Free Software: 40 Years of GNU
Four decades ago, US computer scientist Richard Stallmann warned of the trend towards proprietary operating systems and wrote a free compiler. Together with the Linux kernel, this became the freely usable GNU Linux. Today the now 70-year-old hacker, who has remained uncomfortable since the beginning, is taking part in the birthday party in Biel. The Free Software Foundation (FSF), founded by Stallmann in 1985, and its European sister, the Free Software Foundation Europe, FSFE, founded in 2001, are even celebrating together at the invitation of the GNU Association, despite some disagreements.
With the breakup of the old US telephone company Bell in the early 1980s, UNIX, which had previously been freely available, also became a victim of privatization. Successor AT&T saw the operating system as an asset and tried to market it as a proprietary product for a decade.
Stallmann, an employee at the MIT KI Lab, was certainly just one of many opponents of this development. He cites a colleague’s message in response to his request for the “Vrij (free) University Compiler KIT” (VUCK) as a bone of contention. The colleague replied that the university was probably free, but not VUCK, which can be used for several languages (C, Pascal). Stallmann then began developing the GNU compiler, founded the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and became a figurehead in the resistance against proprietary software.
According to Stallman’s principle of the “Four Freedoms”, software is free if you can use a program as you see fit, analyze it and adapt it to your own needs and can pass it on to other users unchanged or with the appropriate changes. The political credo of open source code and the GNU Public License developed by the FSF to secure these rights – copyleft instead of copyright – are probably Stallmann’s greatest contribution to software culture and beyond.
The kernel program GNU Hurdle, which Stallmann helped launch, gave way – not least because it took too long – to Linus Torvalds’ Linux system, which was programmed on the basis of Stallmann’s free compiler. The program of the GNU birthday party in Biel gives a small impression of how broad the field of GNU software is that GNU enthusiasts worldwide are working on. It ranges from applications in the health sector to the privacy-preserving, open-source digital currency GNU Taler.
Cambrian evolutionary leap
The contribution of the GNU project and the free software movement can hardly be overestimated, emphasizes Kurt Jaeger, one of the postmasters and maintainers of the FreeBSD project and, in his day job, managing director of the ISP nepustil.net. Without free software for operating systems, there would be neither the Internet as we know it nor millions of cell phones today.
“Significant contributions to innovation, significant contributions to IT security through disclosure, a foundation boom,” says Jaeger, describing the characteristics of the “Cambrian explosion” caused by GNU.
Programming “eminently political”
Free software has radically changed the situation at the network layer, emphasizes Jose Marchesi, who discovered GNU while studying in Madrid. “A friend sent me GNU on a pack of floppy disks, I thought it was UNIX and installed it and asked myself, what is GNU,” says Marchesi, describing his introduction.
He explains that he can only imagine a network without GNU as a dystopia. Information technology could be less universal and limited to parts of the population. “Computers and networks are fantastic, but they can easily become tools of oppression, which is why it is so important that control remains in the hands of society,” says Marchesi. Programming is eminently political, he says, and RMS, as Stallmann is known in the scene, recognized this early on.
Despite the controversy, it has never been as important as it is today
If the Biel organizers have their way, the anniversary celebration should also smooth things over between the FSF and its sister organization FSFE. The relationship has recently been more than tense, not least because of Stallmann’s at least sensitive statements about the Epstein case.
When Stallmann, with the approval of the FSF, reversed his temporary resignation after almost two years, the FSFE felt compelled to publish another demand for his resignation. Broad sections of the community criticized their figurehead even more harshly.
Georg Greve, one of the initiators and president of the FSFE from 2001 to 2009, describes the dependence on a single person as a flaw in the FSF. “The values that GNU stands for are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago,” says Greve, “they have remained essential to our society.” Above all, the free software movement needs to do more to counteract the concentration of data in the hands of a few hyperscalers, who also benefit from the effects of free software. Greve, who founded several software companies himself after leaving as FSFE President, sees one of the central challenges as maintaining identity sovereignty even in a cloud world.
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