Stallman on making technology compatible with a free society

Writing in Wired, Richard Stallman -- founder of the Free Software Foundation, which puts the GNU in GNU/Linux -- writes about the relationship between software freedom and a free society. Proprietary software -- opaque to its users, liable to subversion for the purposes of governments and corporations -- is incompatible with a free, democratic society. The temptation to collect data, and, once collect it, to abuse it, is irresistible for the fallible humans who make up the state. Systems have to be designed to keep their users free and private -- there is no way to make people secure unless their tools are secure, too. Stallman sets out the various forms of surveillance and control, from no-fly lists to web-tracking, and proposes ways to make them safe for a free society.

For the state to find criminals, it needs to be able to investigate specific crimes, or specific suspected planned crimes, under a court order. With the internet, the power to tap phone conversations would naturally extend to the power to tap internet connections. This power is easy to abuse for political reasons, but it is also necessary. Fortunately, this won’t make it possible to find whistleblowers after the fact.

Individuals with special state-granted power, such as police, forfeit their right to privacy and must be monitored. (In fact, police have their own jargon term for perjury, “testilying,” since they do it so frequently, particularly about protesters and photographers.) One city in California that required police to wear video cameras all the time found their use of force fell by 60%. The ACLU is in favor of this.

Corporations are not people, and not entitled to human rights. It is legitimate to require businesses to publish the details of processes that might cause chemical, biological, nuclear, fiscal, computational (e.g., DRM) or political (e.g., lobbying) hazards to society, to whatever level is needed for public well-being. The danger of these operations (consider the BP oil spill, the Fukushima meltdowns, and the 2008 fiscal crisis) dwarfs that of terrorism.

However, journalism must be protected from surveillance even when it is carried out as part of a business.

Stallman: How Much Surveillance Can Democracy Withstand? [Richard Stallman/Wired]