‘No Company Is So Important Its Existence Justifies Setting Up a Police State’

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Over the last few months, Select All has interviewed more than a dozen prominent technology figures about what has gone wrong with the contemporary internet for a project called “The Internet Apologizes.” We’re now publishing lengthier transcripts of each individual interview. This interview features Richard Stallman, an activist and legendary programmer who developed the foundational and widely used software Emacs and GNU. He is a recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant and is currently president of the Free Software Foundation.

You can find other interviews from this series here.

Thank you so much for agreeing to a call. I apologize that I’m calling late, I’ve just had a jam-packed morning.
Please. Stop apologizing. It doesn’t matter when you call me if I can talk to you. I never cared about that. In other words, you’re being excessively polite. Catering to an imaginary desire that I never had in my life. I’m happy if people call me at any time if the conversation is a useful one.

Of course sometimes I can’t talk or they can’t reach me, which is unfortunate. But it’s not gonna make me unhappy.

All right then. Let’s start it this way and get right into it. I’m interested in how you think that the major digital platforms in particular, and Silicon Valley more broadly, sort of … went off the rails. I’m thinking of the toxic nature of many of these communities and platforms online — issues with data privacy, the ability to be abused for electioneering or other purposes, and so on.
You’re talking about very — about specific manifestations, and in some cases in ways that presuppose a weak solution.

What is data privacy? The term implies that if a company collects data about you, it should somehow protect that data. But I don’t think that’s the issue. I think the problem is that it collects data about you period. We shouldn’t let them do that.

I won’t let them collect data about me. I refuse to use the ones that would know who I am. There are unfortunately some areas where I can’t avoid that. I can’t avoid even for a domestic flight giving the information of who I am. That’s wrong. You shouldn’t have to identify yourself if you’re not crossing a border and having your passport checked.

With prescriptions, pharmacies sell the information about who gets what sort of prescription. There are companies that find this out about people. But they don’t get much of a chance to show me ads because I don’t use any sites in a way that lets them know who I am and show ads accordingly.

So I think the problem is fundamental. Companies are collecting data about people. We shouldn’t let them do that. The data that is collected will be abused. That’s not an absolute certainty, but it’s a practical, extreme likelihood, which is enough to make collection a problem.

A database about people can be misused in four ways. First, the organization that collects the data can misuse the data. Second, rogue employees can misuse the data. Third, unrelated parties can steal the data and misuse it. That happens frequently, too. And fourth, the state can collect the data and do really horrible things with it, like put people in prison camps. Which is what happened famously in World War II in the United States. And the data can also enable, as it did in World War II, Nazis to find Jews to kill.

In China, for example, any data can be misused horribly. But in the U.S. also, you’re looking at a CIA torturer being nominated to head the CIA, and we can’t assume that she will be rejected. So when you put this together with the state spying that Snowden told us about, and with the Patriot Act that allows the FBI to take almost any database of personal data without even talking to a court. And what you see is, for companies to have data about you is dangerous.

And I’m not interested in discussing the privacy policies that these companies have. First of all, privacy policies are written so that they appear to promise you some sort of respect for privacy, while in fact having such loopholes that the company can do anything at all. But second, the privacy policy of the company doesn’t do anything to stop the FBI from taking all that data every week. Anytime anybody starts collecting some data, if the FBI thinks it’s interesting, it will grab that data.

And we also know that the FBI and other such agencies are inclined to label protesters as terrorists. So that way they can use laws that were ostensibly adopted to protect us from terrorists to threaten a much larger number of us than any terrorist could.

This is effectively a core practice of all of Silicon Valley, right? It sounds like you also think that this is something that extends well beyond privacy. It’s the foundation for how these companies act.
Yes. Although I’d rather not refer to companies that collect personal data with the name Silicon Valley because there are other companies there that do other things that relate to digital technology, and maybe they’re making some chips that are not harmful at all. So I’d rather not talk about Silicon Valley, also because they may be located somewhere else.

So how about we use the New York Times’ phrase? They use “the Frightful Five” to refer to sort of the emergent tech, digital monopolies or duopolies.
Well, first of all, whether they’re monopolies is a secondary issue, as I see it, and the danger is not limited to them. For instance, the FBI was — I suppose still is — collecting data about every long distance call from some of those long distance companies. Perhaps all. But those are not monopolies. There aren’t very many of them; it’s an oligopoly, and that’s dangerous too. But in any case, they’re not among the five companies you’re thinking of. And as I see it any store that wants to know who you are is doing the same thing and it’s just as bad regardless of the size of the store.

I never tell stores who I am. I never let them know. I pay cash and only cash for that reason. I don’t care whether it’s a local store or Amazon — no one has a right to keep track of what I buy. The local store, I might do business with, I wouldn’t give it any way to know my identity. I would pay cash. With Amazon, I can’t pay cash, so I don’t buy from there.

Understood.
The Frightful Five — I think in France they’re called GAFAM — may have special power to cause harm. Certainly Facebook does. But each one is different and they’re doing things that other companies are also doing, and it’s just as bad when other companies do it. So I think it’s a mistake to focus on the especially large companies, and instead we should look at the things they are doing that are the basis for being harmful. And then we should stop anyone from doing that.

