Stallman weighs pros and cons of digital inclusion

April 12, 2011, 2:05 a.m.

Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement and the GNU Project, spoke Monday on the benefits and threats of digital inclusion in society.

Stallman defines digital inclusion as the creation of an inclusive information society in which all people have access to information and communication technology.

Stallman weighs pros and cons of digital inclusion
Richard Stallman, leader of the free software movement and the GNU project, spoke Monday on issues related to digital inclusion (JIN ZHU/The Stanford Daily).

“We see a lot of efforts for the sake of digital inclusion which presume that using the Internet is good,” Stallman said. “I don’t necessarily agree.”

Stallman said the Internet is good if it gives practical advantages and bad if it takes away freedoms we would otherwise have. Such threats to our freedom include Internet surveillance and censorship, secret data formats and providing software as a free service, he argued.

In a free society, individuals are not guaranteed anonymity in public, but information is hardly ever collected because it is so diffuse. Electronic surveillance, in contrast, produces compact and convenient databases of information, Stallman said.

Surveillance is already pervasive in digital technology through the widespread use of personal cell phones, electronic toll payments and even certain types of subway tickets. Most if not all of these technologies could relay the same practical advantages they currently do while preserving anonymity. Their implementers, however, prefer to survey people, Stallman said.

“They say surveillance will help catch the standard boogie man, but really, government surveillance is more dangerous,” Stallman said.

According to Stallman, car tracking allowed police to “sabotage a peaceful protest” in the United Kingdom.

“We know police around the world do not respect human rights when protests are against the government,” he said. “We should be concerned over anything that allows police to have more power over dissidents.”

Though the Internet often serves as a symbol for subverting censorship, it is now being used to establish censorship by governments that filter access, close domain names and arbitrarily close websites without a trial, Stallman said.
Another manner in which data inclusion can threaten freedom is by secret or patented data formats. Before the digital age, information was published in unconcealed formats like the book. 

Now, a large amount of audio and video are distributed in a secretive format, such as that used by Hulu. Stallman criticized patented and secretive formats for their restriction of the development of players in a field.

In the same vein, he criticized proprietary software, which is software that users cannot control.

“This is an injustice, because it subjects users to the control of a program which is controlled by someone who has power over the user’s program,” Stallman said.

The opposite option, free software, allows users the freedom to run programs, study and change source codes; redistribute exact copies of a program and distribute copies of modified versions to their community.

By opening the code, free software protects users and non-coding users alike from malicious coding by threatening to expose the developers’ intentions, whereas closed software creates no such safeguards.

Like proprietary code, software as a service threatens freedom by putting information in an outsider’s hands. Software as a service, such as Google Docs, invites users to outsource their data for computing. But now Google has users’ computing and controls it, Stallman said.

“How can you be sure it won’t give that data to Big Brother?” Stallman asked.

Despite Stallman’s critiques of digital inclusion, he observed that one of its greatest benefits is the noncommercial redistribution of exact copies of published works.

“Sharing creates the bonds of society,” Stallman said.

Jonathan Ellithorpe, a doctoral student in electrical engineering, disagreed with Stallman’s views on sharing.

“I think that patent law is very good in that it allows for incubation of ideas; it allows people to develop high levels of ideas before sharing,” Ellithorp said. “Whereas in countries with weak copyright laws, people copy each other all the time and make it hard to reach a high level of product and service development.”

Stallman’s talk was part of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society’s speaker series.

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