In September of 2019, Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, resigned as president and member of the board. This came in the wake of outrageous and morally reprehensible remarks he made about the sexual assault of a 17-year-old victim by Marvin Minsky, a prominent AI researcher and associate of Jeffrey Epstein. And this was not the first or only time that Stallman has made comments like this.
In a video clip released today from his talk at LibrePlanet, Stallman proudly announced his return to the board of the Free Software Foundation. He ends his statement saying that “some of you will be happy at this, and some might be disappointed. In any case, that’s how it is.”
But is that really how it has to be?
The libertarian philosophy espoused by many of the founders and leaders of the FLOSS movement centers the primacy of the rights and benefits of individuals, demonstrated by granting them complete freedom. This philosophy is reflected in the amoral stance that software should be free to use for any purpose whatsoever, regardless of its impact on others. The actions of the FSF board only make sense if you believe in this primacy of the individual over the needs of the broader community.
On its website, the Free Software Foundation defines itself as a “worldwide community of ethical programmers.” It proclaims that “free software is only as successful as the communities that create, use, support, and advocate for it.”
So what does the appointment of a rape apologist to the FSF’s board mean in this context? Can the FSF simultaneously support someone like Stallman and still credibly claim to be the voice of ethics in technology?
Inviting Stallman to return to the leadership position he left in disgrace is unquestionably a spectacular moral failure. This decision by the FSF makes it clear that the Four Freedoms of FLOSS are not a sufficient ethical framework for preventing harm in our communities, our industry, and the world at large.
Meaningful ethical principles must inform how we govern our communities, how we decide what to create, and most importantly how we consider the impact of our work on the well-being of other people. And these ethical principles must be reflected in our institutions.
We need more than a manifesto proclaiming our rights as programmers. We need transparent and representative governance. We need leaders that share our values of justice and equity. We need a framework that guides us to better outcomes for our broader society, not just for ourselves.
Centering our shared values in every aspect of our practice is critical to the sustainability and future of the open movement. Organizations like the Free Software Foundation, whose actions show a flagrant disregard for these values, cannot claim to represent our communities and certainly cannot be trusted with their future.
Coraline Ada Ehmke, on behalf of the Organization for Ethical Source.
Revised 2021-03-30: Our statement now links to sources for Stallman’s statements and behavior, using primary sources where possible.