Red Hat withdraws from the Free Software Foundation after Stallman’s return

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Enlarge / The Free Software Foundation might be happy to have RMS back on its board, but much of the Free Software world feels otherwise.

Last week, Richard M. Stallman—father of the GNU Public License that underpins Linux and a significant part of the user-facing software that initially accompanied the Linux kernel—returned to the board of the Free Software Foundation after a two-year hiatus due to his own highly controversial remarks about his perception of Jeffrey Epstein’s victims as “entirely willing.”

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Hat—the Raleigh, North Carolina-based open source software giant that produces Red Hat Enterprise Linux—has publicly withdrawn funding and support from the Free Software Foundation: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.”

This sentiment seems to be widely shared by many, including at least one FSF board member—Kat Walsh—who opposed RMS’ reinstatement and resigned her board position on the same day as the board’s statement and Red Hat’s withdrawal.

Immediately following Walsh’s resignation, the FSF announced the creation of a new board seat, to be filled with someone from FSF union staff; on Sunday, it filled this new seat with senior system administrator Ian Kelling.

FSF President Geoffrey Knauth describes the new seat:

The board and voting members look forward to having the participation of the staff via this designated seat in our future deliberations. This is an important step in the FSF’s effort to recognize and support new leadership, to connect that leadership to the community, to improve transparency and accountability, and to build trust. There is still considerable work to be done, and that work will continue.

Knauth, who began serving in his current role as FSF president in August 2020, declared that it’s only a temporary gig:

I commit myself to resign as an FSF officer, director, and voting member as soon as there is a clear path for new leadership assuring continuity of the FSF’s mission and compliance with fiduciary requirements.

The elephant in the room that the FSF’s remaining board members seem determined to ignore is the continued presence of Stallman himself—who, along with the rest of the FSF board, will soon need to undergo its new “transparent, formal process for identifying [members] who are wise, capable, and committed to the FSF’s mission.”

Why Stallman?

It’s probably worth re-examining the FSF’s stated mission to understand its choice to reinstate Stallman, who has been widely panned as far too controversial to make an effective software evangelist.

The Free Software Foundation is working to secure freedom for computer users by promoting the development and use of free (as in freedom) software and documentation—particularly the GNU operating system—and by campaigning against threats to computer user freedom like Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and software patents.

Although this statement leads with “promoting development and use of [free software],” it immediately veers off into the Stallman-esque weeds with an implicit declaration that the GNU toolkit is an entire “operating system.” From there, it moves into “campaigning against” perceived enemies of software freedom rather than campaigning for that freedom itself.

The next section, “Our Core Work,” moves on from promotion entirely, which we’ll summarize here with one bullet point per paragraph:

  • The FSF maintains historic articles
  • The FSF sponsors the GNU software project
  • The FSF holds copyright on large amounts of code
  • The FSF publishes the GNU General Public License
  • The FSF campaigns for free software adoption, and against proprietary software

We suspect that closely examining the FSF’s own mission statements—as opposed to simply assuming its mission—answers many of the questions about RMS’ return. The FSF describes itself as an organization far more concerned with maintaining a part of history it holds dear—and attacking its perceived enemies, whether real or not—than with discovery, outreach, and mentorship to new faces in free software.