Stallman and Tor

This may be controversial.

Yesterday, a member of the Tor relays mailing list posted the following to the list:

“I’ve been running a relay/exit node for many years. Tor user since ~2004. To the extent that my voice means anything at all here, I would like to strongly condemn the Tor project joining the attempt to cancel Richard Stallman. Stallman represents software freedom to me generally and as of today I will be shutting down my exit node in protest of this action by the Tor Project.

I hope the rest of you out there, who depend every day on GNU project code which would not exist without RMS’s project, might consider joining me.”

In order to give this post some context, another member of the list posted the following email:

“For context, I suppose you refer to

> today I will be shutting down my exit node in protest of this action by the Tor Project.

That’s sorry to hear, but thanks for the time and energy you put into helping us. Much appreciated.

> I hope the rest of you out there, who depend every day on GNU project code which would not exist without RMS’s project, might consider joining me.

We hope not! To the contrary, privacy online and enabling everyone to participate in that space are more needed than ever. So, we need a stronger Tor network (not a weaker one) to accomplish those goals and everyone can help with that.”

The full open letter, together with the list of signatories.referred to can be read here:

For brevity, however, the letter opens thus:

“Richard M. Stallman, frequently known as RMS, has been a dangerous force in the free software community for a long time. He has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety. These sorts of beliefs have no place in the free software, digital rights, and tech communities. With his recent reinstatement to the Board of Directors of the Free Software Foundation, we call for the entire Board of the FSF to step down and for RMS to be removed from all leadership positions.”

Now, until that post I was personally unaware of the fact that a) there was an open letter in existence which called for Richard Stallman to be removed, together with the entire board of the Free Software Foundation, and b) that the Tor project had signed that letter. When I read that letter I found myself rather conflicted. Here’s why:

I have been a user of Tor a long time. I care deeply about personal privacy and anonymity when using the ‘net and I am a strong advocate of privacy enhancing technologies such as Tor. Tor stands for freedom of expression, and the right to privacy on-line. Indeed, the opening page of the Tor project website says:

“Browse Privately.
Explore Freely.
Defend yourself against tracking and surveillance.
Circumvent censorship.”

(Note the “Circumvent censorship” bit.)

And the Tor project’s stated mission is:

“To advance human rights and freedoms by creating and deploying free and open source anonymity and privacy technologies, supporting their unrestricted availability and use, and furthering their scientific and popular understanding.”

Which of course is why I use Tor myself, advocate for its use by others and fund relays to help the network. (I have run my own Tor nodes for over 12 years now and currently run four relays on two separate Autonomous Systems. I fully intend to keep those relays running.) If it should stand for anything, Tor should stand for freedom of speech. Indeed, on the Tor project page explaining who uses Tor they say:

“Does being in the public spotlight shut you off from having a private life, forever, online? A rural lawyer in a New England state keeps an anonymous blog because, with the diverse clientele at his prestigious law firm, his political beliefs are bound to offend someone. Yet, he doesn’t want to remain silent on issues he cares about. Tor helps him feel secure that he can express his opinion without consequences to his public role.”


“Frequently we hear about bloggers who are sued or fired for saying perfectly legal things online, in their blog.”

So why is the Tor project a signatory to a letter pushing for the removal of Stallman from his position at FSF? Stallman is almost “bound to have offended someone” and the Tor project now looks as if it is trying to get someone fired for saying “perfectly legal things online”.

As well as being a user, fan, and supporter of Tor, I am also a passionate fan of free software and a user of the sort of software (and software licenses) championed by Richard Stallman. Stallman created the original concept of Free Software, and a crucial license for that software (the GPL which is widely used today to protect software from being closed off into proprietary silos). He also wrote the original GCC (a C compiler) and a weird editor called EMACS (I’m a vi man….).

I do not know Stallman personally. My only knowledge of him is through his reputation and his own writings (on his blog and other sites such as the FSF and GNU sites).

