Examining Stallman's Law

Does RMS' axiom meet the basic "law" test?

In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, put forth an axiom that became known as Moore's Law. Moore stated that every year the power of a microprocessor would double. Since 1959, thus far, that axiom has pretty much held true.

In 2012, Richard Stallman, champion of free software, has apparently come up with his own axiom to describe the nature of business and technology, not-quite-so-humbly known as Stallman's Law:

"While corporations dominate society and write the laws, each advance in technology is an opening for them to further restrict its users."

This statement, like many created by Stallman over the years, is likely to be controversial. I can think of several reasons right off the bat, not the least of which is the apparent self-aggrandizement being undertaken by either Stallman or the GNU Project by coining this as a "law." Moore never called his own postulate a law… that moniker was given later in the 1970s when people started noticing Moore's axiom was true.

It is possible that there's more than a little tongue-in-cheek going on here with the "Law" designation; Stallman's own self-portrayal as Saint IGNUcius has been regarded seriously many times over the years as evidence that Stallman's been in front of one-too-many cathode ray tubes, when it has been

So, right from the get-go, we have to put "Stallman's Law" to the test: will corporations always try to restrict their users with new technology?

The problem with testing this kind of theory is two-fold: we can't mind read corporate executives and figure out their real intent. And, there's this whole issue of "restrict."

Without truly knowing intent, we have to go by actions that are observable. Here, it's not hard to find lots of examples of how technology is used to lock people in. Pretty much any proprietary technology falls into this category, since that's the whole point of "proprietary"--keeping everything to yourself and forcing customers to stay with that platform, format, or what have you.

But there is a certain amount of skepticism on my part to ascribe this kind of intent to every single corporation. There are a growing number of companies that utilize open source and, more importantly to Stallman, free software to provide products and services to their customers. If we can find just one company like this--and it's a given we can--then it sort of invalidates this statement as a proven axiom.

Then there's the notion of "restrict." If I wanted to, I could easily broaden the definition of restriction to apply to any capitalist-minded company. After all, every company would happily want their customers to visit their establishment or use their products instead of their competitors’. In that sense, all businesses try to restrict, and Stallman's Law becomes more valid.

But such a broad definition also means that even free software-based technology could be used to restrict users. Again, not trying to mind read, but I would guess that this is not what Stallman had in mind when he came up with this axiom.

Certainly, Stallman's observation bears some debate: corporate intent these days has earned itself a lot of scrutiny, and I believe that his statement can be accurately applied to a lot of corporations.

But, whether Stallman is being tongue-in-cheek about this “Law” moniker or not, I am pretty sure it fails to qualify as an axiom, since it is difficult to test and seems to fail after thinking of a few counter-examples.

It is true corporations will almost always act in their own best interests. But while we should have a whole "trust but verify" approach to dealing with corporations, I am unsure that every use of technology is done with the sole purpose to restrict users.

It is, though, an idea that deserves exploration.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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