Richard Stallman doesn’t have a cell phone.
He doesn’t buy DVDs, doesn’t use Windows or Mac OS laptops and doesn’t use closed-source commercial software. He is not on Facebook and has never owned a car.
But he isn’t a Luddite or computer illiterate. In fact, he loves technology and the Internet. At one point, he hoped the Internet would stop censorship around the world.
Stallman is the founder and president of the advocacy group Free Software Foundation and was one of the main creators of the open-source GNU/Linux operating system. Speaking for two hours at a packed Stamps Auditorium, Stallman lamented the prevalence of online tracking and the rise of closed-source programs.
“Digital Technology makes possible surveillance that Stalin could only dream of,” Stallman said.
Stallman advocates for open-source software where users are given access and encouraged to modify the source code of programs they use. He distinguished between “free as in freedom” software and zero-cost software, saying that they do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. He told the audience that closed-source programs — programs that don’t allow this access — could harbor malware and “backdoor” exploits because users can’t review it’s code.
Wearing a red polo, brown pants and no shoes, he attacked companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, Amazon and Rovio, the creators of Angry Birds. Stallman claimed these companies collected copious amounts of data and some of their software allowed malicious programs to be installed.
“You should never use the Amazon swindle,” Stallman said to laughs. “The official name of that product is the Kindle. Kindle means to start a fire which I think is meant to suggest that its purpose is virtual book burning.”
Stallman told the audience he doesn’t own a cell phone because of privacy concerns and told the audience they should think twice about the information they provide to companies.
“I don’t use the things that don’t respect our freedom,” Stallman said in an interview following the speech. “I choose to use technology if I think it’s good, and if I think it’s bad I say ‘no’ to it.”
His presentation had some quirks — he ran offstage to go to the bathroom and interrupted his introducer.
He repeated throughout the presentation how important it was for people to use “free” software because it promoted their own freedoms.
At the end of his speech, Stallman auctioned off a signed stuffed animal gnu — a type of wildebeest whose name was appropriated by Stallman for an operating system he helped to develop — to raise money for the Free Software Foundation.
“We hope that people will organize to resist these abuses because they are not inherent,” Stallman said after the talk. “If we allow the government and companies to decide what our digital technology does they will lead it in a bad direction.”
After a heated auction, Rackham student Adam Pierc paid $150 for the stuffed animal.
“I think he’s a really influential and important figure and, secondly, I think it’s a good cause,” Pierc said. “Free software is extremely important and will only become more important as time goes on.”
Correction appended: Due to an editing error, the headline of this article misidentified Stallman as founder of the Linux operating system. The system was developed by Linus Torvalds. Also, a previous version of this article misquoted Stallman in a statement about digital surveillance.