Governments must abandon proprietary software: Stallman

Governments should be required to abandon proprietary software if they are to properly serve their citizens, according to Free Software Movement advocate and GNU Free Software operating system developer, Richard Stallman.

Speaking to Computerworld Australia ahead of a speech to the Australian National University on the Free Software Movement, Stallman said free software – in the context of the ability to run, study, change and redistribute at the user’s discretion – was essential to governments retaining control over their computing.

“Government agencies must be required to use exclusively free software – with a transition period," he said. "The reason for this is that using free software means having control of you computing. Using proprietary software is losing control over your computing.

“If you or I lose control over our computing, that is a misfortune. If a government loses control over its computing, then that is much worse than a misfortune; that is a dereliction.

“Government agencies don’t do computing as part of their own pleasure... they do it as part of their responsibility to the public. They have a responsibility to retain control over [computing] through not using proprietary software and letting that control fall into someone else’s hands.”

Stallman, who launched the development of the GNU operating system in 1984, also argued that, where governments funded the development of software, they should be delivered as free software and able to run on free platforms.

“The contracts should require that the solution not create an obstacle to the removal of proprietary software for agencies that use it,” he said. “When governments distribute software to the public… it should be entirely free software. When governments buy computers… they should also not be barriers to the adoption of free software.

The Attorney-General's Department last week updated its intellectual property principles to mandate that all ICT procurement negotiations with government negotiations default to a position where the software developer retains IP rights. Under the principles, however, the developer is required to provide a perpetual and irrevocable, royalty-free licence to the government for redistribution to other agencies where appropriate.

“Schools should teach exclusively free software as schools have a social mission to educate good citizens of a strong, capable, cooperating, independent and free society," Stallman said. "In the computing field that means teaching people to be free software users.”

Despite perceptions of free software being difficult to use a move toward free software would not require users, agencies and institutions to dramatically upskill themselves, Stallman said.

“Just to pick one example, the GNU/Linux system, which is used by millions of people and nowadays has convenient graphical interfaces… it is not hard to use,” he said.

“There are lots people who do not know how to program and are not wizards at all, but they use GNU/Linux. There is no reason at all that free software should be harder to use [than proprietary software].”

By way of example, Stallman cited the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) platform which uses GNU/Linux with a user interface level – Sugar – designed for use by children and students in the state of Kerala, India.

Proprietary Malware

Stallman went on to argue that much of the currently available proprietary software – in particular operating systems such as Microsoft’s Windows, Apple’s Mac OS X, iPhone and iPad – were effectively malware.

“[Windows] has known spyware features, it is designed as a platform for digital restrictions management – ‘DRM’ – and not only that there are known backdoors in Windows: Microsoft can forcibly install software changes without asking permission. This is malware and is as nasty as a virus.

“The ‘iMoan’ and ‘iBad’… they have nastier digital restrictions management — Apple has gone so far as to seize control over the freedom to install an application,” he said. “I am told that while users have found ways to break these restrictions, Apple is constantly finding ways to regain control… Apple can remotely delete applications.”

Stallman also claimed Adobe’s Flash player was also malware as it had DRM and a surveillance feature where one site was able to write data into the Flash Player and another site could interrogate the Flash Player thus enabling sites to cross-identify a user.

“These features are not accidents or bugs or mistakes… None of these things were put in by mistake,” he said. “They are feature which were intentionally designed into the software.”

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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