It sounds like you feel that collection of user data is the root problem with these companies.
It’s an injustice. It is disrespect for human rights, and it’s not only when a company does it. There are, on streets nowadays in some cities, lots of cameras that can be pointed by officials in any direction they like, and I believe they’re trying to recognize people’s faces automatically. Well, this is monstrous. This is far worse than Google or Facebook.

And it doesn’t — it’s not done by a company. It’s done by the city of New York. Or some other city doing the same thing, who knows? The point is, tracking people is dangerous. And especially tracking who communicates with whom. And who goes where. Once the state can find that out, human rights are basically dead because protests will be crushed. Look at what various so-called law-enforcement agencies did to try to crush the pipeline protests not long ago, or the laws various states are adopting or thinking of adopting making it a grave crime to protest, and imprisoning protesters for a long time. Or cutting off journalists to cover them, as was done during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, when they declared a no-fly zone so journalists’ drones couldn’t be there to watch what the thugs were doing to the protesters.

So, I see this as fundamentally dangerous to a point that makes the issues of, say, advertising pale by comparison. Sure, I don’t want companies to be able to find out all about us for the sake of advertising, although for the specific case of Facebook, there could be a remedy to stop it from being so harmful. For instance, political ads on Facebook might be less harmful if every company that buys political ads is required to post the full list of all the ads that it has bought in the past six months in one place. So people can see what they all are.

Why do you think these companies feel justified in collecting that data?
Oh, well, I think you can trace it to the general plutocratic neoliberal ideology that has controlled the U.S. for more than two decades. A study established that since 1998 or so, the public opinion in general has no influence on political decisions. They’re controlled by the desires of the rich and of special interests connected with whatever issue it is.

So the companies that wanted to collect data about people could take advantage of this general misguided ideology to get away with whatever they might have wanted to do. Which happened to be collecting data about people. But I think they shouldn’t be allowed to collect data about people.

We need a law. Fuck them — there’s no reason we should let them exist if the price is knowing everything about us. Let them disappear. They’re not important — our human rights are important. No company is so important that its existence justifies setting up a police state. And a police state is what we’re heading toward.

Most non-free software has malicious functionalities. And they include spying on people, restricting people — that’s called digital restrictions management, back doors, censorship. Empirically, basically, if a program is not free software, it probably has one of these malicious functionalities. So imagine a driverless car, controlled of course by software, and it will probably be proprietary software, meaning not-free software, not controlled by the users but rather by the company that makes the car, or some other company.

Well imagine if that has a back door, which enables somebody to send a command saying, “Ignore what the passenger said, and go there.” Imagine what that would do. You can be quite sure that China will use that functionality to drive people toward the places they’re going to be disappeared or punished. But can you be sure that the U.S. won’t?

You could argue that in China, they’ve just centralized integrated data collection and they’re integrating it with streams of data from a variety of different sources, both government-controlled and not. Whereas in the U.S., it seems like these platforms sort of compete with one another to offer different services like this — it’s not centralized.
Remember all the data is available to the FBI at any time. And remember how easy it is to pressure companies to send the remote-control command or to get from them all the secrets that are needed. Remember Lavabit. Lavabit was ordered to tell the state enough to spy on all its users 100 percent. And the only way that Ladar Levison could avoid that was to shut down the company instantly. And he could do that; he could consider doing that because he just owned it. Now imagine that it’s a public corporation with stockholders, and imagine that the insane ideology that its primary responsibility is to make money for the stockholders, which, by the way, is still not accepted in some European countries. And I read that this idea didn’t get started until the 1980s; before that, even in the U.S., it was accepted that a corporation had other obligations.

So we shouldn’t accept that premise. But the fact is, they do accept that premise and they wouldn’t even dream of shutting down the company just because it had been corrupted 100 percent — lock, stock, and barrel — into spying on all its users.

Apple just faced that situation in China and Apple surrendered.

As somebody who’s had your set of experiences and expertise, I’m curious: Do you feel like you’ve had any experiences that lend particular insight into how these companies work?
They’re corporations. Corporations have been compared to psychopaths.

But do you think there’s any particular set of cultural attitudes, or ideology, that has affected this particular variety —
Yes, neoliberalism.

A certain flavor of neoliberalism?
No, I don’t think it is. Neoliberalism in general. The idea that greed is good and justifies doing to people whatever profit requires, that’s all that’s needed. Of course, depending on what business the company is in, there’ll be different nasty things it could conceivably do.

The nasty things that, say, Apple can do are not the same as the nasty things that Facebook can do, and not the same nasty things Monsanto can do, or the same as the nasty things Kinder Morgan can do. And each one finds itself in certain circumstances based on its line of business, which will suggest certain ways of making more money by screwing people over.

