Fighting a battle when the odds are against you requires a lot of courage and a strong moral conviction. These attributes perhaps best describe Dr Richard M. Stallman (RMS to fellow programmers) for whom computing freedom is non-negotiable. A pioneer in the field of computing, Stallman could see how computing would be used to control its users and he took up the cause of users. In some ways, Stallman’s life and approach can be compared to that of Mahatma Gandhi. While Gandhi fought to free Indians from colonialists, Stallman is on a mission to ensure that users of software are free from the control of providers of software, which in these days, comprise a few mega corporates. If Gandhi’s struggle was for the political freedom of people in the Indian sub-continent, Stallman’s is against colonisation of computer users around the world. Gandhi lived a life of strong values and convictions, which are beyond our grasp. It was Gandhi’s firm conviction that acted as a catalyst in India’s freedom struggle. And so is Dr Stallman’s in the world of computing.
Richard Stallman and his work came to public attention around the mid-1990s. It was the time when Internet was gaining ground across the world. To take advantage of Internet’s possibilities, UNIX-like systems were necessary. GNU/Linux Operating system, which came out of Stallman’s work for a free operating system, became very popular among sophisticated Internet users. So did his message for computing freedom.
Free software began to gain currency across the world, even if only among tech-savvy users and activists at first. In those days, computing happened largely in machines that sat on desktops or in server rooms. We had software to send and receive mails, which we stored in our machines, software to make documents and presentations, which we ran on our own machines. In the early part of 2000, it looked as if computing freedom was eminently achievable. From there, popular computing moved to what Stallman called ‘Stalin’s Dream’.
While the computing power of machines we use every day (be it laptops or mobile phones) has increased dramatically, today we are in a situation where most of our computing happens on the machines of a few large corporates. Our email and office documents are on Google servers. Our communication with friends happens on Facebook. We no longer store email and documents in our own machines. Willingly, we have given up control over our computing. Of course, things are more convenient. But if we didn’t pay for this convenience, who is paying for it? And at what cost does this convenience come? These are some important questions we fail to ask. For the convenience of using mobile technology, we share information about our location with some whom we don’t even know — often governments and large corporations.
The world got its first shock when the Edward Snowden revelations came. News that major leaders of nation states are under surveillance reverberated across the world. For people who were talking about computing freedom, it was not a surprise but just an empirical verification. When technology becomes highly capable, it will be put to nefarious use unless checked by legal and political means.
Political leadership in India did not respond strongly to the revelation that they are being surveilled. It lacked the moral authority to do so. In fact, India has its own surveillance machine to control its population, and is continually expanding it.
The Snowden revelations talked about something that does not touch most of the population directly. Then came reports of outside interference in Brexit and the US election. These showed how vulnerable democracies are to these new technologies and the massive power vested with some of these corporates. It is clear that democracy, an institution through which people exercise power over themselves, is susceptible to corporate and other political interests.
When Ambani talks about India’s data being controlled by Indians, it is not to protect you and me but to protect the interests of Reliance. Because for him, ‘Data is the new oil’. When he tries to whip up nationalistic fervour by invoking Mahatma Gandhi and the colonial struggle, we must take it with a pinch of salt. Replacing Google with Reliance is not a solution; it might be even worse. One might think, “How can I prevent all this? Am I not too small to make a difference?” Stallman reminds us not to fall into this defeatist trap. Such thoughts of helplessness assure failure. Living like Stallman, that is, without using modern technology, can be inconvenient but not impossible. With his life, Stallman is proving the same.
The critical approach that Stallman has towards new technology is relevant in a society that is uncritically accepting of every technology. It is true that technology has helped mankind achieve a lot. Stallman himself contributed immensely to its development. But what is the kind of society we envisage ourselves to be? This question is even more important to us. Critical analysis of technology and democratic control over it are necessary. Technology is political. To posit technology as apolitical is part of a political agenda.
All prophets have a challenge: most people will not understand the prophecy until it is too late and destruction is close. They are like canaries in coal mines. It is up to the larger society to spot the signal or perish. If a critical mass recognises what is at stake (in our case, our cherished institutions like democracy and human rights) corrections can be made. As Stallman pointed out in his recent speeches, humanity is sleeping on the imminent existential threat posed by climate change. No wonder it is taking more time with computing freedom.
(The author is a founding member of Free Software Foundation of India, third chapter of the International Free Software Foundation. He has been working with governments to improve the adoption of Free Software within public institutions. He is now Program Head (Research and Academics), International Centre of Free and Open Source Software)...