Can the Free Software Foundation Save itself?

The Road Ahead


The controversy surrounding Richard Stallman has raised questions about the Free Software Foundation's relevance.

Richard M. Stallman (RMS) has been known for years as the founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) -- in fact, of the free software community itself. Ironically, with his recent reappointment to the FSF’s board of directors, he also risks becoming known as the man who threw the FSF into disarray, losing it the authority it has gained over the decades.

The story dates back to September 2019, when Stallman commented on an MIT email thread about sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Specifically, Stallman defended AI pioneer Marvin Minsky against allegations of sexually assaulting an underage girl who had been one of Epstein’s victims. Stallman wrote, “We can imagine many scenarios, but the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing.” The insensitivity of Stallman’s comments, which were focused on his personal definition of the word “assault” and did nothing to acknowledge the complexities of sex trafficking or the disturbing power relationships at the heart of the Epstein story, caused a shock wave through the free software community. Although Stallman described the reaction to his comments as “a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations,” the comments were widely interpreted as implying that the victim was to blame for the incident, an interpretation that seems supported by the fact that Stallman also described statutory rape laws as “morally absurd.”

Stallman’s comments came at exactly the wrong time (not that there is ever a correct time). They were made at a period in which MIT’s various relations with Epstein were being fiercely debated and sexual assault was being called out in the media. Moreover, to make matters worse, Stallman refused to retract his comments when challenged. As a result, many of Stallman’s earlier sexist comments and actions -- which were an open secret among free software insiders -- became publicly known. For example, in 2009, at a joint Gnome-KDE conference, Stallman performed his “Saint Ignucius” comedy routine, in which he is reported as saying, “And we also have the cult of the virgin of Emacs. The virgin of Emacs is any female who has not yet learned how to use Emacs. And in the church of Emacs we believe that taking her Emacs virginity away is a blessed act.” Given his history of inappropriate remarks and behavior, Stallman ended up resigning his positions at both MIT and the FSF.

The FSF chose to remain largely silent in response. A new president, Geoffrey Knauth (a friend of Stallman’s) was elected 11 months later, but a promised look at the issues raised by Stallman’s resignation has yet to materialize. Then, suddenly, on March 19, 2021 during the LibrePlanet conference, Stallman announced that he had been elected to the FSF board of directors. “Some of you will be happy at this and some might be disappointed, but who knows,” Stallman said. “In any case, that’s how it is, and I’m not planning to resign a second time.”

The FSF made no official comment until April 12. Whether Stallman had learned from his mistakes, as the official comment maintains, is uncertain, but the delay left plenty of time for outraged responses. Board director Kat Walsh tweeted, “I did not support the decision” and later resigned from the board herself. A petition began circulating, asking for Stallman’s removal from all positions of authority, claiming that “he has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety.” The petition, which has several thousand signatures, asked for the board of directors’ resignation. While that has not happened, many FSF staff members resigned, including executive director John Sullivan, deputy director John Hsieh, chief technology officer Ruben Rodriguez, and Knauth, Stallman’s replacement as president. In addition, Red Hat and several other free organizations have issued statements, either withdrawing from the FSF or declaring their lack of support for Stallman. On the other side, an “In Support of Richard Stallman” page has appeared, praising his accomplishments and describing him as the victim of false accusations.

As I write, Stallman has released an apology, admitting that he is often tone-deaf and often misses social cues. However, even if his apology is generally accepted, after 18 months of masterful inactivity, nothing suggests that the FSF will easily pull itself together and become the effective organization it was 15 years ago when it could call the community together to discuss revisions to the GNU General Public License. From a long perspective, the debate over Stallman looks like it could be the last step in the FSF’s slide into irrelevance.

The Long Goodbye

The trouble is that the whole situation seems mired in half-truths. On the one hand, Stallman does seem to have expressed himself poorly in his emails and been partially misunderstood. No one can deny his accomplishments; free software was virtually invented by Stallman. On the other hand, it is hard not to see Stallman as yesterday’s man. Not only is his leadership style unacceptable today, but in the last 15 years, he has been slow to respond to new challenges facing free software. Instead he has focused on the same narrow range of issues, such as his insistence on referring to GNU/Linux. He sometimes seems out of touch with the newer generations of the free software community.

Whatever you might think about Stallman’s comments, it is worth pointing out that, in the last 15 years or so, the FSF has become increasingly less influential -- often silent on new issues -- leaving the corporate-oriented Linux Foundation as the main voice of free and open source software. Who, you might wonder, speaks for the community as a whole? With all the focus on Stallman, the answer appears to be no one.

The FSF, the body that once represented the community and its values, is divided among itself. So far, it has shown no ability to change. Perhaps the FSF has been wise not to respond too publicly to the issues, on the grounds that to do so would only fuel the controversy. Yet it appears that the FSF is divided between those who want to keep things the way they are, and those who want change. It now appears that the old guard has the upper hand, or Stallman could not have returned.

This continuing leadership of the old guard seems to cause two problems. First, while the Stallman camp shows a strong sense of loyalty, they have no sense whatsoever of public relations. Even if you are willing to give Stallman a pass for his previous remarks, he is tainted in the public eye. Supporting him does nothing for the cause of free software. So long as supporting free software looks as though it means also supporting misogyny and lack of diversity, recruiting to the cause is next to impossible.

Just as importantly, people are leaving the FSF -- not just those who recently resigned, but those who have left over the last decade. Just look, for example, at those active in the Software Freedom Conservancy, a lesser known free software nonprofit. Not only does the Conservancy’s directors include long time free software activists, like Jeremy Allison, Bdale Garbee, Martin Michlmayr, Karen Sandler, and Allison Randall, but its staff and volunteers are full of FSF expatriates, including former FSF executive director Bradley Kuhn, license compliance engineer Brett Smith, and long-time activist Deb Nicholson. Why, you have to wonder, do so many community leaders give their time and effort to the Software Conservancy rather than the FSF? Why do FSF employees quit to work for the Software Conservancy? The comparison of the two nonprofits makes the decline of the FSF all too clear.

Of course, working for one nonprofit does not preclude cooperating with another. It is also true that the Software Freedom Conservancy is more limited in scope than the FSF and could probably not take on a wider role without altering its nonprofit status. However, the comparison suggests the difference between a functional and dysfunctional organization. In the end, the role of the board is not to defend Richard Stallman’s place in history but to supply the necessary leadership so that the FSF can reinvent itself in time to remain relevant.

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