But, and it would be good to make it clear that corporations have other duties that are just as important as making money for their shareholders. But we also need specific laws. For instance, there was a coal company that a few years ago arranged to steal its employees’ pensions by splitting into two companies and programming the one with pension obligations to go bankrupt. Now, I think we need a law requiring pensions to be handled through independent funds so that a company can’t just disappear and leave its 20-year employees with no pension.

So the remedies depend on the area. That’s one remedy that deals with stealing employees’ pensions. Lots of employees’ wages are being stolen frequently, especially low-paid employees. Happens a lot in fast-food establishments. I’m not sure how to prevent that. But that’s another very big area where companies screw people over.

Companies that have websites or apps tend to screw people over by collecting data about them. I think we need a law that requires every system to be designed in a way that achieves its basic goal with the least-possible collection of data.

And secondary features, conveniences and so on, should not be allowed to justify making the primary goal require collection of data. Let’s say you want to ride in a car and pay for the ride. That doesn’t fundamentally require knowing who you are. So services which do that must be required by law to give you the option of paying cash, or using some other anonymous-payment system, without being identified. They should also have ways you can call for a ride without identifying yourself, without having to use a cell phone. Companies that won’t go along with this — well, they’re welcome to go out of business. Good riddance.

When interviewing people for this, I’ve found that there are some people who think there are some simple fixes and others who think that these companies are never going to change, so they need to die. I’m curious what you think should be done, and what you think will actually happen.
Well, in terms of what should be done, I think we should go back to selling things in physical stores where you can walk in and pay cash. And if you want a product that they stock somewhere but isn’t in that store, well you should be able to put down a deposit and have them order something and come back and get it later. And they don’t need to know who you are to do that. They can give you a receipt that will prove you paid the deposit so you can come back and collect it later.

And by the way, we shouldn’t allow stores to do anything to try to track the movements of customers. This bizarre practice is again the result of the ideological assumption that companies should be allowed to do anything they like unless the people have managed to make a law against it. I think, in general, identifying or tracking people should not be allowed, unless there’s some specific and extremely strong justification offered.

And this requirement should apply to systems, no matter what organization runs them, including systems run by cities, states, and the U.S. government. They shouldn’t be allowed to collect data except in specific ways that have been approved, and that approval should require justifying that the danger to privacy can be permitted. And the reason is that we need democracy, more than almost anything else. And the sickness of democracy in the U.S., which is thoroughly established, and which was recognized by the supporters of Sanders as well as the supporters of the troll, is a problem we need to solve. Not exacerbate. So we must make sure that the state can’t identify people, but the only way to do that is to make sure that companies can’t identify people either most of the time.

In addition, we’re facing the threat of massive unemployment due to some kind of digital technology. One of these areas of unemployment of course is driverless vehicles. There are also the self-checkout machines in some supermarkets and drugstores. When I go in and out of those stores, I shout to the people by those machines, If you use these machines, you’re putting other people out of work. When I recognized that, I decided I wouldn’t use them. I’d always go to the human sales agent and help them stay employed.

I think we could allow driverless vehicles and self-checkout once we have a system like a universal basic income.

It sounds like the problem you’re describing isn’t these companies; the problem is capitalism.
Well, it’s neoliberal capitalism. It’s unrestrained capitalism. In other words, it’s plutocracy. When these companies control our laws by buying politicians, then we’re not really going to have democracy and the laws will leave us at the mercy of the companies that regard us as prey.

But that doesn’t mean we have to eliminate capitalism. We have to eliminate plutocracy. If we have capitalism and democracy, we have more or less what was invented in Athens. That’s what we had in 1970. If you look at Chomsky’s video Requiem for the American Dream, it describes the campaign that was started in the ’70s to recover control for business so people couldn’t demand and get things like the Endangered Species Act or the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act or have high enough taxes on the rich or on businesses so that we could run the country. And everything doesn’t fall apart.

It would be nice to see some of these big companies bring back some of the gigantic profits that they’ve collected over the years and use them to fund beneficial things for the public.
Well, yeah, they should pay more taxes so that we can do the things that we need to do. But because the operations of those companies are directly harmful in themselves, just making them pay taxes is not enough. We’ve got to make them stop doing things in ways that are harmful, but not just those big companies, also smaller companies.

Guber is one of the companies I detest the most. I called it Guber because it pays drivers peanuts. But the worst thing it does to the public is make people run non-free software, which is specifically an app, and that is non-free, meaning the users don’t control it and it turns out it’s malware. People found it was tracking people’s movements before and after the ride.

But the fundamental thing it does wrong is the fact that you have to run that non-free program to get a ride, and you have to identify yourself. And then you can’t pay cash. These are things that a transport company shouldn’t be allowed to do. The law should say, “First, respect people’s privacy. And if you can make money doing so while respecting people’s privacy, okay. Of course, we’ll make you pay a decent amount of taxes, but that’s a separate issue.”

I have web pages about many of these companies saying why you shouldn’t use them. If you look at Stallman.org, pretty near the top, on the front page, you’ll see this list.

And it’s on your website?
Yes. Stallman.org.

‘F*ck Them. We Need a Law’: A Q&A With Richard Stallman