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Monday, February 13, 2012

Free software and basic freedom

Specifically mentioned alongside his few contact details is a request to use free telephony. A request for Skype ID is met with a remark, ‘That is non-free (freedom-denying) software.' For this campaigner of freedom since 1983, computing with freedom is a political, ethical and moral choice that every one needs to make, keeping in mind the fact that it affects the community.

One of Richard Stallman's most famous interventions in free software was the GNU General Public Licence (GPL), which he devised around 1985 as a general licence applicable to any program. The licence codifies the concept of “copyleft,” the central idea of which gives “everyone permission to run the program, copy the program, modify the program and distribute modified versions, but not permission to add restrictions of their own.”

Mr. Stallman was recently in India to promote the use of free software.

Besides campaigning against restrictive and surveillance features of proprietary software companies, the Free Software Foundation, launched by Mr. Stallman, provides a repository of information on free applications in various fields. For instance, in music, it offers details of online music stores that provide “Internet music without the guilt” and a variety of audio books without digital restrictions or formats exclusivity. Mr. Stallman himself uses a netbook that runs with 100 per cent free software even at the BIOS level.

And this has considerable implications in newly emerging technology such as smartphones. While quite a few people believe that Android OS is free software because of its use of the Linux kernel, Mr. Stallman is firm that it is not. “The executables in Android cannot be modified by the user but only by the manufacturer despite the fact that the source code is open,” he says. “So, you access the source code and write your version but the device will not support it. This goes against the freedom to run your own version. Just the source code being open is only theoretical freedom,” he adds.

A lot of work in creating free alternatives is on, he points out, including Replicant. “One problem with a lot of proprietary software is the problem of digital surveillance. Your own computer can be turned against you, and this is possible because proprietary software have intrusive features,” Mr. Stallman says.

The free software movement, on the other hand, works towards software programmes that can be controlled by the users individually and collectively, he points out. And clearly, this can be used to counter surveillance. For instance, one of the projects on the anvil is a browser add-on that will block the appearance of Facebook ‘like' buttons in other websites. This is important because such buttons offer social networking sites a chance to monitor user behaviour even when the user is not logged into the social networking site, he says.

The Hindu

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