Fighting for Cyber and Software Freedom

"What format will the audio be in? See if they can carry it in Ogg," he responds quickly when I ask him for a radio interview during the 10th International Forum on Free Software (FISL) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Ogg Vorbis is the free software audio equivalent of mp3. "That’s the only format you should use if you really want to stand up for freedom," he says.

Stallman takes his activism home, and for good reason. He is the founder of the Free Software movement, and he is up against some big odds, especially now with the Internet under attack.

The 10th International Forum on Free Software

The exhibition hall is packed with booths. The companies are probably unfamiliar to many: Red Hat, Oracle, Insigne, Boo-Box, Khomp, but for the nearly seven thousand participants at this event, these are some of the foremost in the industry. Dozens of software user groups are on one end of the hall; squeezed into tiny round tables and hunched over their laptops. The first free software robot building competition is a few aisles away.

"The truth is that I have found this event to be incredible. It is a huge event. It surprises me to see so many people involved in free software," says José Masson in thick Argentine Spanish. Masson is a member of Gcoop, a seven-person free software cooperative based in Buenos Aires. He’s representing his cooperative at the FISL.

Open Source or Free Software is computer software that is open to be freely used modified, shared, and distributed. It is seen as an alternative to copyrighted software, which must be bought, cannot be copied and may contain features to spy on users, and restrict what can be done without the user’s knowledge.

Hundreds of activities, talks, forums, and meetings took place during the four-day International Free Software Forum in late June. But this year, there was a sense of urgency.

"This is important today, because the Internet, our civil rights, have never been under such an attack as today," said Marcelo Blanco, the founder and organizer of the international conference. "Right now they are looking to regulate the Internet. So regulating the Internet will either lead to the loss of user privacy in order to defend the interests of the copyright industry, or the fight against ‘terrorism’… Or, we are going to guarantee civil rights that prohibit that we get spied on."

Several countries, including New Zealand and France, have already attempted to establish laws that would restrict the ability of Internet users to share content over the web. The United States, the European Union and more than a dozen countries are two years into closed-door negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA. While the content of the agreement is still unknown, Free Software activists fear it could lead to Internet filtering and cyber-searches though what is known as Digital Rights Management (DRM), or as activists call it, "Digital Restrictions Management". Internet service providers would be required to comply by the new laws. Users suspected of sharing copyrighted material could be disconnected from the Internet.

On the second day of the forum, I asked Stallman if they were trying to take us in the direction of a pay per use Internet.

"Not only pay per use Internet, but a pay per use world. They want a pay per read world. They want a pay per listen world, and this is what Digital Restrictions Management is designed to achieve," he said. "I call this the war on sharing. Because it’s waged by governments that are working for the companies that want to keep us divided and helpless."

In response, the theme of this year’s forum is "Freedom." Organizers went out of their way to bring Swedish hacker, Peter Sunde to the event. In April, Sunde and three co-defendants were found guilty for "making copyright content available" through their website Pirate Bay. They were sentenced to a year in prison and $3.5 million in fines.

Critics often write off free software advocates as "pirates" or "criminals", but supporters say they are fighting for freedom.

"Free software gives us individual freedom, social solidarity and democracy, where as a proprietary program is a dictatorship," says Stallman. "The developer has total control and the program functions as an instrument to impose his power on whoever makes the mistake of using it."

From the 1950s through the 1970s- when Stallman got his start at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory-it was common for computer users to share software and code. But when copyright law was extended to computer programs in 1980, everything changed.

"When that community died, I really missed it. I could see my past, living in a free world and the future I saw in front of me with proprietary software, and I realized that I might get to be one of the masters, but that wouldn’t make it acceptable," says Stallman. "So the only thing I could do was fight to restore the lost freedom."

Three years later, he coined the term "free software" and founded the movement that over the last two and a half decades has grown across the planet.

Free software is now showing optimistic resilience in these hard economic times. In late May, The Economist published the article, "Born Free", about the growing opportunities in the free software industry. It pointed to Red Hat, the world’s largest independent free software firm, which grew by nearly 20% in the first quarter of this year alone.

"Free software is the issue of the moment," said Jarbas Lopes Cardoso Junior in the Brazilian government’s Science and Technology booth at the FISL. Cardoso is Cooperation Projects Coordinator of the Brazilian government’s Public Software program. "With the unemployment, with the lack of resources, there are many opportunities, and the Brazilian government has an important contribution to make."

The FISL’s location in Southern Brazil isn’t coincidental. The free software forum began in 2000, the year before the World Social Forum began in Porto Alegre. Under the Worker’s Party government of Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil has embraced free software, installing it in computers across the country.

Free Software has also been growing across the region. Cuba renewed interest after Microsoft blocked the use of Messenger on the island in May. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa recently created an office to move his government to free software.

In the United States, support for free software isn’t as strong as in many Latin American countries, and issues of software and Internet freedom are rarely discussed in the media. Stallman agrees that these may seem like obscure technical subjects until you see their consequences.

"There is a big push to turn our computers into our chains," says Stallman. "Because after all, you know a computer does what people program it to do, but who tells your computer what to do for you. Is it you? Or is it Microsoft, or Apple, or Adobe, or some other nasty company?"

"I don’t know where we are headed, because I can’t see the future, because it depends on you," Stallman continues. "What I see is that if we’re going to keep our freedom, it’s through a fight."

With a smile, Stallman tosses out his customary goodbye before quickly turning back to his tiny silver laptop, and attacking a seemingly endless stream of emails.

"Happy hacking," he says.


Click here to watch a video report on this year’s FISL.  Voting in support of the video report (on the upper right hand side of the screen) will increase its chances of being shown on the Current TV broadcast. 

For more information on Richard Stallman, Free Software and current campaigns for software and Internet freedom, visit his blog, and The Free Software Foundation 

Michael Fox is a South America-based freelance journalist, radio reporter and documentary filmmaker. He is co-director of the recently released documentary, Beyond Elections: Redefining Democracy in the Americas. For more articles, reports or videos, visit his blog.