Richard Stallman: A Discussion on Freedom, Privacy & Cryptocurrencies

Richard Stallman: A Discussion on Freedom, Privacy & Cryptocurrencies

August 10, 2020

Dr. Richard Stallman is well-known for his free software movement activism. His speeches and work revolve around a term: freedom. And it is precisely that word that prompted Stallman to launch the GNU Project, founding the Free Software Foundation and releasing the GNU General Public License, among other projects, to promote the free software concept.

RMS, as Dr. Stallman is also known, has some opinions regarding the concept of cryptocurrencies that have been widely discussed within the crypto community.

Three freedoms

To understand the concept of freedom Stallman often mentions in his speeches, he explains the difference between “free software” and “open source,” as the latter term is often wrongly attributed to his work:

“The idea of free software is a matter of right and wrong. Justice and injustice. The idea is that users deserve control over the software that they are using. You as a user of software deserve control over the software that you are using, and you deserve to be free to join with other users to exercise this control collectively, whichever groups you choose to participate in. Concretely there are four essential freedoms that users need in order to have full control over a given program. ‘Freedom 0’ is the freedom to run the program any way you wish for any purpose you have. ‘Freedom 1’ is the freedom to study the program source code and modify it as you wish. So the program does what you actually want. These two freedoms you can apply by yourself alone.”

Stallman says that the other two freedoms have to do with cooperation with others, as “Freedom 2” is the freedom to make “exact copies and re-distribute them to others when you wish”:

“‘Freedom 3’ is to make and distribute copies of your modified versions if you have made any, taking advantage of freedom 1. And freedom 2 we make and distribute these copies when you wish. If the users have all four of these essential freedoms then the users control the program both separately and collectively.”

Stallman clarifies that when the free software movement began in 1983, there were people who liked the free programs that “our community had developed, but they found or philosophy too radical because it talked about right and wrong, rather than mere convenience, success, and so on.”

CBDC and the concept of privacy

People from the crypto and general technology communities have been talking about the Chinese government’s aim of launching its own central bank digital currency (CBDC), as well as plans of the Bank of Thailand to launch a project to pilot test its CBDC payment system with the largest building material provider in the country. However, others believe that CBDC could be a surveillance method for governments to monitor the financial activities of its citizens. Stallman blames the “totalitarian surveillance” of the Chinese government for this distrust:

“Digital payment systems are fundamentally dangerous if they are not engineered to ensure privacy. China is the enemy of privacy. China shows what totalitarian surveillance is like. I consider that hell on earth. That’s part of why I haven’t used cryptocurrencies that are issued by the community. If the cryptocurrency is issued by a government, it would surveille people just the way credit cards do and PayPal does, and all those other systems meaning completely unacceptable.”

However, he doesn’t see any contradiction when talking about the genesis of the cryptocurrency concept and the fact it could be issued by a government:

“Contradiction is a very specific concept. What is a cryptocurrency? It is the use of a particular technological method. If a government implements that method, I don’t see that it’s a contradiction. But if the government uses it as a surveillance device, I think that is vicious.”

The founder of the Free Software Movement pauses to explain the concept of “privacy” when talking about crypto’s privacy:

“What is privacy? Privacy means being able to say and do things without there being known to some powerful entity that can use them to attack you. In general, the things you do should not go into a database. The things you say to a few people, they shouldn’t go into a database. Now, exceptions to this are sometimes justified. We want the government to investigate. This needs a bit of editing. We want the government to investigate crime and catch criminals. And that can require getting private information from people and about people.”

Stallman also calls for laws that restrict the use of face recognition cameras in the streets or license plate recognition cameras, putting the United States as a case of implementing surveillance methods:

“We need laws restricting the use of such cameras to make sure that databases that track people around the city as they move around cannot be collected. Any systematic attempt to recognize people other than people subject to specific court orders, perhaps, a limited exception because their limits are safe for society. They will not lead to general repression. That’s the approach that has to replace data protection.”

This Q&A has been lightly edited for context.

