently
Remote voting by internet has an inherent social danger, that your
boss might tell you, “I want you to vote for candidate C, and do it
from the computer in my office while I watch you.” He does not need
to say out loud that you might be fired if you do not comply. This
danger is not based on a technical flaw, so it can't be fixed by
fixing the technology.
The war on sharing
The next threat to our freedom in a digital society comes from the
war on sharing.
One of the tremendous benefits of digital technology is that it is
easy to copy published works and share these copies with others. Sharing
is good, and with digital technology, sharing is easy. So, millions of
people share. Those who profit by having power over the distribution
of these works don't want us to share. And since they are businesses,
governments which have betrayed their people and work for the Empire of
mega-corporations try to serve those businesses, they are against their
own people, they are for the businesses, for the publishers.
Well, that's not good. And with the help of these governments,
the companies have been waging war on sharing, and they've
proposed a series of cruel draconian measures. Why do they propose cruel
draconian measures? Because nothing less has a chance of success: when
something is good and easy, people do it, and the only way to stop them
is by being very nasty. So of course, what they propose is nasty, nasty,
and the next one is nastier. So they tried suing teenagers for hundreds
of thousands of dollars. That was pretty nasty. And they tried turning
our technology against us, Digital Restrictions Management that means,
But among the people there were clever programmers too and they found
ways to break the handcuffs. So for instance, DVDs were designed to have
encrypted movies in a secret encryption format, and the idea was that
all the programs to decrypt the video would be proprietary with digital
handcuffs. They would all be designed to restrict the users. And their
scheme worked OK for a while. But some people in Europe figured out the
encryption and they released a free program that could actually play
the video on a DVD.
Well, the movie companies didn't leave it there. They went to the US
congress and bought a law making that software illegal. The United
States invented censorship of software in 1998, with the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). So the distribution of that free
program was forbidden in the United States. Unfortunately it didn't stop
with the United States. The European Union adopted a directive, in 2003
I believe, requiring such laws. The directive only says that commercial
distribution has to be banned, but just about every country in the
European Union has adopted a nastier law. In France, the mere possession
of a copy of that program is an offense punished by imprisonment, thanks
to Sarkozy. I believe that was done by the law DADVSI. I guess he hoped
that with an unpronounceable name, people wouldn't be able to criticize
So, elections are coming. Ask the candidates in the parties: will you
repeal the DADVSI? And if not, don't support them. You mustn't give up
lost moral territory forever. You've got to fight to win it back.
So, we still are fighting against digital handcuffs. The Amazon
Swindle has digital handcuffs to take away the traditional freedoms of
readers to do things such as: give a book to someone else, or lend a
book to someone else. That's a vitally important social act. That is
what builds society among people who read, lending books. Amazon doesn't
want to let people lend books freely. And then there is also selling a
book, perhaps to a used bookstore. You can't do that either.
It looked for a while as if DRM had disappeared on music, but now
they're bringing it back with streaming services such as Spotify. These
services all require proprietary client software, and the reason is
so they can put digital handcuffs on the users. So, reject them! They
already showed quite openly that you can't trust them, because first
they said: “You can listen as much as you like.” And then
they said: “Oh, no! You can only listen a certain number of hours
a month.” The issue is not whether that particular change was good
or bad, just or unjust; the point is, they have the power to impose any
change in policies. So don't let them have that power. You should have
your own copy of any music you want to listen to.
And then came the next assault on our freedom: HADOPI, basically
punishment on accusation. It was started in France but it's been
exported to many other countries. The United States now demand such
unjust policies in its free exploitation treaties. A few months ago,
Colombia adopted such a law under orders from its masters in Washington.
Of course, the ones in Washington are not the real masters, they're just
the ones who control the United States on behalf of the Empire. But
they're the ones who also dictate to Colombia on behalf of the Empire.
In France, since the Constitutional Council objected to explicitly
giving people punishment without trial, they invented a kind of trial
which is not a real trial, it's just a form of a trial, so they can
pretend that people have a trial before they're punished. But
in other countries they don't bother with that, it's explicit punishment
on accusation only. Which means that for the sake of their war on
sharing, they're prepared to abolish the basic principles of justice. It
shows how thoroughly anti-freedom anti-justice they are. These are not
And I'm sure they'll come up with more nasty ideas because they're
paid to defeat the people no matter what it takes. Now, when they do
this, they always say that it's for the sake of the artists, that they
have “protect” the “creators.” Now those are
both propaganda terms. I am convinced that the reason they love the word
“creators” is because it is a comparison with a deity. They
want us to think of artists as super-human, and thus deserving special
privileges and power over us, which is something I disagree with.
