On Thursday, February 20th, HuffPost Code hosted Dr. Richard Stallman in collaboration with The New York Tech Meetup and Cooper Union. Stallman is the President of the Free Software Foundation and creator of The GNU operating system.
The event began at 7:00 pm when Stallman took the stage, declining to wait for an introduction. His speech, entitled “A Free Digital Society”, detailed 10 threats to our freedom. The talk commenced with the topic of surveillance, which prompted Stallman to attack companies like Facebook and Google as well as the State. He cited Apples’ microphones which can be activated remotely, the US government’s vulnerable voting system and the video cameras in every New York Taxi that send images to the “Thug Department” as being particularly egregious examples. Stallman continued to denounce large tech companies and the government throughout his two-and-a-half hour speech.
The talk was focused on Free Software. Stallman’s primary goal is to promote the use of Free Software to save democracy. In this context, Free refers to Liberty, not price. Stallman said, “The user controls the program or the program controls the user.” In the interest of freedom, Stallman encouraged the crowd to reject the use of mobile phones, run Free operating systems like GNU/Linux and refrain from accessing websites and media that require the use of proprietary software or may contain malware.
Stallman suggested a few solutions to address the threats facing society. For instance, Free Software may alleviate individual threats to freedom, but how are those that contribute to Free Software compensated? Stallman proposed an anonymous cash “tipping” system to generate small payments to websites when they’re visited. However, this solution is far from viable because there is no truly anonymous cryptocurrency to enable these payments. Stallman placed minimal emphasis on his own solutions, citing his belief that the government is responsible for providing people with decent lives, especially since jobs are being eliminated.
Throughout the talk, Stallman helped lighten the mood with a barrage of clever puns and amusing anecdotes. While explaining his feelings about Open Source Software, he lamented how he is often called the Father of Open Source even though he fundamentally disagrees with the movement. He said,
“If I’m the Father of Open Source, it was conceived through artificial insemination using stolen sperm without my knowledge or consent.”
There were over 700 people in attendance, and for many it was their first time hearing Stallman speak. The Meetup group had mixed reviews; there’s no denying Stallman’s contributions to technology, but it is challenging to sit through one of his speeches. He does not use any visual aids, he can be harsh when answering questions and he refuses to shorten his speech or stop for any reason, even if the crowd thins. He is unapologetically focused on delivering his message. Ryan VG, one of the attendees, posted his thoughts on the NY Tech Meetup page,
“In a culture of overtly positive and inspirational talks, Stallman’s perspective was refreshingly absent of bravado and brought an extremely relevant and timely perspective on our rights in a digital society.”
During the Q&A session, an audience member praised Stallman’s efforts and told him that he helped technology to evolve. Stallman quickly replied, “I’m trying to give people freedom and if I have any effect on the evolution of computing, that’s a byproduct.”
HuffPost Code is committed to covering this continued dialogue. To register for updates on the next event, visit code.huffingtonpost.com.