Free Software Foundation Experiencing Exodus After Stallman Gets Re-Elected

Richard Stallman has been re-elected at the Free Software Foundation. It’s a move that has sparked an exodus at the organization.

It has put a strain on the free software movement. After resigning from the organization, Richard Stallman has been re-elected to the board at the Free Software Foundation. In 2019, Stallman resigned after serious allegations of inappropriate conduct emerged. The allegations, as it turns out, weren’t simply an isolated incident, but rather, according to the accusations, part of longstanding behavior. From Medium:

The original email thread is not an isolated incident.

I hope this gets through to everyone who has responded saying we “should not jump to conclusions” or “be less punitive”. We have been lenient — in fact, we have been negligent — for decades.

Others have already dug up a good chunk of Stallman’s public history. This Daily Beast article does a great job covering his long history of problematic views on child pornography and statutory rape:

In this section, I acknowledge that I do not have as many photos, emails, or written records as evidence. I do, however, have witnesses.

Long before this incident, Stallman was contributing to an uncomfortable environment for women at MIT in a very real and visceral way. Alumni from as far back as the 1980’s reached out to me and told horrifying stories, such as:

I recall being told early in my freshman year “If RMS hits on you, just say ‘I’m a vi user’ even if it’s not true.”

— Bachelor’s in Computer Science, ’04

The article is extremely detailed and lengthy. The short of it is that allegations of highly inappropriate behavior spanned decades. Some of those allegations has resulted in Stallman resigning from the Free Software Foundation.

Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there. Apparently, in a quiet and, according to some, non-transparent manner, Stallman was re-elected to the board to the surprise of some of the members of the Foundation. In response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) issued a statement on the news:

We at EFF are profoundly disappointed to hear of the re-election of Richard Stallman to a leadership position at the Free Software Foundation, after a series of serious accusations of misconduct led to his resignation as president and board member of the FSF in 2019. We are also disappointed that this was done despite no discernible steps taken by him to be accountable for, much less make amends for, his past actions or those who have been harmed by them. Finally, we are also disturbed by the secretive process of his re-election, and how it was belatedly conveyed to FSF’s staff and supporters.

Stallman’s re-election sends a wrong and hurtful message to free software movement, as well as those who have left that movement because of Stallman’s previous behavior.

Free software is a vital component of an open and just technological society: its key institutions and individuals cannot place misguided feelings of loyalty above their commitment to that cause. The movement for digital freedom is larger than any one individual contributor, regardless of their role. Indeed, we hope that this moment can be an opportunity to bring in new leaders and new ideas to the free software movement.

We urge the voting members of the FSF1 to call a special meeting to reconsider this decision, and we also call on Stallman to step down: for the benefit of the organization, the values it represents, and the diversity and long-term viability of the free software movement as a whole.

The troubling developments as shown in the statement has led to quite a reaction. Red Hat, a major contributor to the Free Software Foundation, has announced that they are parting ways with the organization. From ArsTechnica:

As a result of RMS’ reinstatement, Red Hat—the Raleigh, North Carolina-based open source software giant that produces Red Hat Enterprise Linux—has publicly withdrawn funding and support from the Free Software Foundation:

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.

Red Hat’s relatively brief statement goes on to acknowledge an FSF statement on board governance that appeared on the same day:

  • We will adopt a transparent, formal process for identifying candidates and appointing new board members who are wise, capable, and committed to the FSF’s mission. We will establish ways for our supporters to contribute to the discussion.
  • We will require all existing board members to go through this process as soon as possible, in stages, to decide which of them remain on the board.
  • We will add a staff representative to the board of directors. The FSF staff will elect that person.
  • The directors will consult with legal counsel about changes to the organization’s by-laws to implement these changes. We have set ourselves a deadline of thirty days for making these changes.

But Red Hat says the statement gives it “no reason to believe that [the statement] signals any meaningful commitment to positive change.”

A number of members at the Foundation were clearly upset at the developments and are now abandoning ship. From ZDNet:

When the Free Software Foundation (FSF) allowed disgraced founder Richard M. Stallman (RMS) to rejoin its board, the FSF board members clearly had no idea how others would see the move. They do now.

Numerous free software and open-source members and leaders have decried RMS’s return. As Georgia Young, former FSF program manager, tweeted: “The thing that randos who have never had to actually work with RMS don’t understand is that MANY people who deeply respected him tried to help him learn to not objectify women, shout over others at Libreplanet as if it was his birthday party, stop sh*t like ’emacs virgins.” Instead, “That energy, utterly wasted, could’ve been spent advocating for free software and building the inclusive, impractical community so many people WANT. Spent, instead, on a man’s ego, over and over.”

Matthew Garrett, a well-known Linux kernel developer and former FSF board member, tweeted: “The idea that someone who does enough “good work” earns a pass for inappropriate behavior is pervasive, and fosters environments where abusers can prosper. People who hold this belief shouldn’t be involved in running organizations.”

Ironically, RMS has some support, in a letter on the Microsoft-owned GitHub site. But, as Miguel de Icaza, co-founder of GNOME and now a Microsoft Distinguished Engineer, tweeted: “‘RMS should resign’ signatories list that contains many significant contributors to free software — people that have had to interact with him and have advanced the cause. The RMS support list seems to be mostly users with few credentials-likely fans that never had to deal with him.”

De Icaza added: “RMS failed to grow as the movement grew. And has been an anchor dragging the project ever since. The ideas survived and flourished elsewhere. He is still a drag on every project under his direct influence.”

The outside voices against RMS keep growing louder. The Document Foundation, the organization behind LibreOffice, for example, suspended the “FSF’s membership in our advisory board and cease any other activity with this organization and their representatives.” The Debian Project, which is the only mainstream Linux distribution to sometimes use RMS’s preferred term for Linux, GNU/Linux, is voting on whether to sign the letter asking for RMS and the current FSF board’s removal.

Some of the debate over Stallman spilled over on Twitter. Based on Tweets we’ve seen, some supporters tried to paint Stallmans actions as simply a left vs right issue. The problem is that demeaning and/or sexual harassment is not and should never be a political thing. It is not a right vs left issue, it’s a right vs wrong issue. It should never be an issue where one side of the political spectrum thinks that it’s OK to mistreat a fellow human being, let alone be discriminatory or mistreat people based on their gender or gender identity. There are topics that are suited to be handled in the political realm, I don’t see how this is one of them in the context that one side somehow thinks this sort of behavior is acceptable. It’s not, plain and simple.

As pointed out by the EFF, there doesn’t really appear to be efforts to apologize or make amends for past alleged behavior. Understandably, that is where people appear to be drawing a line in all of this. As a result, this brings up the fundamental question of what the free software movement stands for. Does the movement believe in the betterment of society by allowing people to gain access to tools to build a better future? At the same time, does the movement simply turn a blind eye to people behaving in the mentioned manner because some individuals are in a position of power? For a lot, it appears that the answer to the second question is “no”.

As a result, it’s easy to see just how much damage the re-election has caused the general community. Many are hoping to create a completely different organization already. Others say that trying to replace the foundation with another foundation is legally difficult.

Perhaps the silver lining in this is how organizations and individuals are reacting. A lot are standing up and saying that what is happening is not acceptable. People deserve to be treated equally. So, it’s actually a great sign that with so many abandoning the foundation over what happened, that in the free software community, the message seems to be that women deserve to be treated equally among other things. It’s a clearly proven moral stance that the movement can be proud of.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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