Protocol | Enterprise

Richard Stallman's costly return to the Free Software Foundation

After the nonprofit renamed its founder to a leadership position despite years of complaints about his behavior, board members and contributors are heading for the exits.

Richard Stallman, President of the Free Software Foundation, speaks at an event in Turin in 2015.

Richard Stallman was reinstated as president of the Free Software Foundation.

Photo: Massimiliano Ferraro/Getty Images

The Free Software Foundation's decision to reinstall founder Richard Stallman on its board of directors has thrown the future of a once-vibrant movement for software self-determination into chaos.

Board members, software developers and tech enthusiasts disgusted by decades of Stallman's behavior — until recent years, largely ignored or tolerated by the movement — have distanced themselves from the organization. And in a sign of a worsening institutional crisis, three senior staff members have quit, including executive director John Sullivan.

Stallman, who created the foundation in 1985, announced his return to its board of directors a week ago Sunday during a virtual version of its annual LibrePlanet event. He resigned as president of the board in September 2019 after making comments that appeared sympathetic to pedophilia in defense of the late MIT professor and Jeffrey Epstein associate Marvin Minsky.

Those comments were just the last straw. Software developers and tech professionals said they had witnessed or borne the brunt of withering verbal attacks, sexual harassment and other offensive behavior from Stallman over years at the FSF, the GNU Project and MIT — conduct that long predated his commentary about Minsky.

"He and his followers pushed out a whole generation of female developers, just at that critical time when open source adoption was widening," Sarah Mei, a software architect at Salesforce, wrote on Twitter in 2018.

"Free" software, as defined by Stallman and others in the 1980s, is software that anyone can use, access, modify and redistribute as they see fit so long as they release their modifications to the world. The FSF was formed to manage the GNU Project, a fundamental piece of computing history that served as the blueprint for Linux. It also administers the General Public License, which governs the use of popular projects like Linux, WordPress and MariaDB.

The FSF has been perhaps the most visible ambassador and defender of the ideas and legal wrangling behind free software, and Stallman's return threatens to drain it of financial support for those efforts.

Several board and staff members resigned from the organization even before the FSF broke a week-long social media silence in a tweet late Monday evening that equivocated "misogyny, racism, and other bigotry" with "defamation, intimidation, and unfair attacks on free thought and speech." The statement bore all the hallmarks of Stallman's influence.

His dogmatic control of the direction and even the very definition of free software has divided this community for a long time. He has strong support from a cadre of followers who consider him one of the greatest minds in the history of software, yet faces united opposition from a generation of tech professionals who are no longer willing to overlook a long history of objectionable behavior in service of his ideas.

"[There is] this huge chasm we have not just in free and open-source software, but in all of human culture right now, where we have people who are by the other side vilified as social justice warriors, because they are trying to make life better for others," VM (Vicky) Brasseur, a corporate strategist and former vice president of the Open Source Initiative, told Protocol. "And then you have people who are trying to hang on to this status quo of power and abuse, because I got mine."

'That's how it is'

At the beginning of a previously scheduled LibrePlanet talk on March 21 entitled "Unjust computing clamps down," Stallman — known mostly by his initials, RMS — dropped his bombshell announcement that he was rejoining the foundation board.

"Some of you will be happy at this and some might be disappointed, but who knows? In any case, that's how it is. And I'm not planning to resign a second time," he said.

That out-of-nowhere announcement stunned not only the community, but the organizers of the event: "No LibrePlanet organizers (staff or volunteer), speakers, award winners, exhibitors, or sponsors were made aware of Richard Stallman's announcement until it was public," the FSF wrote in a tweet posted on March 23.

It's not clear how the process unfolded. According to the FSF bylaws, a simple majority vote of the board of directors or the "voting members" is required to approve a new member of the board. The FSF has not commented on how the vote was taken.

Last week, after Stallman unveiled his return to the board, the FSF put out a statement that read in part: "On Wednesday, the FSF board of directors committed to a series of changes related to organizational governance and the appointment of members to its board of directors." The group said it would discuss proposals for board election transparency and making sure current and future board members would be "wise, capable, and committed to the FSF's mission."

That mission appears to be at a crossroads now.

IBM's Red Hat, one of the most prominent supporters of open-source software since it was first conceived, announced Thursday that it would be pulling all support — financial and otherwise — from the FSF. Mozilla, creator of the Firefox browser, signed an open letter calling for Stallman's departure.

Geoffrey Knauth, president of the board of directors of the FSF, announced Thursday that he would be resigning "as soon as there is a clear path for new leadership." When taking the job in August, Knauth made clear references to the chaotic past of the Stallman-led FSF and promised a more transparent and inclusive future.

"We must be kind to each other and respect each other when our good-faith arguments differ, in order to produce the best solutions together. I pledge to support honest dialog and emerging leaders in the quest to secure the future for free software for generations to come, and not to alter the tenets of the free software vision," he wrote at the time. Knauth did not respond to a request for comment after announcing his resignation.

Kat Walsh, a member of the FSF board of directors, stepped down last week, after saying that she voted against Stallman's return. On Sunday, John Sullivan, who led the FSF staff as executive director, also announced that he would be stepping away from the organization "at the end of a transition period."

And as of Tuesday, the biographies on the FSF staff page for John Hsieh, deputy director, and Ruben Rodriguez, chief technology officer, had been updated to list their status as "outgoing."

The FSF did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Protocol over the last week.

It's difficult to imagine that FSF insiders would have been unaware of the reaction that would accompany Stallman's return to the board, especially when that return had been orchestrated in private.