Cointelegraph:  What’s your personal experience with cryptocurrency? Have you ever held or transacted something like Bitcoin?

Richard Stallman: The answer is no. I don’t do any kind of digital payments, and the reason is the systems that exist do not respect the user’s privacy, and that includes Bitcoin. Every Bitcoin transaction is published. Now, people might not know that my wallet belongs to me, but if I used it more than a few times it would be possible to figure out that it’s me. People with enough information could do so. I’d rather use cash. And that’s how I buy things.

I do mail checks for a number of things where businesses know who I am. When I pay the electric bill and the gas bill, well I have an account with those businesses and I have to pay it. They send me bills with my name on it, so I don’t lose anything by sending them checks with my name on them too. But, when I go to a store and buy something, the store has no right to know who I am. And I won’t let it know who I am, so I don’t use the existing digital payment systems.

There is one other thing I don’t like about Bitcoin, and that is that it is easy to use for tax evasion. Now, I don’t do that, but there are businesses that do tremendous amounts of tax evasion, and it is a big problem. It impoverishes most of us. It means the government doesn’t have enough money to do the things the government should be doing. There are a lot of things we need the government to do to have a society that is good for everybody.

Cointelegraph: What about various Bitcoin modifications designed for privacy?

Richard Stallman: I am not convinced about them. In any case, the GNU project has developed something much better, which is GNU Taler. GNU Taler is not a cryptocurrency. It is not a currency at all. It is a payment system designed to be used for anonymous payments to businesses to buy something. It is anonymous through a blind signature for the payer. However, the payee has to identify itself for every purchase in order to get money out of the system. So the idea is you can use your bank account to get Taler Tokens, and you can spend them and the payee won’t be able to tell who you are. 

It won’t be able to tell that you got the token from a particular bank account at a particular time, even though you did so. To convert your payment into money in its own bank, the store (the payee) will have to identify itself. So this gives privacy in a much more reliable way than cryptocurrencies do, and it blocks the idea of using this system to enable tax evasion.

GNU Taler recently had an exciting milestone. A few months ago the eurozone banking system became interested in supporting Taler payments, and just recently they succeeded using a test setup in obtaining Taler tokens with one bank account and paying them to another bank account through the Taler system. Now, it’s not something that anybody can use but it will be, and that will be really exciting. 

Stores will be able to start accepting payment in Talers, and this will initially be useful with digital purchases because what you pay with a Taler, the site could send the data you asked for to you right through that same connection. It doesn’t need to know who you are, only that you paid. Using Taler payments for deliveries is a bit harder. That requires a system of basically anonymous mailing. If there are pickup boxes and various locations, post offices, convenience stores that don’t belong to a monopolist like Amazon – by the way, I boycott Amazon absolutely, I’ve never bought anything through Amazon, and I urge people not to buy people for me through Amazon – but if the delivery boxes were independent of any company so that anyone could deliver to them, you could obtain the use of a suitable delivery box, and specify it along with your payment, and the product would be delivered there. You would have code to demonstrate that you were the purchaser of it. 

Cointelegraph: What do you think about Facebook’s Libra project?

Richard Stallman: I haven’t tried to study anything about the details of Facebook’s money project because the most important thing about it I already know. It’s connected with Facebook, and Facebook means surveillance. I urge people to join me in absolutely refusing to use Facebook or rather be used by Facebook. Because Facebook doesn’t have users. Facebook has used. So don’t be a sucker, don’t be used by Facebook.

Cointelegraph: Have you seen anything lately that could change your mind on cryptocurrency?

Richard Stallman: My criticism of cryptocurrencies is nothing new. I’ve felt this way about them ever since I first saw them. Now, I’m not against them. I’m not campaigning to eliminate them, I just don’t particularly want to use them. As for the idea of studying the source code of Bitcoin, well, I’m sure it’s an extremely interesting program to study, but I don’t have time to study the source code of the program for my curiosity’s sake. I am so overloaded with work that’s not what I would choose to do when I’m not doing work.

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