From my own readings it is fairly obvious that Stallman is difficult, opinionated, single minded to the point of obsessiveness, occasionally objectionable and probably an uncomfortable person to be around. But none of that is illegal, and there are others in the Free Software field with their own problems. Linus Torvalds is famously rude, abusive, and opinionated. Eric S Raymond is a gun nut (which I personally find particularly objectionable) but again, in Raymond’s home country that obsession is perfectly legal.

My problem here is that the attack on Stallman looks too much like an orchestrated mob. The open letter asking for his scalp has 16 individual original signatories and 42 companies/organisations/foundations, but as of the time of writing it also has some 2500 additional signatories added on-line. I’m not sure what exactly motivated this reaction right now (as opposed to any time over the last 30 odd years of Stallman’s career) but from some of the new postings to the Tor relays list it looks to be getting nasty. And if what some of the posters are saying is true, then Stallman looks to be personally even more objectionable than I had considered in the past.

But that doesn’t excuse mob rule.

So – I am conflicted in that whilst I fully support the objectives of the Tor project (and I also fully support Free Software and individual freedoms more generally) I dislike the use of what looks to me to be a lynch mob attack aimed at censuring (and censoring) Stallman.

I wait for Stallman to comment himself. I would also like to hear personal testimony from people who have direct experience of the sort of behaviours that Stallman is now accused of, rather than second hand accounts as given in the open letter, and now on the Tor relays list.

Edit – added 28/03/21

Since writing the post above I have been doing some further research of my own in order to determine exactly why Stallman should have aroused such ire, and, in particular, why now. As I said, Stallman has been a prominent figure in the free software world for decades. He launched the GNU project back in 1983 and has been a vociferous campaigner against all restrictions in software since the late 80s and early 90s. He has been particularly outspoken against software patents, DRM, proprietary software and non-free digital formats and any form of restrictive licensing – all of which would put him in the cross hairs of most large corporations active in today’s IT industry. And as I said above, I knew that he was difficult, obsessive, sometimes objectionable and too opinionated for his own good. What I was not aware of though, and I really should have been, was exactly why he was considered so objectionable (beyond some questionable personal hygiene habits).

For a good example of why Stallman should seem to be such a divisive character, I would urge you to read the reactions of Register commentators to the Reg article about the open letter. El Reg commentards tend to be fairly hard hitting, but they at least represent a fair cross section of views in today’s IT Industry. There are forceful arguments presented on both sides.

That discussion aside, I have now found on-line enough first hand testimony of Stallman’s unforgiveable behaviours (as opposed to stupidly voiced opinions) over a long period of time to make me realise that the signatories to the letter are right. He has been proven to be mysogynistic not just in attitude but in his persistent sexual harrasment of women – most of whom were much younger than him and often where he was in a position of power or privilege and they were not.

That is not acceptable in any man, and particularly not acceptable in a man in a position of leadership. He should not be permitted back in the FSF.

When I first read the open letter calling for Stallman to be removed from the FSF I didn’t like it. As I said, I dislike mob rule. Particularly when it looks very much like the sort of trolling which occurs daily on social media and which is (rightly) deplored. I found that there was a counter open letter on github which called upon the FSF to ignore the external pressure and retain Stallman on the Board. Again, for brevity, that letter starts:

“Richard M. Stallman, frequently known as RMS, has been a driving force in the free software movement for decades, with contributions including the GNU operating system and Emacs.

Recently, there have been vile online attacks looking to remove him from the FSF board of directors for expressing his personal opinions. We have watched this happen before in an organized fashion with other prominent free software activists and programmers. We will not stand idly this time, when an icon of this community is attacked.

FSF is an autonomous body that is capable of treating its members in a fair, unbiased fashion, and should not give in to external social pressures. We urge the FSF to consider the arguments against RMS objectively and to truly understand the meaning of his words and actions.”

I signed that letter (largely for the reasons given above in my first post).

I now deeply regret that and I hereby remove my support of Stallman.

But I still don’t like mob rule.


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