The Shackles of Freedom


I was recently reading Richard Stallman’s Personal Site.  Richard Stallman is a legendary software activist who promotes the idea of Free Software.  He is most famous for his GNU project, Emacs text editor, Free Software Foundation, and GNU General Public License (GPL).  His ideas are interesting and highly influential.  GPL, for example, grants people freedom to run, distribute, and modify software under the condition that the modified and distributed software is shared under the same license.  Ability to change implies Open Source Software (OSS).  The word “free” does not mean “free of charge”.  It means freedom to do anything with the code and fully examine and understand what the code does and how.

Richard Stallman tries to live according to his own principles.  He refuses to use any non-free software.  Thus, Windows, Apple, and Google with its Android, Gmail, Maps, Google Drive, and a host of other useful things are off-limits for him.  He believes these companies are unethical and exploit their users in a most outrageous way.  He also does not use Amazon, Facebook, Skype, and Spotify because these companies snoop on their customers.  Any website (such as this one) running complicated JavaScript code is an abomination and a stench in Richard Stallman’s nostrils. He abhors  ebooks as ebook distributors dictate the users what they may and may not do with their book copies.

Richard Stallman is very careful (I’d say, paranoid) about things requiring his identification:

I am careful in how I use the Internet.

I generally do not connect to web sites from my own machine, aside from a few sites I have some special relationship with. I usually fetch web pages from other sites by sending mail to a program (see git://git.gnu.org/womb/hacks.git) that fetches them, much like wget, and then mails them back to me. Then I look at them using a web browser, unless it is easy to see the text in the HTML page directly. I usually try lynx first, then a graphical browser if the page needs it (using konqueror, which won’t fetch from other sites in such a situation).

I occasionally also browse unrelated sites using IceCat via Tor. Except for rare cases, I do not identify myself to them. I think that is enough to prevent my browsing from being connected with me.

I never pay for anything on the Web. Anything on the net that requires payment, I don’t do. (I made an exception for the fees for the stallman.org domain, since that is connected with me anyway.) I also avoid paying with credit cards.

I would not mind paying for a copy of an e-book or music recording on the Internet if I could do so anonymously, and it were ethical in other ways (no DRM or EULA). But that option almost never exists. I keep looking for ways to make it exist.

How I do my computing

Stallman avoids any services requiring his personal identification: Uber (perhaps, for good reason – Uber does seem unethical), Amtrak, Netflix, Airbnb.  Apparently, he flies airplanes occasionally as he visited China, Greece, and Israel among other countries.  It’s hard to travel overseas anonymously. I wonder why he does not object being identified and searched in the airports.  I personally consider it humiliating to take off my shoes to go through stupid gates and being searched by TSA officers. He does not seem to be against filing income tax returns as he has scorned the “shared economy” companies (Uber, Airbnb) for using offshore tax havens.  This is another inconsistency as many people believe income tax is unconstitutional and a great infringement on multiple constitutional freedoms.  (Disclaimer: the author of those writings, Irwin Schiff, has died in prison in 2015 where he was put by the federal government, technically, for not paying taxes).  It would be interesting to find out how Richard Stallman reconciles flying airplanes and filing income tax returns with his principles.

I read all this and thought “Wow!  Is there a limitation that one would not be willing to impose on himself for the sake of freedom?”

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11 thoughts on “The Shackles of Freedom

  1. Your title says it all. Stallman (whose open source pioneering I do admire) has made himself a prisoner in his own paranoia. The problem with paranoid people is that some small aspect of their fears always eventually turn out to be true, which they take as affirmation for the whole worldview.

    Myself, I’m too lazy for all that. I enjoy the benefits of the modern world too much and see the things Stallman regards as unacceptable as simply costs of living.

    • Yes. I thought, this an interesting illustration of how avoiding things that limit our freedom (in our view) we end up limiting ourselves to almost a prison life. Even moderation must be practiced moderately.

  2. I see this cartoon often, and every time I see it I wish it wasn’t quite so heavy handed. For example, they could keep everything the same but not have the two sides converge a moment later. Alternatively imagine if you changed the perspective and the two routes don’t converge, they’re still separated by that tinsy weeny divide, but they go off straight alongside each other.

    The viewer gets it either way. There is no difference. But taking out the divide is such an eye rolling “I am very smart!!!” Detail to an otherwise already burdened cartoon (like, really, sheep? Cmon) it sort of blows my mind.

    • Yes. It’s a bit simplistic. It does, however, make the point that often, by staying away from something, we arrive at the very same place that we tried to avoid. This is often true with religion. People try to avoid sin so hard that they end up hurting or even killing other people. Or atheist activists sometimes try to avoid dogma so hard that they show the same dogmatic views as their religious counterparts. Sometimes, people fight for democracy so hard that they start oppressing those who have a different worldview. Etc.

      • You are absolutely right. This isn’t to say that low hanging fruit is bad–just because it’s low hanging doesn’t mean it’s not sweet! But the comic really doesn’t leave much to the imagination. People who aren’t moderates are (1) domestic animals, (2) look a little dumb, (3) are picking nothing of substance, (4) are virtually blind for not seeing that the two options (5) converge completely in a hot second before (6) dying because of (7) the original choice.

        Any one of those low hanging fruits could be changed so easily without changing the meaning but evidently there’s no aspect so obvious, “SLAUGHTERHOUSE” that it can’t be made even more obvious; i.e.: the slaughterhouse also needs a cow to be in frame as the subject.

  3. I admire the idea of open source software, and I tend to think that our current patent and copyright laws err in the direction of giving too much control to the owner of the IP. But to imagine that all IP should be free and open source is both unrealistic and demeaning to the creators of books, music, software, etc. The kind of paranoia that you describe here (refusing to connect to a web site using your own device) seems to indicate a disturbed mind.

    • I just read in the news that some court finally said that the song “happy birthday to you” belongs to the public domain. Until now, celebrities were charged royalty fees by Warner Brothers for performing this song in public on their own birthdays.

    • I am not averse to the idea of copyright as long as it’s sensible. It would be a good idea to have the copyright holders pay a symbolic annual fee of $1 to maintain the copyright. If the holder doesn’t care to pay this fee, the IP should go to the public domain.

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