A Chronicle of a Sad Time for Free Software: the Fall of RMS

I am ambivalent about writing this post, because it almost seems like piling on. But the recent scandal regarding Richard Stallman is such big news in the open source community that many people have asked me what happened. Also, some of the information is not persistent (for reasons explained below), so here is a summary for those who don’t follow the day-to-day developments (or can’t bear to read them). Also, the Stallman scandal demonstrates some of the themes I have written about previously here regarding changing community norms in open source licensing.

Richard Stallman (often referred to as RMS) is the prime mover behind the GPL, founded the Free Software Foundation, and founded the GNU project. He worked at the MIT artificial intelligence laboratory for many years and acts as an tireless spokesman for free software. He was also, famously, a prickly character, and could be callous in his interactions with others. To me it seems everyone has a Stallman story:

Nevertheless, he has been respected widely by the open source community for his vision and leadership, and for begetting the copyleft model, which is, and always will be, a brilliant judo move that uses the power of copyright law to make people share their copyrightable works.

Stallman has for many years espoused eclectic political views alongside his views on free software. His personal blog has never shied away from controversy, and even today, advocates Netflix shutting down, that US states form a union to collectively bargain with large corporations, and for a holiday called grav-mass (celebrating Isaac Newton’s birthday as an alternative to Christmas), to name a few. But it also contains many, more mainstream, electronic freedom positions against abuse of facial recognition, e-voting, and non-cash transactions.

Many of his personal political positions enjoyed sympathy, and he clearly separated his personal views from FSF or GNU. In September of this year, however, things went terribly wrong, causing the two to collide at the expense of both Stallman and the organizations with which we was affiliated.

September 7, 2019:

MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito resigned after criticism that he sought to conceal donations by financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, including by marking them as anonymous.

September 12, 2019:

Stallman makes “catastrophically insensitive” statements in an MIT listserv post.

I think it is morally absurd to define “rape” in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17. I think the existence of a dispute about that supports my point that the term “sexual assault” is slippery, so we ought to use more concrete terms when accusing anyone.

Richard Stallman

The same listserv string contains this rather prescient statement:

When this email chain inevitably finds its way into the press, the seeming insensitivity of some will reflect poorly on the entire community. Regardless of intent, this thread reads as grasping at straws to defend our friends around potential involvement with Epstein, and that isn’t a reputation I would like attached to my [CSAIL] affiliation.

(Author unclear from context of the string)

The email string was promptly published on Medium in a post calling for Stallman’s removal. The Medium article quotes another statement by Stallman, which was what eventually got the most press:

We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing…. Assuming she was being coerced by Epstein, he would have had every reason to tell her to conceal that from most of his associates. I’ve concluded from various examples of accusation inflation that it is absolutely wrong to use the term ‘sexual assault’ in an accusation.

It may be surprising to learn that the person who published the post, Selam G., did not know Stallman’s reputation when she first published about it. Her follow-on post about the fallout from her initial publication makes for interesting reading. But ironically, it may have taken someone who was not overawed by RMS to call out his comments at face value.

September 14, 2019: As this scandal unfolded, Stallman retracted a previous statement about pedophilia, one of his more unorthodox personal views.

Many years ago I posted that I could not see anything wrong about sex between an adult and a child, if the child accepted it. Through personal conversations in recent years, I’ve learned to understand how sex with a child can harm per psychologically. This changed my mind about the matter: I think adults should not do that. I am grateful for the conversations that enabled me to understand why.

September 15, 2019: Unsurprisingly, the fallout from his statements on the listserv was quick and far reaching. First, Stallman resigned from CSAIL.

I am resigning effective immediately from my position in CSAIL [Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory] at MIT. I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.

September 17, 2019: After that, Stallman resigned as head of the Free Software Foundation, the non-profit organization he started in 1985. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia page for FSF is, as of October 14, 2019, silent on the Stallman scandal and resignation.)

September 29, 2019: Stallman’s web site stallman.org was hacked, then restored and moved. Some speculated that unauthorized changes were made by an FSF employee or one of the volunteers who update the site daily.

After this point, it became unclear whether Stallman was still the head of the GNU project, the main project of FSF.

28 September 2019: According to archives, Stallman wrote, “I hereby step down as head of the GNU Project, effective immediately.”

But it’s unclear whether this statement was legitimate or part of the suspected hack.

On October 7, 2019, 28 maintainers of the GNU project issued a joint statement saying “Stallman’s behavior over the years has undermined a core value of the GNU project: the empowerment of all computer users. GNU is not fulfilling its mission when the behavior of its leader alienates a large part of those we want to reach out to.”

On October 7, 2019, Stallman wrote:

I recently resigned as president of the FSF, but the FSF continues to provide several forms of crucial support for the GNU Project. As head of the GNU Project, I will be working with the FSF on how to structure the GNU Project’s relationship with the FSF in the future.

As of October 14, 2019, Stallman’s continued control of the GNU project is hard to handicap. The FSF is seeking a new president. Stallman’s unexpected departure may result in substantial change of direction for the organization, and some speculate that FSF will re-take the reins of enforcement activity that it has eschewed in the recent past.

This stream of events illustrates a few points worth considering.

  • Inclusiveness, diversity and community conduct are important ongoing issues in open source community stewardship. The last few years have seen a spate of blowups over codes of conduct and hateful behavior. The blunt and freewheeling exchanges that have been common in open source discussions are no longer viable now that open source has eaten the world. In this respect, open source is a victim of its own success; scrutiny of casual discussion within projects is now intense because so many more people pay attention.
  • The old guard is being phased out. The first generation of engineers, businesspersons, (and lawyers!) involved in open source are ageing, retiring, sometimes dying, sometimes faltering in their leadership, and need to pass the torch. Perhaps it’s no surprise when the views of the first generation sound retrograde. Open source was once known for the libertarian views of leaders like Stallman and Eric Raymond, but in an era of deep political division, those views are ever more likely to generate conflict and discourage participation.
  • The popularity of the BDFL (benevolent dictator for life) paradigm may be fading. Many open source projects have been run for a long time by men with strong personalities and sharp tongues, who have a tendency to shout others down in the name of code quality or ideology. The cost of that behavior can’t be easily measured; people vote with their (virtual) feet or by staying silent when they otherwise might contribute. It’s notoriously hard to set standards for behavior that simultaneously promote excellence, candor and respect, but the social trend is toward greater emphasis on formalizing the rules of civil discussion.
  • The lines between personal and professional communication are breaking down. Everything we say online is persistent and public, and we will be held to account for it, for better or worse. Most of us already knew that. Any who think they are immune will eventually be unpleasantly surprised.

Author: heatherjmeeker

Technology licensing lawyer, drummer

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