In the context of the World Social Forum 2016, taking place this time in Montreal, Canada, a conference on the importance of free software was held at McGill University on August 11. On this occasion, two speakers discussed of the following topic: “Another Digital World is Needed: With Free Software, it is Possible!”

The panel consisted of two people, Marianne Corvellec and Richard Stallman. Marianne Corvellec has a doctorate in statistical physics from the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon. She is a data analyst for the Emerging Technologies and Data Science team of the CRIM. She is also specialized in software development. Richard Stallman is the founding president of the Free Software Foundation. He founded the movement for free software in 1983 and launched the GNU system of exploitation in 1984. “Linux” was then added at the end of the 1980s as the “core” of the GNU system.

Libre not Gratis

First off, the two speakers explained the importance of being free as in having freedom. They explain that their battle is to encourage the use of free software, but not free in terms of price. According to the words of Stallman, “price is a secondary detail that is not very important as liberty is what is important. It is never about the price, the price is a distraction.”

But what is free software? Free software is when the users control the program. Freedom is having control of one’s own life. There are 4 freedoms according to Richard Stallman.

Freedom 0: To exploit the program

Freedom 1: To study the source code and to change it to do what one wishes

These two freedoms allow each user to change their own copies. The problem is that many users do not know how to program, but they deserve the right to control their software. Users need to have the collective control of their program, the freedom to change it according to what they wish.

Freedom 2: To make exact copies to give or to sell to others

Freedom 3: To make modified versions of the software and to give or to sell it to others.

A condition is added to these last two freedoms: the next users need to also have such freedoms.

If a software has these 4 types of freedoms, it is what we call “free software”. If one of these freedoms does not exist, it is the program or the owner of that program that has control over the user, it is an injustice that should not exist, it is a trap for those who use it. In sum, free software is a software that the user controls.

A recurrent theme of the conference was the one of surveillance. Richard Stallman explained that “the cellphone is Stalin’s dream”. Without naming any companies he points out the dangerous actions taken by the giants of the software and of the web worlds, who themselves have agreements with governmental organizations like the NSA in the United States. We are tracked, surveilled, and listened to without our knowledge, but also with our consent in certain cases as the media have documented this phenomenon.

Marianne Corvellec also deplored the ubiquity of products of certain companies, especially amongst educational bodies – universities – that are supposed to be places of sharing and neutrality. The issue of patents is also important because, as Marianne explained, they do not allow innovation to take place instead of promoting it. She uses the image of a wheel, where when we improve a wheel we do not reinvent it; it is the same thing with code. By placing patents on certain lines of code, entire programs cannot be developed without spending huge amounts of money.

So what can we do? Corvellec quoted Edward Snowden by saying “Even mass surveillance has its limits”. By consuming at a local level and avoiding the industrial level, we can keep our freedom. It is about being a fish that is smaller than the mesh of the net. As to the debate about terrorism, when the question was asked to the speakers, Richard Stallman called out: “Tyranny is more dangerous than terrorism!!”

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