Speech on Free Software and the West Bengal Government

Transcript of a speech that was given in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in August, 2006.

There are a number of reasons why I'm not a communist. The first of them is that I'm not against the idea of private business, as long as it does not oppose people's human rights and the interests of society. Business is legitimate as long as it treats the rest of society decently.

Computing is a new area of human life. So we have to think about the human rights associated with this. What are the human rights software users are entitled to? Four freedoms define free software. A program is free software for a user if:

  • Freedom 0: Run the software as you wish.
  • Freedom 1: Share the source code and change it.
  • Freedom 2: Help your neighbour and distribute and publish.
  • Freedom 3: Help your community and distribute your modified versions.

With these four freedoms, you can live an upright life with your community. If you use nonfree, proprietary software, the developer has the power to decide what you can do. He can use that power over you. Like Microsoft. That game is evil. Nobody should play it. So it's not a question of beating Microsoft at its game. I set out to get away from that game.

Once GNU/Linux was ready in 1992, it began to catch on. It was reliable, powerful, cheap and flexible. Thousands and millions of people began to use GNU/Linux. But the ideals of freedom began to be forgotten though. In 1998, people stopped talking about free software. Instead they said “open source.” That was a way of not saying “free” and not mentioning the ideas behind it. I don't disagree with that, but that's not what I am interested in. What I'm really interested in most of all is to teach people to value their freedoms and to fight for them. In software, as in the US, our freedom is threatened. So the basic things we need to do are: remember our freedom frequently, value it and insist on it. When someone says they protect me from terrorism by taking away my freedom—say No! Similarly, with software that threatens our freedom, that might give us some temporary comparative advantage—we should say No!

West Bengal should not follow the world trend. It should stand up for freedom. That's different. No! I'm not going to let the world lead me where it wants to go. I'm going where freedom is. If you're going elsewhere—I'm not going there. It requires firmness, it requires a decision that says freedom matters and hence it must be promoted. Even if that's inconvenient. Freedom needs some sacrifices, some inconvenience, some price. But it's a small price to pay.

By globalization, people usually mean globalization of the power of business. Business should not have political power. Otherwise democracy becomes sick. And with globalization of business power, this political power is enhanced. Free trade treaties are designed to attack democracy. For instance, it explicitly allows any business to sue government if a law makes its profit less than it has been. Companies have to be paid for the permission to do anything of social or environmental importance. Not all free trade treaties do this explicitly. They do it implicitly. Companies can threaten to move away elsewhere. And they do use this threat. This actually happened some years ago, with the EU software patents. The government of Denmark was threatened that if they did not support this the company would move the business elsewhere. This tiny threat was sufficient to blackmail the government of Denmark. If you allow a foreign mega-corporation to buy a domestic corporation, you are allowing it to buy a weapon pointed against your country. The environment, public health, general standards of living, are all important, and free trade treaties should be abolished. They are harmful to freedom, health and the lives of people.

I do not accept the term “intellectual property.” The very term is biased and confusing. It talks about useful techniques and works. It presumes they are “property.” It prejudges such questions. There's also a more subtle problem. It lumps together all the diverse things and makes it look like you can talk about all of them together. Copyright, patents, trade laws, are all very different. It takes the greatest efforts of the best scholars to overcome the confusion caused by the term “intellectual property” and to discuss the details of these individual items. The GATT Treaty and the TRIPS—actually it should be called Trade-related Impediments to Education and Science. Free trade and enhancement of world trade harms democracy. When you globalize something evil, it becomes a greater evil. And when you globalize something good, it becomes a greater good. Human knowledge and cooperation are such “goods.” The free software movement is a part of that. It is the globalization of one area of human knowledge, namely software. Through global cooperation like this, you get freedom and independence for every region and every country.

Proprietary software is a colonial system. It's electronic colonialism. And not by a country, but by a corporation. Electronic colonial powers keep people divided and helpless. Look at the end-user licensing agreement. You don't have the source code, you are helpless. You can't share, and so you are kept divided. National colonial powers recruit local elites and pay them and keep them above the rest of the people, working for the colonial masters. Today we see electronic colonial powers recruit native zamindars to keep the system intact. Microsoft sets up a research facility and in exchange it keeps its grip firmly on everyone else. Govts and schools are in their grip. They know how to do this. They know how to buy govt support. But what's the govt buying? Dependency, not development. Only Free Software constitutes development. It enables any activity to be fully under the control of the people doing it. Free software is appropriate technology. Proprietary software is not appropriate for any use.

The West Bengal government has an opportunity to adopt a policy of firm leadership in this regard. This will give a boost to human resource development. Free software respects people's freedom. Government has an influence on the future of society. Choosing which software to teach students: if you teach them Windows, they will be Windows users. For something else, they need to learn, and make the effort to learn something else. Microsoft knows this. So it donates Windows to schools. Addiction (through using unauthorised software use) only helps them. They didn't want to leave anything to choice, so they give Windows free to schools. Like injecting a dose. The first dose is gratis. Afterwards it's not gratis, either for them or their employers. This is a way to impose their power on the rest of society and its future. Schools have a mission to society. This mission requires teaching students to live in freedom, teaching skills to make it easy to live in freedom. This means using free software.

Free software is good for computer science education, to maximise the potential of natural programmers. It gives students the opportunity to really learn. It's good for the natural programmers. If you have proprietary software, the teacher says “I don't know. You are not allowed to know, it's a secret.” So the alternative is to give him the source codes and let him read it all. They will then learn to be really good programmers. But the most crucial reason is for the sake of moral education. Teaching them to be good corporations and benevolent, helpful citizens. This has to be taught. School has to teach by example. If you bring software to class, you must share this with other kids. Or don't bring it. Schools must follow their own rule, by bringing free software to class. Schools should use 100% free software. No proprietary software should be used in schools. Public agencies, after a migration period, should use free software. All software development must run on free software platforms. And if it's released to the public, it must be free software. (Free: as in free speech, not free beer.)

One easy and useful way to put free software in schools—is to participate in the “One Laptop per Child” program. India recently pulled out of this program, I'm told. I'm told the Indian governmentt is making lots of laws to make multinational corporations happy. Maybe this was to make Microsoft happy. Even if India is not, West Bengal can participate in the One Laptop per child program. I can put them in touch with the people developing that machine.

The Government of India is considering a vicious new copyright law, imitating US law, in favour of large businesses, and against its citizens. The only emergency I can see that requires this being rushed through is catastrophic shortfall in the dream profits of some businesses! Foreigners should not have political power. In my case, I don't.