Time for Coders to Get Political?

by Glyn Moody

When I interviewed Richard Stallman back in 1999, he had some interesting thoughts on the subject of freedom:

I'm going to keep working on the free software movement, because I don't see who's going to replace me, and I don't see how I could do something more important in some other area. The issues of freedom that everybody's heard of are much more important than this - freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free assembly. The reason I'm not more involved with them is that I don't know what to do about them very effectively.
I help out on the side in various ways with those other issues, in a way that lots of people help out. But I don't know how to do a tremendous amount on those issues, whereas on this particular issue of the freedom to share the things on your computer with other people, there I've been able to do a tremendous amount because I had particular skills that were useful in doing it.

RMS may have felt back then that the best way for him to contribute to freedom was to code, or to encourage others to code, rather than trying to change the world directly, but things have moved on: today, Stallman is becoming something of a political activist. I'm not talking about the Free Software Foundation's "Defective by Design" campaign, however entertaining and successful that has been in terms of raising awareness about the threats posed by DRM (Digital Restrictions Management or Digital Rights Mismanagement as Stallman likes to term it). What I have in mind are two recent meetings in France between RMS and highly-placed politicians there.

Admittedly, Stallman's first attempt was purely a propaganda victory. On 9 June, he led a delegation that tried to visit the French Prime Minister at his official residence, the Hotel Matignon. RMS wanted to discuss the controversial French law called DADVSI - also known as the iTunes law because of its impact on proprietary music formats like that employed by Apple (Wikipedia has a good summary of the complicated evolution and implications of this law). In addition, he planned to present a paper roll containing some 165,000 signatures petitioning against DADVSI.

Despite numerous requests presented through official channels, Stallman was not granted an audience with the French Prime Minister – even though Bill Gates had earlier been received by the French President – prompting RMS to comment: "Gates is the emperor, we are only citizens". When Stallman tried to enter the Hotel Matignon anyway, he was "pushed back" by the chief of security. Since he was also unable to present the petition, he unfurled the scroll in the gutter to demonstrate symbolically the French government's contempt for the people who had signed it.

Stallman's other French connection proved more fruitful. On 28 June, he met up with Ségolène Royal, a Frenchwoman who is turning the world of French politics upside-down. Even though she is not yet officially a candidate, opinion polls show her to be the leading contender for the post of President, which will become vacant next year. If she succeeds, she will be the first female President in the history of France.

The meeting of Royal and Stallman produced a statement summarising their discussions that could have far-reaching consequences if she is elected. Among other things, it proclaimed:

Open standards (like Open Document Format) and the use of free software contribute to the independence, quality and effectiveness of public agencies and local communities. Developments funded by public authorities for their own needs should, as a general rule, be free.
Public authorities in France and Europe should promote a legal framework which favors both freedom to use software and the participation of all users in innovation.
Policies for research and technological innovation in computing could benefit from from using concepts originating from free software.
The education system must teach digital literacy. This education should be based on free software.

As well as advocating free software, it also strongly supported open access – the idea that rather than being locked up in expensive technical journals, scientific papers and their results should be freely available online to everyone:

Beyond software, public authorities must promote "informational public property" in the sciences. They are calling for the implementation of the Berlin declaration and of the recommendations of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) in regards to open access to scientific information.

Finally, it had some strong words on the subject of DRM and the DADVSI law:

By giving a privileged legal status to digital restrictions (DRM), the bill "copyrights and related rights in the information society" (DADVSI) is going in the wrong direction. It will thus be necessary to examine from scratch the legal framework created by the DADVSI law at the French level and to contribute to the development of a European and international legal framework more favorable to the sharing of works and knowledge.

This document is important not only because of the practical implications it could have if Ségolène Royal becomes President next year, but also because it marks an important new phase in Stallman's work. After years of being a voice crying in the wilderness, Stallman has now achieved a political stature that increasingly will grant him access to top politicians around the world. Maybe not all of them, but the more progressive ones who want to understand what technology means for their electorates – and who want to be on the right side of the coming digital revolution driven by free software and open content. As a result, RMS can play an important role by operating within the political process, and with potentially far-reaching results, as the statement with Ségolène Royal suggests.

But this shift also raises a question. Given the high-profile nature of free software today, and the familiarity among politicians, opinion-formers and ordinary members of the public that it has engendered, should other top coders start to exploit their fame and power to engage directly with political movers and shakers? Should they, too, join in the active defense of the free software they have done so much to foster, and of the broader values it implies?

How about it, Linus?

Glyn Moody is author of "Rebel Code: Inside Linux and the Open Source Revolution," and writes about free software and open content at opendotdotdot.

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