Happy Birthday GNU!
30 years ago the then MIT researcher and exceptionally gifted programmer Richard Stallman posted the following text to the net.unix-wizards group:
Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu’s Not Unix), and give it away free to everyone who can use it. Contributions of time, money, programs and equipment are greatly needed.
To begin with, GNU will be a kernel plus all the utilities needed to write and run C programs: editor, shell, C compiler, linker, assembler, and a few other things. After this we will add a text formatter, a YACC, an Empire game, a spreadsheet, and hundreds of other things. We hope to supply, eventually, everything useful that normally comes with a Unix system, and anything else useful, including on-line and hardcopy documentation.
GNU will be able to run Unix programs, but will not be identical to Unix. We will make all improvements that are convenient, based on our experience with other operating systems. In particular, we plan to have longer filenames, file version numbers, a crashproof file system, filename completion perhaps, terminal-independent display support, and eventually a Lisp-based window system through which several Lisp programs and ordinary Unix programs can share a screen. Both C and Lisp will be available as system programming languages. We will have network software based on MIT’s chaosnet protocol, far superior to UUCP. We may also have something compatible with UUCP.
Who Am I?
I am Richard Stallman, inventor of the original much-imitated EMACS editor, now at the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT. I have worked extensively on compilers, editors, debuggers, command interpreters, the Incompatible Timesharing System and the Lisp Machine operating system. I pioneered terminal-independent display support in ITS. In addition I have implemented one crashproof file system and two window systems for Lisp machines.
Why I Must Write GNU
I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.
So that I can continue to use computers without violating my principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free.
How You Can Contribute
I am asking computer manufacturers for donations of machines and money. I’m asking individuals for donations of programs and work.
One computer manufacturer has already offered to provide a machine. But we could use more. One consequence you can expect if you donate machines is that GNU will run on them at an early date. The machine had better be able to operate in a residential area, and not require sophisticated cooling or power.
Individual programmers can contribute by writing a compatible duplicate of some Unix utility and giving it to me. For most projects, such part-time distributed work would be very hard to coordinate; the independently-written parts would not work together. But for the particular task of replacing Unix, this problem is absent. Most interface specifications are fixed by Unix compatibility. If each contribution works with the rest of Unix, it will probably work with the rest of GNU.
If I get donations of money, I may be able to hire a few people full or part time. The salary won’t be high, but I’m looking for people for whom knowing they are helping humanity is as important as money. I view this as a way of enabling dedicated people to devote their full energies to working on GNU by sparing them the need to make a living in another way.
For more information, contact me.
What followed was the birth of the Free Software movement the much needed antagonist to proprietary software. GNU, which stands for “GNU is not Unix” has since then successfully opposed, survived and outclassed not just Unix but also Microsoft Windows, MacOS and a number of other competing operating systems. For many (including me) it represents the only flare of light, the only reason for optimism in a exceedingly dark future of software and code. In his co-authored work “Cypherpunks – Freedom and the Future of the Internet”, Jullian Assange writes:
“The world is not sliding, but galloping into a new transnational dystopia. This development has not been properly recognized outside of national security circles. It has been hidden by secrecy, complexity and scale. The internet, our greatest tool of emancipation, has been transformed into the most dangerous facilitator of totalitarianism we have ever seen. The internet is a threat to human civilization.”
This reality is massively facilitated by proprietary software. Only because nobody knows what is going on inside a program can the program spy on you. Free software doesn’t allow this. It ensures your freedom by revealing all of its source code. No back-doors can be hidden, no malicious code can be covered up. The community of skilled programmers and hackers ensures this and maintains rigorous standards over the code that makes it into their repositories.
In the words of the Free Software Foundation Europe:
“Without the GNU project and the Free Software movement that it inspired, our everyday lives – and the Internet – would be a very different place right now,” says Karsten Gerloff, President of the Free Software Foundation Europe.”
“The GNU project has acted as the starting point of a movement that makes sure we can control technology, and not technology controlling us,” says Matthias Kirschner, FSFE’s head of Public Awareness.”
Today, in the wake daily new revelations about the scope of global surveillance (not just by the NSA) the importance of a Free Software is clearer than ever. Richard Stallman himself, in his recently issued “Why Free Software Is More Important Now Than Ever Before” commentary for Wired magazine writes:
Much has changed since the beginning of the free software movement: Most people in advanced countries now own computers — sometimes called “phones” — and use the internet with them. Non-free software still makes the users surrender control over their computing to someone else, […] Why does this control matter? Because freedom means having control over your own life.
If the users don’t control the program, the program controls the users.
With proprietary software, there is always some entity, the ”owner” of the program, that controls the program — and through it, exercises power over its users. A non-free program is a yoke, an instrument of unjust power. In extreme cases (though this extreme has become widespread) proprietary programs are designed to spy on the users, restrict them, censor them, and abuse them. For instance, the operating system of Apple iThings does all of these. Windows, mobile phone firmware, and Google Chrome for Windows include a universal backdoor that allows some company to change the program remotely without asking permission. The Amazon Kindle has a back door that can erase books.
I’m often asked to describe the “advantages” of free software. But the word “advantages” is too weak when it comes to freedom.
Life without freedom is oppression, and that applies to computing as well as every other activity in our lives.
We must win control of all the software we use. How can we win this control? By rejecting SaaSS, and non-free software on the computers we own or regularly use. By developing free software (for those of us who are programmers). By refusing to develop or promote non-free software or SaaSS. By spreading these ideas to others. Let’s make all computer users free.
And I can only agree to this (full-heartedly). Only free software empowers it’s users in a digitized world. Proprietary software enslaves, controls and shackles them. This is as much a matter of ethics as it is of common sense. We are still at the beginning stages of a fully wired, a fully digitized world. We have to get this right now, not later. The personal liberty, privacy, freedom and empowerment of coming generations depends on us getting this right. I hope that I can contribute to this struggle through my own research.
Go GNU go! Let’s make it another 30 years. Or 100. Or 1000.