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It's no ‘free laptop' as long as it has proprietary software

Vasudha Venugopal
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“Proprietary software has malicious features including surveillance''

Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman

Distributing proprietary software is a form of digital colonisation, said Richard Stallman, founder, Free Software Foundation, commenting on the State government's scheme to distribute free laptops to students.

Dr. Stallman, who is here to talk about ‘Free Software, Freedom and Education' at an event organised by the free software Foundation, Tamil Nadu, told The Hindu that as long as there was proprietary software in the laptops, it could not be called a “free laptop” scheme.

Under the scheme, a poll promise of Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, the government will distribute 9.12 lakh laptops in the next four years. About 6,600 were distributed last year on September 15.

The laptops, as planned by ELCOT, will have a Linux Operating System under the name ‘Bharat Operating System Solutions (BOSS), along with Windows Starter Edition. This dual booting facility, however, is a pretence that will curb the freedom of the user, said Dr. Stallman.

“A non-free program keeps users divided and helpless, divided because they are forbidden to distribute their software, and helpless because they don't have the source code and they can't tell what the program does or even change it,” he said.

Providing free software along with proprietary software was like offering whisky with water for lunch to students, he said. Proprietary software had many malicious features, including surveillance ones that intend to restrict what the user can do with their own computer.

“With software there are two possibilities. Either the user controls the program or the program controls the user. Proprietary software does the latter,” he said.

Dismissing claims that a network of service centres provided free by proprietary software companies would be of benefit to students, he said it would only increase the dependence of the user on them.

“Proprietary software companies see it as a scheme to encourage dependence on them. They would definitely put money on it,” he said.

Education, Dr. Stallman said, has a social mission to educate good citizens to build a strong, capable, cooperating, free society.

“In computing it means to use free software. Teaching proprietary software is the opposite of that mission. The State should never encourage that,” he added.

Urging educational institutions to take a position against proprietary software, Dr. Stallman said universities should have a plan to migrate to free software in at least five years. “We need to teach people about free software. It would be interesting to see if the government is willing to fund service centres for free software.”

The concern over digital divide, he said, could not be solved by merely supplying technology that took away freedom and respect from people.

“Freedom is same for the rich and the poor. People think of short term convenience when it comes to software but it is wrong to push them into dependence.”

Social networking websites, including Facebook, were surveillance mechanisms that monitored the user's Internet behaviour, which is an infringement on his privacy, Dr. Stallman said. He was also critical of the many executables available on Android phones that allowed users to make changes to existing programs but would not execute them.

“That is just freedom in the theoretical sense,” he added.

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