Richard Stallman can rightly be described as the father of the open-source movement. He created the GNU Project, which aimed to create a free Unix-compatible operating system (finally completed when Linus Torvalds used GNU development tools to create his Linux kernel) and founded the Free Software Foundation.
Stallman was programming before companies thought about restricting access to their code, and has stated throughout his career that free and open access is crucial to software use, growth and development. To some extent, his motivation was personal: after modifying the source code of the MIT AI Lab’s Xerox printer to notify users when their job had printed, and to notify everyone waiting when the printer jammed, he was denied access to the code when they bought a newer model. He has made the free sharing of information for the benefit of all his life’s work.
His vision has been realized to an incredible extent: much of the Internet runs on software licensed under the GNU General Public License, which grants every user freedom to access and improve software, and then redistribute the changes. Linux, Apache, MySQL, PostgreSQL, PHP, WordPress, Joomla, Drupal… If you recognize these names, you recognize the software used to operate most websites today.
All of which makes the recent interaction between Stallman — Jewish, though a self-described atheist — and several Israeli universities all the more perplexing.
Stallman was invited to give a series of lectures on a trip funded by Palestinians. He decided to fill voids in his schedule with lectures at Tel Aviv University, Haifa University and Shenkar College. Decided, that is, until his hosts learned about his plans, and threatened to withdraw funding for the tickets if he dared speak to Israelis. As pointed out in Hebrew in the extensive discussion thread that resulted in the cancellation becoming public knowledge, this includes disappointing the Palestinian Arab students who comprise roughly 20% of Haifa University’s student body.
As Eddie Aronovich, who was coordinating the lectures in Israel, wrote to Stallman, “Boycotting the Israeli Universities since you get funds from Palestinians means that you accepted the Palestinians proprietary license,” and that he was choosing free beer over free speech. As Stallman himself said in an interview in 2000:
I think there are natural rights, natural in the sense that people are entitled to them regardless of what governments say about them. Freedom of speech is a good example; I think people are entitled to freedom of speech, and censorship is wrong. That is one example that I think most people reading this would agree with. I also believe that the freedom to share software and other published information is also a natural right.
Perhaps the Palestinian Legislative Council should reconsider using PHP on Apache, considering the active Israeli presence in the development of PHP. Oh but then again, they were previously on Windows Server 2003, in which Microsoft Israel played a significant role.
In any case, it’s too bad that when the Palestinians told Stallman not to share his information with Israelis on the same trip, that Stallman buckled.