By continuing its transition towards free software, Russia is poised to reclaim control of its computing. However, the country has to overcome several obstacles to successfully implement the plan, cautioned Richard Matthew Stallman, the world-renowned software freedom activist.
Stallman, who has spent the last twenty years advocating free software, welcomed Russia's plan to move its government agencies to freedom-respecting free/libre/swobodniy software.
Every state should do this, just as other software users should. For you and me, free software is an aspect of individual freedom. For a state, free software means computational sovereignty, he asserted.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday signed an order for the transition of federal bodies and agencies to use free software. The order that affects all federal agencies and any organizations funded by the federal budget maps a step-by-step transition, slated to be completed by 2015.
This move by Russia is widely viewed as the continuation of a similar campaign launched in 2008 focusing schools. By 2009, Russia had aimed to rid schools of all paid proprietary software and encourage free software. All school computers would be installed package of free software (SCPI), if the institutions did not wish to co-operate with the transition, they could chose to pay for proprietary software from their own pockets.
Russian state will reclaim control of its computing, which it has unwisely allowed to fall into other hands, said Stallman speaking on the implications.
Besides fighting for free software, Stallman has been campaigning against software patents as well as excessive extension of copyright laws. With this in mind, Stallman also pioneered the concept of copyleft. He authored several copyleft licenses including the GNU General Public License.
Stallman, who earned a reputation of being a potent hacker in the 1970s at MIT's AI Lab, launched a free software, mass collaboration project called the GNU Project to develop a sufficient body of free software. He later founded the 'Free Software Foundation' in 1985 and co-founded the League for Programming Freedom in 1989.
He is often quoted as saying You should think of 'free' as in 'free speech', not as in 'free beer' - to drive home the point that free in free software does not necessarily mean free in price but is a matter of liberty.
By definition free software is that which can be used, studied, and modified without restriction, and which can be copied and redistributed in modified or unmodified form without restriction, or with minimal restrictions only to ensure that further recipients can also do these things and that manufacturers of consumer-facing hardware allow user modifications to their hardware.
With free software, the user (the state in this case) controls the program it uses. With nonfree software, the program controls the users, and the owner controls the program, so the owner has power over the users. State agencies that use a nonfree program have ceded control over the public's computing, which they have a responsibility to maintain. If they have committed this error, they must correct it, Stallman said on the Russian drive.
The philosophy behind the free software campaign is to free users from the grips of the software developers and in turn liberate them. Stallman believes proprietary software leaves users divided and helpless as they are forbidden from sharing and don't have the source code to change anything.
Russia's migration towards what can be termed computational liberty, however, is at a state level. With this move, the country is expected to reap several benefits. Russia will not only eliminate the cost of government royalties on the software, but also stands to become more technologically independent. This, in turn, would spur innovation at a local level and domestic markets can thrive.
However, the most critical area for free software is education. Russia should prohibit the teaching of nonfree software in schools starting in 2016, and start taking annual steps now to migrate the schools smoothly before that date, Stallman said, throwing light on additional requisites that the country has to cater to if it wants to successfully move on to free software.
The country will also have to plan out a massive training campaign to get the end users comfortable with shifting to the free software.
The migration will require a large campaign to train users and system administrators in using the new software. Government employees who benefit from the status quo, or just don't want to change, may try to resist the migration; therefore, the training should also explain how this change addresses a national need that goes beyond mere cost savings.
To overcome the obstacle of peripherals that currently can function only with nonfree drivers, or only with nonfree operating systems, will require a campaign of reverse engineering, aimed at developing free drivers for the GNU/Linux system and other free operating systems. There are many clever Russian programmers who would be delighted to do this work if the state sponsors it, Stallman explained.