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Culture / Open Source

Why (Almost) Everyone Wants Richard Stallman Canceled

The Free Software Foundation this week doubled down on its controversial decision to reappoint Richard M. Stallman. 
Apr 13th, 2021 3:00am by
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Feature image source: Selam G.

Advocates of open source inclusiveness felt sidelined this March when the Free Software Foundation (FSF) reelected Richard Stallman to its board of directors. And this week, the FSF doubled down on this controversial decision in a statement on the election of Stallman.

This move echoes a lot of the issues that the open source community continues to reckon with, including a toxic environment toward women and an overall lack of transparency.

In this piece, we chronicle the response over the last three weeks of the tech community to this decision and talk about the very large steps the open source world still has to take to improve its governance, inclusion and openness.

The FSF ‘Justifies’ Reelecting Stallman

“The voting members of the Free Software Foundation, which include the board of directors, voted to appoint Richard Stallman to a board seat after several months of thorough discussion and thoughtful deliberation,” the board collectively wrote. “We decided to bring [Richard Stallman] back because we missed his wisdom. His historical, legal and technical acumen on free software is unrivaled. He has a deep sensitivity to the ways that technologies can contribute to both the enhancement and the diminution of basic human rights.”

The move has been a hotly controversial one, given the troubling past statements that Stallman has made, as well as a long series of public behaviors that could be described as sexual harassment.

In a follow-up response e-mail to The New Stack, a FSF spokesperson wrote that  “While his past behavior and writings remain troubling for some, a majority of the board feel his behavior has moderated and believe that his thinking strengthens the work of the FSF in pursuit of its mission.”

Another issue with Stallman’s reelection is that there was no transparency into the decision-making process. No reasoning for bringing back Stallman was given until three weeks after its announcement. Even the official FSF Twitter was quick to clarify that no event organizers, volunteers or participants were aware of Stallman’s announcement until it was made public.

The FSF’s bylaws, according to the FSF website’s crooked scanned images, haven’t been updated since 2002 and include no code of conduct or other required norms for leadership. On March 22, the same day Stallman announced his return, the FSF published the role of its board of directors on its blog, which mentions “In its leadership capacity, the board: maintains the legal and ethical integrity of the organization.”

The April 12 statement further reads: “He [Stallman] is an unpaid volunteer and subject to the organization’s policies, including prohibitions against conflicts of interest and sexual harassment and those outlining whistleblower processes and fiduciary duties.”

Of note, there is no other mention of sexual harassment or its prohibition on the FSF website.

Finally, in their response to The New Stack, the board wrote: “We are actively listening to the community and we respect all the views being expressed. We have heard both positive and negative opinions about the board’s decision. We believe his views [Stallman’s] will be critical to the FSF as we advance the mission and confront the challenges that software freedom faces.”

Who Is RMS?

Stallman is equally known by his initials RMS. Stallman is looked up to by some of the software industry as the godfather of free software. In 1983, he launched the GNU Project in order to build a UNIX-compatible operating system composed entirely of free software. This is often deemed the moment when the modern free software movement and the copyleft brand of open source software licensing was born. GNU set the stage for the now omnipresent open source project Linux.

However, Stallman has placed a distinct schism between the GNU and the Linux communities. He also lashes out against the phrase “open source” which he pegs as a development methodology, preferring the less popular “free software” which he says is more of a social movement. He is probably best known for his distinction of “Think free as in free speech, not free beer,” where people can use, adapt, distribute and improve upon an open source software codebase, but it may still have a cost.

Stallman has always been the head of the GNU Project and, apart from the less than two years when he stepped down from the board, has been the figurehead of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) he founded, which rails against any software proprietorship.

Stallman has spent most of his adult life working with MIT, first as a hacker and then as a visiting scientist.

On March 22, Stallman announced his own return to FSF’s board of directors at the foundation’s annual LibrePlanet conference.

Stallman commented, “Some of you will be happy with this, and some might be disappointed, but who knows. In any case, that’s how it is. And I’m not planning to resign a second time.”

Why the Industry Wants RMS Canceled

In 2019, when allegations surfaced of a deceased MIT colleague having raped a child at MIT donor Jeffrey Epstein’s mansion, Stallman responded in an internal listserv that the victim and minor may have “presented herself to him as entirely willing,” followed by saying he believes that it was wrong to use the term “sexual assault” in these circumstances.

