Summary List Placement
Since controversial programmer Richard Stallman announced plans to rejoin the board of the Free Software Foundation, fierce debate has ripped through the open source community.
Stallman, who founded the organization, originally resigned in late 2019 following blowback to attitudes he expressed about victims of the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, as well as widespread accusations that his behavior even before those comments was offensive, particularly towards women.
Since Stallman announced his return on March 21, four members of FSF management have resigned, several organizations have pulled their financial support (including Red Hat, a major IBM subsidiary), and the prominent GNU Compiler Collection project announced plans to remove him from its steering committee.
Amid all of this, developers are taking a side: An open letter calling for his removal from all leadership positions has racked up signatures from almost 3,000 individuals and nearly 60 organizations at the time of publication, while an opposing letter in support of Stallman has racked up over 5,000 individual signatures (no organizations have signed).
The response to the return of Stallman— both the fierce backlash and the show of support — highlights how open source software is grappling with issues of accountability and power dynamics. On one side are those who say his behaviours shouldn’t supersede his contributions to the industry, while the other believes that allowing him in leadership implicitly condones his behavior, harms the community, and drives out talent.
With Stallman’s return to the board, people may steer clear of free and open source software communities, Josh Simmons, president of the influential Open Source Initiative (OSI) told Insider.
“I think they would just see that this foundation has reinstated an abuser, and that’s the message that a lot of people are taking away from this,” Simmons said. “If that’s the message they’re taking away from this then I think this drives more people away from us.”
Six free and open source software community members who spoke to Insider explained why they see this as a moment of reckoning to shape the future of open source software and who feels welcome participating, especially at a time when the technology’s impacts on the industry are more far-reaching than ever.
“I am very surprised that the board of directors brought him back after he resigned,” Miguel de Icaza, a well-known Microsoft engineer and former FSF board member, told Insider. “They’ve got to read the room and agree society has changed.”
The response to Stallman’s return shows a change in the culture of open source
Stallman founded the FSF in 1985 to advocate for free software — software released with no limits or restrictions on how it can be used. The organization became highly influential and paved the way for the emergence of open source software, developed by teams of largely volunteer programmers all over the world, and which now provides the foundation for key technologies like the Linux operating system.
But as open source software’s role in the tech world has evolved, so too has scrutiny of the power imbalances in the industry and how it can affect women and people of color in particular. And to that point, Stallman’s critics worry that his reappearance at the highest levels of the FSF is a sign that progress on that front is moving backwards.
Stallman resigned from both the FSF and his position at MIT in 2019 following intense scrutiny of his Epstein-related comments, while his past blog posts and stories women shared on Twitter about times he had made them feel uncomfortable or harassed came into the conversation as well.
While Stallman said in a statement at the time that he resigned because of pressure he and MIT were facing “over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations,” many saw his removal as a sign that the industry was willing to prioritize the safety of its contributors over Stallman’s legacy.
Now, critics see his re-appointment as a rebuke to those ideals.
On the other side of the debate, developers who support Stallman and are urging the FSF not to remove him from the board emphasize the importance of his legacy in open source software and have painted the backlash against him as an “attack” for “expressing his personal opinions” which “are not relevant to his ability to lead a community.”
That argument, however, is the core of why Stallman critics are advocating his removal: They say that his past comments and behaviors have kept people out of the industry who may otherwise have thrived within it.
“but he’s contributed so much!”
cool! imagine how much could have been contributed by all the people he drove away
— Ian Coldwater 📦💥 (@IanColdwater) March 22, 2021
Organizations quickly took action upon the news:
IBM-owned Red Hat said that it would suspend all its funding of the FSF and any FSF-hosted event as long as Stallman remained involved and the OSI announced it would withdraw support as well. Organizations like Mozilla, Creative Commons, and SUSE also signed the open letter calling for him to step down, as have influential individuals like Wikimedia Foundation CEO Katherine Maher, and former OSI president Simon Phipps.
“We are long past the point where we can pretend that the most important thing about software freedom is the software,” Mozilla’s Michael Hoye wrote on behalf of the company in support of removing Stallman from leadership a second time. “We cannot demand better from the internet if we do not demand better from our leaders, our colleagues, and ourselves.”
Simmons told Insider that he believes that industry solidarity against Stallman is a sign of positive change in open source.
“As I watch this unfold, I can’t help but notice that our culture has changed,” he said. “The things that people were willing to brush under the rug and tolerate in the past – it’s just not happening anymore. I think that is a very encouraging sign.”
Similarly, Luis Villa, the cofounder of open source management startup Tidelift, said that the unity among developers in speaking out against Stallman left him “fairly optimistic” about the future of the open source community and the conversations people are willing to have about inclusivity and empowerment.
“It shows that we are no longer going to tolerate the terrible behavior we tolerated in the past,” Villa told Insider. “That’s going to lead to a bigger tent with a lot more people inside. That’s going to make open source stronger. Let’s be honest, Stallman chased a lot of people out over the years, and that’s going to end now.”
.@fsf‘s decision to reinstall a relic of tech’s past, while many are working hard to move forward and shift its collective culture to one of welcoming & psychological safety, demonstrates why wide adoption of the Guiding Principles is needed
— Kim Crayton ~ Antiracist Economist ~ She/Her ✊🏾 (@KimCrayton1) March 30, 2021
Developers raised questions about the future of the FSF
Stallman’s return raises several questions about the future of the FSF, from staffing to its support. FSF board member Kat Walsh announced on March 24 that she was resigning and three others members of the FSF management announced their resignations on Tuesday as well: executive director John Sullivan, deputy director John Hsieh, and CTO Ruben Rodriguez.
“I think it’ll push more people away from direct involvement with the FSF and towards other open source communities,” Sy Brand, a C++ developer advocate at Microsoft, told Insider. “I’ve already seen several people doing incredible work on tools related to the FSF saying they won’t be contributing any more, and will be taking their skills elsewhere. I don’t imagine we’ve seen the last of that, and it may even accelerate depending on what actions the FSF board decides to take.”
Given the tumult in the organization, it may be difficult for the FSF to replace them, free-software contributor and former FSF board member Matthew Garrett told Insider.
“That’s going to limit their ability to be a functional organization,” Garrett said. “It’s going to impact the number of programs they can fund.”
There’s also the question of how the projects that FSF manages — like the Defective by Design campaign, the OpenDocument project, and the GNU operating system — will be supported, Simmons said.
“If they’re operationally challenged and if they’re not trusted, those projects need to find a home elsewhere,” Simmons said. “That’s the big question mark. On one side: who takes up the mantle of advocacy work? And on the other side, where do these projects go?”
(Disclosure: Kylie Robison’s mother is currently employed at Microsoft, working on the company’s open source initiatives.)