Saturday, March 03, 2012

Facebook is a surveillance engine, not friend: Richard Stallman

"You know about the two rules right for interviewing Richard?" a volunteer asks before leading us to meet Richard Stallman, the man who fights for free software day in and out. One, don't use the term Open Source to mean free software.

Two, don't say Linux but say GNU/Linux. Dr Stallman, who started the Free Software Foundation in 1985 to promote freedom to create, share and modify software, is extremely sensitive to whether the goals of his initiative are rightly communicated.

A computer engineer and self-proclaimed hacker, the 58-year-old Dr Stallman lives the life of an activist. He lives frugally, like a student, he has said once. The philosophy behind the support for free software reflects in other things too.
During this interview, he gave back a Kinley water bottle, because he doesn't consume Coca-Cola bottles for the way it handles labour. Ditto is his feeling about Walmart. He uses the low-profile Lemote Yeeloong computer, browses the Net only once or twice daily and doesn't own a cell phone, because he believes it creates privacy issues.
He's a Green Party supporter. And can cut down to size all the new age iconic business corporations, which he has done in this interview. In fact, in what raised a storm, he re-quoted the famous lines 'I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone,' after the death of Steve Jobs. Excerpts:
How do you see the recent move by Facebook to go for listing?
I don't care about that. Facebook mistreats its users. Facebook is not your friend, it is a surveillance engine. For instance, if you browse the Web and you see a 'like' button in some page or some other site that has been displayed from Facebook.
Therefore, Facebook knows that your machine visited that page. So, Facebook carries out surveillance over visitors to thousands of different Websites, even for people who are not Facebook users. I hope we will have something for free browsers to block Facebook 'like' buttons so that people won't be under surveillance.
In any case, this is why I ask people not to put photographs of me on Facebook, because Facebook collects data about the names of people in photos. It might as well be working directly for Big Brother.
Mark Zuckerberg says the likes of Google and Microsoft are collecting information behind your back.
They all do it in a secret way. Facebook collects a lot of data from people and admits it. And it also collects data which isn't admitted. And Google does too. As for Microsoft, I don't know. But I do know that Windows has features that send data about the user.
Proprietary software tends to have malicious features. The point is with a proprietary program, when the users don't have the source code, we can never tell. So you must consider every proprietary program as potential malware. So to that extent, he's right. But that doesn't make Facebook okay.
A recent book called Master Switch (by Tim Wu) discusses whether the Net could be taken over by a private monopoly in future.
In the US, it almost has been. Because I think there are three major ISPs that are the only ones that most Americans can use. As a result, those three together could shut down almost all the Internet if they want. The further step from three companies controlling most people's access to one company controlling all is a substantial step but most of the way has gone already.
The philosophy of free software is competing with the big proprietary software firms, who can spend a lot.
It's actually the free software itself that opposes them. Competing is too weak a word. This is not a competition for success at all.
As an idea?
The idea that users deserve freedom and should control their computing competes with the idea that people should let companies control them with digital colonisation. But most of the time they don't say it's good to lose your freedom and good to be a victim of digital colonisation. What they do is they distract attention away from it entirely and they ask people to think about other things.
So Microsoft had a slogan, 'Where do you want to go today?' Whereas ours is, 'How do you want to live in five or 10 years?' It's clear that the second question is more important. But Microsoft's goal was simply to get people distracted with something else, so they would never ask themselves the deeper questions.
In your blog, you have also raised questions against
In addition to mistreating its workers, Amazon mistreats its customers. And that's what I focus on. E-books from Amazon and most publishers take away readers' tradition of freedoms. And this is an injustice.
With paper printed books, you have certain freedoms. You can acquire the book anonymously by paying cash, which is the way I always buy books. I never use a credit card. I don't identify to any database when I buy books. Amazon takes away that freedom.
Most books are available for the Amazon Swindle (Stallman's pun on Kindle) only from Amazon and Amazon requires users to identify themselves. So Amazon has a database of all the books each user has read. Such a database is a threat to human rights. It must not be allowed to exist.
There's also a freedom to give the book to someone else or lend the book without telling anyone else. And there's the freedom to sell the book to a used bookstore. Amazon abolishes these freedoms with digital handcuffs. And there's the freedom to keep a book for as long as you wish, which Amazon abolishes with a backdoor in the Swindle.
We know about this backdoor because in 2009 it was observed that Amazon remotely deleted thousands of copies of a particular book. Those were until that day authorised copies. And then they disappeared. And you know which book it was that Amazon showed the Orwellian nature of its product with? It was 1984, by George Orwell! There was a lot of criticism, so Amazon promised it would never do it again unless ordered to do so by the State. That does not make me feel safe.
Do you fear for a time when you won't be able to pay in cash to buy a book?
I am worried about that. But that means I won't get books. There are books available now that I can't get by paying cash. And I don't get them. It's that simple. You have got to be firm when you are standing up for freedom.
If you say I want freedom but if it's inconvenient for me to keep it I will give it up, then you are weak. That means all that the businesses that are working together have to do is set up a situation where you encounter an inconvenience in maintaining your freedom and you give it up.
Surveillance is also one of the reasons why you opposed the ID projects of different countries including India?
Yes, I heard that India has a national population registry which is taking lot of biometrics of people. People in India should organise to fight against and resist the national population registry as well as the ID number. I'm not surprised. What else do you expect governments to do? Governments want total control over people.
Looking back, do you think if the OS was called GNU/Linux, it would have boosted the entire free software community?
The issue is not about boosting the community. It's about teaching people to demand freedom. I started developing the GNU operating system as a means to an end and that end is so that we can have freedom in our computing.
However, it turns out that in order to establish freedom in an everlasting way it is not enough to give people free software. It's not enough to give people freedom if they don't appreciate it. They will have many opportunities to lose it.
So, to establish lasting freedom you need to teach people to value freedom and demand freedom and we try to do that. We in the GNU project, which is the project to develop the GNU operating system, is a part of the free software movement which says we demand that our software be free and we will work hard to escape from proprietary software because we want to have freedom in our computing.
However, there are people in the free software community who don't agree with this. For instance, Torvalds (Linus Torvalds) who wrote the kernel Linux. Well they have a right to their views. They have the right to disagree with us and say so.
But the error of referring to the operating system use as Linux when Linux is just one component of it means that people think that the whole system was started by Torvalds in 1991 rather than by me in 1984. And he tells them I don't think about freedom and that what we need is a powerful, reliable software.
Well he has got rights to state his views and I would be against censoring his views. But people should know that the system that we use, which is basically GNU plus Linux, exists because of the free software movement.
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1 comment:

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