Shortly after these comments were made public, Stallman stepped down from his role at MIT and from the FSF board of directors, writing on his website: “I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.”

He never stepped down as head of the GNU project.

This was not the first time RMS’ words were met with anger.

Stallman has posted comments on his website, in which he criticizes laws against child pornography, necrophilia, bestiality and incest, throws around inaccurate terms for child rape like “voluntarily pedophilia” and writes at length disputing legal ages of consent, and has dehumanized both disabled and trans people in his writing.

And his public behavior has been equally worrisome. According to dozens of witnesses, Stallman actively sexually harassed women students and faculty at MIT, for 30 or more years. To the point that women have passed down RMS-specific avoidance tactics like he hates plants so faculty should fill their offices with them or “If RMS hits on you, just say ‘I’m a vi user’ even if it’s not true.”

It had allegedly reached the point that he was asked so many times to stop asking out colleagues and students that he decided to create and hand out a business card to non-verbally harass.

Georgia Lyle, who worked at FSF from 2015 to 2018, wrote a long Twitter thread about the exhaustive — and ultimately moot — efforts she and other FSF staff made trying to change Stallman’s toxic behavior and silence his “racist and sexist ‘hacker humor’.”

Much of the horror stories from alleged victims of Stallman have been gathered by a Geek Feminism Wiki, by MIT grad Selam G. in two Medium posts from 2019, and within a Twitter thread by Sage Sharp, senior director of diversity and inclusion at the Software Freedom Conservancy, as well as accusations in public forums dating back over a decade.

On April 12, Stallman responded to these charges in a statement, writing that:

Ever since my teenage years, I felt as if there were a filmy curtain separating me from other people my age. I understood the words of their conversations, but I could not grasp why they said what they did. Much later I realized that I didn’t understand the subtle cues that other people were responding to.

Later in life, I discovered that some people had negative reactions to my behavior, which I did not even know about. Tending to be direct and honest with my thoughts, I sometimes made others uncomfortable or even offended them — especially women. This was not a choice: I didn’t understand the problem enough to know which choices there were.

Sometimes I lost my temper because I didn’t have the social skills to avoid it. Some people could cope with this; others were hurt. I apologize to each of them. Please direct your criticism at me, not at the Free Software Foundation.

What does seem clear is that both the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) that Stallman worked at and the FSF that continues to support him have failed the women who have complained against Stallman for decades.

What Stallman’s case has shown, that from school all the way through to the executive ranks, the tech industry continues to fail women. In many ways, Stallman’s own story reflects the larger challenges that open source itself is going through in coming to terms with the inclusiveness that, by its very definition, open source should support.

Open Source and Inclusion

There’s no disputing that the free and open source community, which remains significantly more predominantly white and male than the tech industry as a whole, continues to grapple with diversity, equity and inclusion problems.

Add to this, while recessions see a boost in open source adoption, FOSS continues to have a retention problem, with DigitalOcean citing a 63% drop in participation in 2019 and another 47% sink in 2020.

Despite the fact that diverse and inclusive open source communities — like with all teams and organizations — are proven more productive and make better choices.

“The future of the world is impacted by the open source we create and how we create it and for whom we create it.” — Coraline Ada Ehmke, Organization for Ethical Source

This lack of inclusion is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy pushing marginalized groups away. In DigitalOcean’s 2019 survey, 75% of women said diversity is of utmost importance for them to contribute, while only 58% of men agree. Almost half of the men surveyed rated the FOSS community’s diversity as very good or excellent, compared to just a third of women.

The sheer fact that the majority of contributors are either volunteering or working for a corporation that sponsors a project limits diversity to those with the time and privilege to participate — and to those with access to tech roles at those companies.

In fact, Stack Overflow’s 2020 survey found that “developers who are men are more likely to want specific new features, while developers who are women are more likely to want to change norms for communication on our site,” a request that’s frequently paired with the terms “toxic” and “rude.” The 2017 Github survey, of which only 3% of respondents were women and 1% were nonbinary, found half of all respondents had “witnessed bad behavior,” which ranged from rudeness, name-calling, and stereotyping, all the way to stalking and outright harassment.

