Three months after Richard Stallman’s reinstatement to the board of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), the controversy over the decision refuses to go away. If anything, the controversy is getting worse, as FOSS organization after organization distances itself from the FSF. In fact, if the situation continues, the question may arise at some point of whether the FSF will continue in its traditional role in the community at all.
The controversy arose in September 2019, after some insensitive comments Stallman made following the Jeffrey Epstein scandal lead to accusations of sexism and misogyny, and, ultimately, resulted in Stallman’s resignation as president of the FSF. For months, Stallman was silent. Then, in March 2021, a majority of the FSF board elected him to their number. The announcement resulted in outraged protests, as well as the resignation of executive director John Sullivan, deputy director John Hsieh, chief technology officer Rubén Rodríguez, director Kat Walsh, and president Geoffrey Knauth. However, whether other staff or volunteers cut their ties with the FSF remains unknown, and most of the officers are remaining until replacements are chosen. Probably, though, it can be assumed that these resignations must challenge the FSF’s ability to function normally.
The controversy comes at a low point in the FSF’s history. While the FSF continues to be influential in matters concerning the GNU General Public Licenses (GPLs), in the last decade, its other licenses have been overshadowed by alternatives: the GNU Free Documentation License by the Creative Commons Licenses, and the GNU Free Font License by the SIL Open Font License. The GNU Affero General Public License for the cloud came late and remains in limited use, while the creation of GPL3 means that the numerous GPL2 users were left to go their own way. As a result, the FSF has diminished over the last decade, even without the controversy over Stallman.
Nor has the FSF’s response regarding the controversy had much effect. Too often, it has come long after it was needed. For example, the FSF’s board defended Stallman’s reappointment by saying:
“We decided to bring RMS 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. His global network of connections is invaluable. He remains the most articulate philosopher and an unquestionably dedicated advocate of freedom in computing.”
Considering that the complaints allege Stallman’s lack of sensitivity in personal interactions, this statement seems beside the point.The same is true of the board’s apology about how it handled the announcement. What people denounce is not how Stallman was reinstated, but that he was reinstated at all. As for the board’s promise to make changes to bring the FSF into line with modern views on diversity, so far they remain only a promise. In the same way, Stallman saying that he is socially “tone deaf” identifies the problem, but only promises that he will try to do better. No wonder, then that the protests continues.
The Loss of Allies
What makes recovery even more difficult is that not just individuals are protesting, but organizations are as well. Among the first to respond was Red Hat, which announced:“Red Hat was appalled to learn that [Stallman] had rejoined the FSF board of directors. As a result, we are immediately suspending all Red Hat funding of the FSF and any FSF-hosted events.”
Similarly, although Debian as a community declined to take a position on Stallman, many of its members have signed other protests, and the official neutrality can be seen as simply another way to withdraw support.
Another major response comes from the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC). On June 1, 2021, GCC announced:
“The GCC Steering Committee has decided to relax the requirement to assign copyright for all changes to the Free Software Foundation. GCC will continue to be developed, distributed, and licensed under the GNU General Public License v3.0. GCC will now accept contributions with or without an FSF copyright assignment. This change is consistent with the practices of many other major Free Software projects, such as the Linux kernel.”
This announcement is ironic, given that Stallman founded the GCC project in 1987. Moreover, the reference to the Linux kernel suggests that the GCC is looking for direction from a long-time rival of the FSF. All GCC members do not agree with the decision, and GCC has complicated its copyright assignment. However, Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center, writing as a neutral expert, notes that the change is consistent with licensing and that “the effect of this change, as the GCC Steering Committee states, is to loosen the bonds between FSF and the GCC projects.”
Life After the FSF
So far, no other project has made the same decision. Still, given that the GNU Project has always been closely linked with both the FSF and Stallman, any such move is unexpected. Moreover, the fact that GCC’s Steering Committee made its decision over two months after Stallman’s reappointment shows that the controversy is not about to disappear.
Could a time come when the FSF ceases to function? The suggestion would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Now, with both sides firmly entrenched, it seems less alarmist. Either the FSF could become inward-looking as it tries to reform, or, as seems more likely, it could be crippled by a reputation for being out of touch with modern standards. A possible indicator could be the donations that the FSF receives in 2021. In 2019, the latest year for which figures are available, the FSF received $708,016 from memberships. Should that figure decline in 2021, that would suggest a serious problem, but we are unlikely to have those figures for a couple of years.
Meanwhile, let’s assume that the FSF becomes less active in the community. What would the effect be? Possibly, relatively small. The FOSS Community has never been highly centralized. More importantly, other organizations have emerged over the years that specialize in many of the functions that the FSF has traditionally served. The Software Freedom Law Center, for example, is concerned with licensing issues, and advice is available from the Open Source Initiative. Already, FOSS projects are mostly self-governing, and projects that require assistance with management issues like finances and copyright assignment often turn to the Software Freedom Conservancy or Software in the Public Interest. Much of FOSS requires less from the FSF than it did two decades ago. After some initial realignment, modern FOSS might hardly notice if the FSF closed shop. The few campaigns that the FSF manages, like Respect Your Freedom, which acknowledges free hardware, could easily be maintained by projects or companies clubbing together if enough wanted the campaigns to continue.
At first, FOSS without the FSF seems shocking. The FSF began FOSS and nurtured it as it grew. Over three decades, it has become fixture. However, perhaps like the giant trade fairs that were held at the start of the millennium, the FSF has outlived its usefulness. If that is so, perhaps the controversy about Stallman only hurries the inevitable.