Freedom is Free!

When you do things for free, or ask very little in return, it’s very easy to get taken for granted. GNU is such a thing, and I wanted to take a moment to say something.

Pretty much everyone has heard of Free Software, or Open Source Software by now. If you use a computer, particularly for the Internet, it is nearly a certainty you are relying on Free Software at many levels. For example, most websites are served by the Apache Web Server, which was created and is maintained by the Apache Foundation along with many other technologies. Back in 1995, most websites were served by a web server developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. When the author of the NCSA web server, Rob McCool, left NCSA, development of the web server software stopped. The Apache project came into being from a group of webmasters who wanted to continue developing the software into something ever more powerful and useful. Now, for over a decade, the Apache HTTP server has set the bar for all other web servers.

There are many other free technologies we take for granted, too. The Internet domain name system, for example, that translates the names you type into your browsers and email clients into IP addresses. Or NTP (Network Time Protocol) that keeps computer clocks synchronized across the world. Even such things as LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) that companies like Microsoft have taken, twisted and made their own within their closed Active Directory systems. And, of course, the Linux kernel.

Interestingly, Linux was just emerging into something useful to more people than specialized hobbyists around the same time Apache began. But even a decade before this, Richard Stallman of MIT had a radical idea: he believed that software should be free. And by “free”, Richard meant free, as in free speech, unshackled by any rule of tyranny, and meant for everyone.

That was almost 25 years ago. In fact, the birthday of the GNU Project is coming up in just a couple days, on the 20th. Steven Fry, which surprised me, has some wonderful words to say about GNU software, and free software in general, in a short video statement he gave for the anniversary. Nobody seems to appreciate the truly profound revolution that Richard Stallman started all those years ago. But this man, with his keen technical skills, his highly developed sense of ethics, his humility, and his generosity, fundamentally re-wrote the very fabric of the information revolution. If I have a modern day hero, Richard Stallman, that kind and insightful lunatic, is the man.

When Richard broke with “just the way things are”, software was locked into monolithic entities and controlled by the few. In his words:

The modern computers of the era, such as the VAX or the 68020, had their own operating systems, but none of them were free software: you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement even to get an executable copy.

This meant that the first step in using a computer was to promise not to help your neighbor. A cooperating community was forbidden. The rule made by the owners of proprietary software was, “If you share with your neighbor, you are a pirate. If you want any changes, beg us to make them.”

The choice for Richard became a moral, or rather ethical one. In 1984 he quit his position at MIT so he would be free of any interference and wrote a C compiler that he released to the world. This was the genesis of the Free Software movement, and continues to the be a fundamental basis. Over a decade later, Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel under the GNU public software license. By this time, the cooperative software development paradigm, founded upon sharing, openness and mutuality was beginning to pick up some serious momentum. By combining the Linux kernel with the GNU operating system, people had, at last, totally free and open use and control of their own computer systems.

Today, as the efforts of developers across the world continue to make and improve upon their proud and beautiful creations, a growing number of people are turning to Free and Open Software for their daily computing needs. Some do it because free is a good price, while others do it because free means freedom, in every sense of the word.

As a testament to the power and profundity of what Richard has accomplished, all we need to do is look at the pathologically closed, dark and nefarious world of intelligence agencies. The ranks of their own people are now speaking of “Open Source Intelligence”, which is a movement to bring as much light as possible into what is hidden and closed from us.

All of us owe a great debt to Richard Stallman, and also to the people ceaselessly working on the GNU projects, the crazed and bickering little geniuses who continue proudly enhancing the Linux kernel, and all the thousands of other projects that have made the Internet into the whacky and wonderful thing it is today.

The number of websites and programs written from Free Software are too numerous to count. The fastest computers in the world, manufactured by IBM, are now powered by Free Software. Even your TiVo, a happy part of your daily life, runs on Free Software. And Apple Macs running OSX? Well, that’s FreeBSD Unix.

So here’s a toast to Richard Stallman, and the GNU Foundation, for their 25th birthday. And another toast to all you hackers out there making the best software humankind can make. And a toast to you, too, you nitpicky, set-in-your-way end users. Because we care about you, and want to make you happy. And we want you to be free. Just because you ought to be.

Addendum: More information on Free Software and its struggles to maintain its freedom can be found in a subsequent post.

Comic courtesy of xkcd.com