But 2020 was a year of social reckoning and the open source community responded. The Linux Foundation launched the Software Developer Diversity and Inclusion project. Diversity scholarships and initiatives to remove harmful naming, like the CNCF’s Inclusive Naming Initiative, became more commonplace across projects. A lot of performative actions were taken, but there was also a more active discussion around codes of conducts and enforcement.

Can FSF Survive This?

Coraline Ada Ehmke, founder of the Organization for Ethical Source, told The New Stack that she blames two reasons for FSF’s move to reinstate Stallman: a belief in meritocracy and a cult of personality. She pointed out that, first, he never really left, he just publicly stepped down from the board. And she called the FSF “very siloed and narrowly focused,” in part as a result of Stallman’s toxic leadership. But it’s also indicative of other issues in the free and open source world.

Ehmke said Stallman’s reelection is “a demonstration that traditional FOSS institutions are not listening to the practitioners in our communities and not being good stewards of our communities. They’re not representative of our communities.”

At this point, she says, the FSF has become irrelevant.

“Burn the FSF down and do something new. Try to work with peer organizations to find common ground and collaborate on solutions. But there’s no way we can do anything with the FSF when they’ve made their lack of ethical commitment so clear,” Ehmke said.

She’s not alone in this belief. Much of the software industry, particularly those with roots in open source, have publicly turned their backs on the FSF over the last few weeks. Red Hat has withdrawn its funding and endorsement of the foundation. Outreachy has barred FSF from participation in its program. The Electronic Frontier Foundation expressed its disappointment in the secretive process and how Stallman wasn’t held accountable for anything he has said. Representatives from Mozilla have condemned the decision and said that Stallman hasn’t even made a valuable contribution in a long time. Author of “Forge Your Future with Open Source” VM Brasseur wrote a long Twitter thread of how she feels she was duped into joining FSF after RMS stepped down, thinking it had changed when it had not.

Prominent leaders  in the free software community have signed an open letter calling for Stallman’s removal, along with the removal of the entire FSF board, and for everyone to stop contributing to any projects related to RMS or FSF. Part of it reads:

“There has been enotheugh tolerance of RMS’s repugnant ideas and behavior. We cannot continue to let one person ruin the meaning of our work. Our communities have no space for people like Richard M. Stallman, and we will not continue suffering his behavior, giving him a leadership role, or otherwise holding him and his hurtful and dangerous ideology as acceptable.”

Speaking about Stallman, Ehmke said, “He’s prevented a lot of people from doing a lot of great work by creating such a hostile environment by actively harming people. He’s kept people out of the FSF and the free software movement. He’s made it clear they are not welcome, and their contributions aren’t valued.”

She says we should weigh Stallman’s contributions against the contributions of the people he has actively made unsafe. Who hasn’t been able to shine because their complaints against him went unheard? Who felt forced to quit open source?

“I think we should be focused not on what he has done but rather what he has kept from being done, mainly the contributions by the people who he has personally made unsafe,” Ehmke said.

So, is this cancel culture? Are we canceling Stallman’s free software legacy? Maybe it’s time to stop deifying individuals in tech and, especially in the collaborative effort that open source is intended to be, to start looking at ways to lift more voices.

Ehmke is collaborating on an alternative. The Organization for Ethical Source has the overall mission to center justice, diversity, equity and inclusion in the practice of open source and other digital companies. OES actively targets global projects, while many FOSS activities only center on the United States.

She said, “We believe in the potential of open source, and seeing all the great strides that have been made in the technology industry because of open source, it’s too important to leave it to the Silicon Valley elite and malicious actors.”

This year, the OES is focused on open source governance, something that is clearly lacking at FSF.

Referencing the Ethical Source Principles, Ehmke said, “Transparent governance is an essential ingredient in doing this work and in reflecting the values that I hope we all share.”

The organization targets open source projects, communities and organizations in the digital common space, like Wikimedia, Creative Commons and the Software Freedom Conservancy.

“This is how we govern ourselves and this is how we think people should govern their projects,” she said.

This includes the Contributor Covenant, an overarching code of conduct adopted by more than 50 major open source projects, and the development of an open source ethical framework. The goal is to identify an ethical open source stack, including licenses, governance, and enforced codes of conduct, so everyone, everywhere feels safe to contribute.

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