In fact though, the only artists that benefit very much from this
system are the big stars. The other artists are getting crushed into the
ground by the heels of these same companies. But they treat the stars
very well, because the stars have a lot of clout. If a star threatens to
move to another company, the company says: “Oh, we'll give you
what you want.” But for any other artist they say: “You
don't matter, we can treat you any way we like.”
So the superstars have been corrupted by the millions of dollars
or euros that they get, to the point where they'll do almost
anything for more money. For instance, J. K. Rowling is a good
example. J. K. Rowling, a few years ago, went to court in Canada and
obtained an order that people who had bought her books must not read
them. She got an order telling people not to read her books!
Here's what happened. A bookstore put the books on display for sale
too early, before the date they were supposed to go on sale. And people
came into the store and said: “Oh, I want that!” And they
bought it and took away their copies. And then, they discovered the
mistake, so they took the copies off of display. But Rowling wanted to
crush any circulation of any information from those books, so she went
to court, and the court ordered those people not to read the books that
they now owned.
In response, I call for a total boycott of Harry Potter. But I don't
say you shouldn't read those books or watch the movies, I only say you
shouldn't buy the books or pay for the movies. [laughter] I leave it to
Rowling to tell people not to read the books. As far as I am concerned,
if you borrow the book and read it, that's OK. [laughter] Just don't
give her any money! But this happened with paper books. The court could
make this order but it couldn't get the books back from the people who
had bought them. Imagine if they were ebooks. Imagine if they were
ebooks on the Swindle. Amazon could send commands to erase them.
So, I don't have much respect for stars who will go to such lengths
for more money. But most artists aren't like that, they never got
enough money to be corrupted. Because the current system of copyright
supports most artists very badly. And so, when these companies demand to
expand the war on sharing, supposedly for the sake of the artists, I'm
against what they want but I would like to support the artists better. I
appreciate their work and I realize if we want them to do more work we
should support them.
Supporting the arts
I have two proposals for how to support artists, methods that are
compatible with sharing, that would allow us to end the war on sharing
and still support artists.
One method uses tax money. We get a certain amount of public funds to
distribute among artists. But, how much should each artist get? Well,
we have to measure popularity. You see, the current system supposedly
supports artists based on their popularity. So I'm saying: let's keep
that, let's continue in this system to support them based on their
popularity. We can measure the popularity of all the artists with some
kind of polling or sampling, so that we don't have to do surveillance.
We can respect people's anonymity.
OK, we get a raw popularity figure for each artist, how do we convert
that into an amount of money? Well, the obvious way is: distribute
the money in proportion to popularity. So if A is a thousand times as
popular as B, A will get a thousand times as much money as B. That's not
efficient distribution of the money. It's not putting the money to good
use. You see, it's easy for a star A to be a thousand times as popular
as a fairly successful artist B. And if we use linear proportion, we'll
give A a thousand times as much money as we give B. And that means that,
either we have to make A tremendously rich, or we are not supporting
Well, the money we use to make A tremendously rich is failing to do
an effective job of supporting the arts; so, it's inefficient. Therefore
I say: let's use the cube root. Cube root looks sort of like this. The
point is: if A is a thousand times as popular as B, with the cube root A
will get ten times as much as B, not a thousand times as much, just ten
times as much. So the use of the cube root shifts a lot of the money
from the stars to the artists of moderate popularity. And that means,
with less money we can adequately support a much larger number of
There are two reasons why this system would use less money than we
pay now. First of all because it would be supporting artists but not
companies, second because it would shift the money from the stars to the
artists of moderate popularity. Now, it would remain the case that the
more popular you are, the more money you get. And so the star A would
still get more than B, but not astronomically more.
That's one method, and because it won't be so much money it doesn't
matter so much how we get the money. It could be from a special tax on
Internet connectivity, it could just be some of the general budget that
gets allocated to this purpose. We won't care because it won't be so
much money, much less than we're paying now.
