What Have You Done for Freedom Today?

by Sam Williams, author of Free as in Freedom

SAN DIEGO -- Open Source Convention attendees expecting a heartwarming tribute to community spirit and community activism were in for a rude awakening during the Wednesday morning keynote session.

In what might be considered the software activism equivalent of Monterey 1967: Stanford Law School professor and best-selling author Lawrence Lessig opened for Free Software Foundation president Richard Stallman in a series of back-to-back keynotes which, when you filtered out the sharply contrasting styles of the individual speakers, centered on the exact same political message: "What have you done for freedom today?"

"Never in our history have fewer people controlled more of the evolution of our culture," said Lessig, launching into a brisk polemic, "Presumptively, everything you do on your machine or over the Internet has become regulated use."

"It's insane. It's extreme. And we've done nothing about it."

Although Lessig opened the speech with the usual praise for the heightened political awareness of the audience, a collection of Perl, PHP, and Python hackers from around the world, the praise quickly gave way to frustration. Pointing to the unsettling precedent of the Napster legal defeat and the subsequent evaporation of investment capital for media ventures that might, in any way, run afoul of the increasingly powerful Motion Picture Association of America or the Recording Industry Association of America, Lessig said it was time to stop blaming clueless politicians and to start blaming the smart people who understand the full implications of laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and yet do nothing to educate their representatives.

"Face it, we live in a bumper-sticker world," Lessig said. "It's like [retiring Oklahoma congressman] J.C. Watts said: 'In Washington, D.C., if you're explaining, you're already losing.' Six years after [the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act] we're still explaining, and we're still losing."

"I've spent two years talking to you, to us, about this. And we've not done anything about this."

Admittedly, it was a tough act to follow. Indeed, Stallman, an experienced public speaker, whose distracting onstage persona contrasted sharply with Lessig's smooth, sermon-like delivery, seemed to lose the audience at first. Forced by time constraints to abridge his usual history of the Free Software Movement speech, Stallman spent the first half rehashing old pet peeves, such as people using the term "open source" instead of "free software" and "Linux" instead of "GNU/Linux," and other, old battles.

"In order to expand freedom, we've got to have good free manuals," said Stallman, aiming a dig at event host O'Reilly & Associates. "Recently, O'Reilly has begun publishing some manuals under the GNU Free Documentation License, though, and I'm hoping they will publish more."

Near the end, however, Stallman's speech took an abrupt, almost surprising turn. Whether inspired by Lessig's comments or concerned by recent events, Stallman issued his own call for political action.

"It used to be all we had to do was write programs," Stallman said. "It used to be that people who didn't sell free software didn't say they wanted to crush free software. Well now those people are saying they want to crush free software, so it's up to us to do more."

For veteran Stallman-watchers, the comments represented a subtle but interesting shift of the finely tuned Stallman message. After years of asserting free software usage and development as a way to defend and expand freedom, Stallman, who typically shies away from speaking about political topics as president of the FSF, said it was time for hackers to "unlearn the habit" of ignoring the distant political battles that might someday diminish software freedom.

"I know what it's like to be a geek," Stallman said. "I know what it's like to get so absorbed in the job this week, but to focus on the job this week at the expense of the job being done this century, that doesn't make sense."

What's more, Stallman even offered a starting point. He pointed out that California Senator Dianne Feinstein was a backer of the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, a bill introduced by South Carolina Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings that would, among its many provisions, force device manufacturers to embed features into the device hardware that would automatically report both licensed and unlicensed file copying.

"Feinstein is prepared to vote yes on the 'Consume But Don't Try Act,'" said Stallman, offering his own counter-propaganda term for the Hollings Bill. "She's going to be out here campaigning for local representatives. Why don't we send people to protest her appearance?"

"We've got to stop conceding that it's a crime to make and share copies, because once we concede that, it makes it that much easier for them to force concessions in other areas."

When it was all over, spectators overwhelmingly described the dual keynote messages as well-timed.

"I thought it was pretty refreshing, especially for this community," said Chad Carr, principal engineer for Toshiba America Information Systems. "I think everybody realizes now that we can write the software. The thing we have trouble with is evangelizing the freedom."

Such comments reflected a minor victory for Stallman, who, in yet another subtle rhetorical shift, accepted a listener's assertion that open source, because of its apolitical approach to the importance of accessible source code, represented a helpful "first step" for people unfamiliar with the Free Software Movement or its ideals.

"If we're going to use this two-step approach, we have to have a balance between the steps," conceded Stallman. "We've got millions out there who have been introduced to free software but don't know what it's all about. Come help us work on Step Two. We've got loads of people working on Step One."

Outside the keynote hall, Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann, Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder Mitch Kapor and ActiveState CEO Dick Hardt were engaged in a three-way discussion of the speech's significance. Of the three, Tiemann was the most enthusiastic about the two juxtaposed keynote addresses.

"The overlap was perfect," said Tiemann. "It's time for political action. That's the only conclusion you can draw right now."

Recalling his days as a college political activist, Tiemann admitted that the odds against a group of free software or open source software developers making a dent in U.S. policy were slim. Still, such odds had been overcome before.

"I remember protesting against apartheid in South Africa," Tiemann said. "At the time, everybody was talking about how the diamond trade had interests in South Africa that were so strong there was no way we'd ever get anything changed. And yet, five years after I graduated, Nelson Mandela gets out of prison, and now he's head of the government."

"Yeah, but have you seen South Africa lately," commented a skeptical Hardt. "I was just there. The country's still screwed up."

Kapor, meanwhile, seemed to hover half way between optimism and pessimism.

"I guess I agree in broad terms," said Kapor, referring to the Lessig speech. "I think things get tricky when you talk about what kind of political action you can take that will have effect."

Upstairs at a press conference, meanwhile, Lessig himself was expressing doubts that the moment's good feeling would lead to anything constructive.

"The weird thing about politics in America right now is the disconnect between the people 'getting' it and the people actually doing something about it," Lessig said. "I mean, look at Yugoslavia. When the people thought the election had resulted in the wrong candidate being elected, they flooded the street and overturned the results. In the United States in 2000, when people though the election had resulted in the wrong candidate being elected, nothing happened."

Asked about Stallman's proposal to single out specific government players such as Senator Feinstein, Lessig echoed Kapor's skepticism.

"Protesting Feinstein is a good idea, but what is the likelihood of anybody doing it? Not good."

"It's wrong to discuss it in terms of likelihood," interrupted Stallman. "People will do it."

"OK," said Lessig. "I guess I should put it another way: Prove me wrong. There are more of us than them, but for the moment, they control the debate. I'm just waiting for somebody to go out and prove me wrong."

Sam Williams is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of O'Reilly's Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. He has covered high-tech culture, specifically software-development culture, for a number of Web sites.

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