"After years of conversing with RMS about how his non-software-freedom views were a distraction, an indulgence, and downright problematic, his general response was to make even more public comments of this nature," Bradley Kuhn, a longtime member of the FSF board, wrote in 2019, a month after Stallman's resignation. "It really doesn't matter what your view about the controversial issue is; a leader who refuses to stop talking loudly about unrelated issues eventually creates an untenable distraction from the radical activism you're actively trying to advance."

That post, published two days after Kuhn stepped down from his FSF positions, contained links to 21 instances of Stallman commenting on matters including rape, child sexual abuse and the supposed overreach of the #MeToo movement over several years on a personal blog. Kuhn, now a policy fellow with the Software Freedom Conservancy, declined to comment to Protocol beyond the post.

After absorbing a week of feedback about its decision, the FSF board — which would appear to be entirely controlled by Stallman after several resignations — issued a new statement Tuesday morning digging in.

"We would like to thank the numerous friends across the free software movement who have recently joined as well as those who have have [sic] left and provided suggestions for helping us through this difficult time," the board said in the statement.

The cost of freedom

The ideas behind free software, bold at the time, inspired a generation of developers to create software that others could adopt and use as a springboard for their own ideas. Some of the largest for-profit software companies in the world now embrace facets of that philosophy.

And in an era where software is moving further and further into our lives every year, there are a lot of people who think users should have more control over that software, or at least know more about what it is doing.

"What would it mean to build computing systems that have privacy baked in?" said Luis Villa, co-founder and general counsel of Tidelift. "What if we had more portability of our identities?" He suggested that a lot of concerns about, for instance, Facebook would look very different in a world organized around software that has much less to hide.

One of the first examples of free software was the GNU Project, created by Stallman in 1983. The goal was to create a "free" version of the ground-breaking Unix server operating system that allowed developers to tinker with the source code to suit their needs.

Those efforts led to the creation of the GPL, one of Stallman's most visible and important contributions to tech. The GPL introduced the concept of the "copyleft" license to software, which mandated that any changes made to software covered by the GPL must be released to the public under those same licensing terms.

This absolutist stance is somewhat incompatible with the role that software plays in the modern economy, but open-source software — more or less the same idea — is the backbone of modern enterprise tech. The main difference is that popular open-source software licenses, such as the widely used Apache 2.0 license, don't require the release of any changes to the public, although it's considered good citizenship to contribute at least some code back to a project.

Stallman, however, casts the divide in moral terms, and encourages followers to adopt the same stance.

"The main initial motivation of those who split off the open source camp from the free software movement was that the ethical ideas of 'free software' made some people uneasy," he wrote. "That's true: raising ethical issues such as freedom, talking about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might prefer to ignore, such as whether their conduct is ethical."

But as software grew to dominate almost every aspect of the economy and our lives, what was once a brave political stance built around "freedom" can appear quaint in 2021. Most people using software today don't want to tinker with the source code of the operating systems and applications that they use. They might want to know more about what it is doing, but they primarily want that software to be stable and secure, which by definition requires limits and restrictions that free software purists are unwilling to accept.

"These are people who are so invested in their cultish conspiracy theories that they literally have no idea how software works today," wrote Robert Lefkowitz, former chief software architect for Warby Parker, now retired. "The funniest part of the recent Stallman announcement about his return to the FSF board was the admission that they couldn't figure out how to make a video of the announcement and distribute it," presumably because the purists involved in the announcement insisted on using notoriously buggy free software applications.

Our software, ourselves

Lefkowitz titled his essay "Free Software: An Idea Whose Time Has Passed," but there are still many who believe in the ideals of free software and feel there has never been a better time to advance the concept.

For Karen Sandler, executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy, free software isn't just a lofty goal. Sandler has a heart condition that requires her to use a pacemaker. When she became pregnant, that device treated small heart palpitations — common during pregnancy — as a dangerous condition. The pacemaker literally shocked her, "and the only way to stop it was to take drugs," she told Protocol.

As a software engineer turned lawyer, Sandler really wanted to examine the code that was putting her through this nightmare, but that freedom was not available to her.

"The technology we rely on may not have anticipated our use case through no ill will of the manufacturers," said Sandler. "And so it's really important that we as a society are in control of our software and our technology in general, because if we don't have control over that software, we know that there will be vulnerabilities, exploits and just oversights."

Last year Sandler and Molly de Blanc, manager of strategic initiatives at the Gnome Foundation, released a "Declaration of Digital Autonomy," a call for "a world in which technology is created to protect and empower the people who use it." They hope more people will learn why some degree of software freedom is important, and hope to convince companies to adopt software freedom principles — principles that might differ from the strict definition espoused by the FSF — when building their products and services.

"I think many technologists don't realize the amount of power they have and the kind of sway that they can have in their organizations and companies that are making decisions that make them feel powerless," de Blanc said.

The Software Freedom Conservancy is likely the most established alternative to the FSF, which is not exactly a giant itself. In 2019 the FSF recorded a little more than $2 million in revenue, with about two-thirds of that amount coming from contributions, while the SFC reported $2.7 million in revenue in 2017, according to tax forms filed by the nonprofits.

With Stallman's return prompting the departure of several key leaders, he appears to be in effective control of the Free Software Foundation again. Thousands of prominent developers and tech professionals have expressed their unwillingness over the last week to associate with an organization that would return Stallman to a leadership position.

"RMS failed to grow as the movement grew. And has been an anchor dragging the project ever since," Miguel de Icaza, distinguished engineer at Microsoft and longtime open-source community leader, said on Twitter.

After the individual and corporate reaction to the last week of decisions made by the FSF, It's hard to see a path forward for the organization with Stallman on the board. It's one more absolutist move for the legendarily stubborn Stallman, one that suggests he'd rather have a free software movement without a future than a movement whose future doesn't include him.

Correction: This story was updated on March 30, 2021, to include the most recent financial data for the Software Freedom Conservancy.

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