The other method I've proposed is voluntary payments. Suppose each
player had a button you could use to send one euro. A lot of people
would send it; after all it's not that much money. I think a lot of
you might push that button every day, to give one euro to some artist
who had made a work that you liked. But nothing would demand this, you
wouldn't be required or ordered or pressured to send the money; you
would do it because you felt like it. But there are some people who
wouldn't do it because they're poor and they can't afford to give one
euro. And it's good that they won't give it, we don't have to squeeze
money out of poor people to support the artists. There are enough
non-poor people who'll be happy to do it. Why wouldn't you give one euro
to some artists today, if you appreciated their work? It's too
inconvenient to give it to them. So my proposal is to remove the
inconvenience. If the only reason not to give that euro is you would
have one euro less, you would do it fairly often.
So these are my two proposals for how to support artists, while
encouraging sharing because sharing is good. Let's put an end to the
war on sharing, laws like DADVSI and HADOPI, it's not just the methods
that they propose that are evil, their purpose is evil. That's why they
propose cruel and draconian measures. They're trying to do something
that's nasty by nature. So let's support artists in other ways.
Rights in cyberspace
The last threat to our freedom in digital society is the fact that we
don't have a firm right to do the things we do, in cyberspace. In the
physical world, if you have certain views and you want to give people
copies of a text that defends those views, you're free to do so. You
could even buy a printer to print them, and you're free to hand them out
on the street, or you're free to rent a store and hand them out there.
If you want to collect money to support your cause, you can just have
a can and people could put money into the can. You don't need to get
somebody else's approval or cooperation to do these things.
But, in the Internet, you do need that. For instance if want
to distribute a text on the Internet, you need companies to help you
do it. You can't do it by yourself. So if you want to have a website,
you need the support of an ISP or a hosting company, and you need a
domain name registrar. You need them to continue to let you do what
you're doing. So you're doing it effectively on sufferance, not by
And if you want to receive money, you can't just hold out a can. You
need the cooperation of a payment company. And we saw that this makes
all of our digital activities vulnerable to suppression. We learned this
when the United States government launched a “distributed denial
of service attack” (DDoS) against WikiLeaks. Now I'm making a
bit of joke because the words “distributed denial of service
attack” usually refer to a different kind of attack. But they
fit perfectly with what the United States did. The United States went
to the various kinds of network services that WikiLeaks depended on,
and told them to cut off service to WikiLeaks. And they did!
For instance, WikiLeaks had rented a virtual Amazon server, and the
US government told Amazon: “Cut off service for WikiLeaks.”
And it did, arbitrarily. And then, Amazon had certain domain names such
as wikileaks.org. The US government tried to get all those domains shut
off. But it didn't succeed, some of them were outside its control and
were not shut off.
Then, there were the payment companies. The US went to PayPal and
said: “Stop transferring money to WikiLeaks or we'll make life
difficult for you.” And PayPal shut off payments to WikiLeaks. And
then it went to Visa and Mastercard and got them to shut off payments
to WikiLeaks. Others started collecting money on WikiLeaks' behalf and
their accounts were shut off too. But in this case, maybe something can
be done. There's a company in Iceland which began collecting money on
behalf of WikiLeaks, and so Visa and Mastercard shut off its account;
it couldn't receive money from its customers either. And now, that
business is suing Visa and Mastercard apparently, under European Union
law, because Visa and Mastercard together have a near-monopoly. They're
not allowed to arbitrarily deny service to anyone.
Well, this is an example of how things need to be for all kinds of
services that we use in the Internet. If you rented a store to hand
out statements of what you think, or any other kind of information
that you can lawfully distribute, the landlord couldn't kick you out
just because he didn't like what you were saying. As long as you keep
paying the rent, you have a right to continue in that store for a
certain agreed-on period of time that you signed. So you have some
rights that you can enforce. And they couldn't shut off your telephone
line because the phone company doesn't like what you said, or because
some powerful entity didn't like what you said and threatened the phone
company. No! As long as you pay the bills and obey certain basic rules,
they can't shut off your phone line. This is what it's like to have some
Well, if we move our activities from the physical world to the
virtual world, then either we have the same rights in the virtual world,
or we have been harmed. So, the precarity of all our Internet activities
is the last of the menaces I wanted to mention.
Now I'd like to say that for more information about free software,
look at gnu.org. Also look at fsf.org, which is the website of the Free
Software Foundation. You can go there and find many ways you can help
us, for instance. You can also become a member of the Free Software
Foundation through that site. […] There is also the Free Software
Foundation of Europe fsfe.org. You can join FSF Europe also. […]