Keep control of your computing, so it doesn't control you!
by Richard Stallman
First published in Der Spiegel Online
The World Wide Web, developed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 as a system
for publishing and viewing information, is slowly being transformed
into a system of remote computing. It will store your data, and data
about you, often limiting your access to it but allowing FBI access at
any time. It will do your computing for you, but you cannot control
what it does. It provides various tempting attractions, but you must
In the 1980s, most people did not use computers; those who did, mostly
used personal computers or timesharing services. Both allowed you to
install software of your choice. Both allowed you full control over
your data, though it is not clear what access the timesharing services
gave to the FBI. In any case, the timesharing services mostly
faded away by the 90s.
This does not mean that these users had control of their computing.
With software, either the users control the program (free software) or
the program controls the users (proprietary or nonfree software).
Those users were running proprietary software because that's all there
was at the time. The users could not change it, or even tell what it
The abusiveness of proprietary software has intensified since then;
nowadays, it is likely to spy on you, intentionally restrict you,
and/or have back doors. (Windows is known to do all three; likewise
the iPhone and the Kindle.) But even absent such abuse, it wasn't
right for users to be controlled by their software.
That's why I launched the free software movement in 1983. We decided
to develop an operating system and applications that would be entirely
free (libre, freie), so that the users would have control over them.
I gave this system the name GNU. (You have probably heard people call
it “Linux”, but that's an error.) People who switch to this system,
and insist on using only free software, are in a position to control
their computing. We have liberated only a small part of cyberspace,
as yet, but that is a foothold for freedom.
Developments in the Web threaten to negate this achievement. The
first problem was the use of invisible references to sites whose
mission was surveillance (perhaps for advertising). Users who visited
sites A, B, X and Z did not realize that those pages contained
invisible references to iamwatchingyou.com, so each visit informed
that site too, and it recorded permanently that this user had visited
things such as unusual-looking menus, its capabilities have been
extended to the point where it can do nontrivial computing. Services
browser. Even though they run in your computer, you have no control
over what they do there.
Then there is the issue of storing your data in companies' servers.
The largest such companies have little respect for users' privacy.
For instance, if you hand your data to Facebook, companies pay
Facebook (not you) for the use of it. They pay Facebook (not you) to
run ads using your face.
The timesharing companies of the 1980s had usually treated their
users' data with respect, even though they could occasionally abuse
them, because their users were paying clients and could go elsewhere.
Facebook's users do not pay, so they are not its clients. They are
its merchandise, to be sold to other businesses. If the company is in
the US, or is a subsidiary of a US company, the FBI can collect this
data at whim without even a court order under an un-American US law,
named in purest blackwhiting the “Patriot Act”.
Services also offer to operate on the users data. In effect, this
means that users do their computing on the servers, and the servers
take complete control of that computing.
There is a systematic marketing campaign to drive users to entrusting
their computing and their data to companies they have absolutely no
reason to trust. Its buzzword is “cloud computing”, a term used for
so many different computing structures that its only real meaning is,
“Do it without thinking about what you're doing”.
There is even a product, Google ChromeOS, designed so that it can only
store data remotely, and the user must do her computing remotely.
Ironically, it is free software, a version of GNU/Linux. Users will
have access to the source code, and could change it so as to support
local computing and local data storage—if the machine has enough
memory to store it, and if it permits users to install their own
versions of the software. If Android phones are any guide, most
ChromeOS devices will be designed to prevent users from doing that.
This does not mean Internet users can't have privacy. This does not
mean that Internet users can't have control of their computing. It
does mean that you'll have to swim against the current to have them.