- Yet another shoe has dropped for Richard Stallman, one of the world’s most famous computer scientists and the founder of the influential Free Software Foundation.
- A group of programmers working on the GNU operating system, one of his most important software projects, has called for Stallman to step aside.
- Stallman resigned last month from his long-standing positions at MIT and the Free Software Foundation after he made controversial comments about the Jeffrey Epstein scandal, made public in a now-viral Medium post.
- In the now-public messages, Stallman appeared to be defending another MIT computing legend, the late Marvin Minsky, who had been accused of assaulting one of Epstein’s alleged victims.
- Stallman described Epstein’s victim as likely “presenting herself … entirely willing.”
- One of the programmers calling on Stallman to resign from GNU tells Business Insider that Stallman’s comments on Epstein’s victim was the “last straw” when it came to his desire to work with the programming legend, but that the GNU project has no easy way to force Stallman out.
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Yet another shoe has dropped for one of the world’s most famous computer scientists, Richard Stallman – the architect of the free and open source software movement (FOSS), who found himself pushed out of his longstanding roles at MIT and the Free Software Foundation last month after wading into the Jeffrey Epstein scandal.
On Monday, a group of 20 programmers who work on one of his most famous projects, the GNU operating system, signed a letter condemning Stallman’s behaviour. They want the GNU project to distance itself from Stallman, its founder and leader.
“We, the undersigned GNU maintainers and developers, owe a debt of gratitude to Richard Stallman for his decades of important work in the free software movement…Yet, we must also acknowledge that Stallman’s behaviour over the years has undermined a core value of the GNU project: the empowerment of all computer users…We believe that Richard Stallman cannot represent all of GNU. We think it is now time for GNU maintainers to collectively decide about the organisation of the project.”
Stallman, the founder of the influential Free Software Foundation, is an icon of the programming world. He pioneered the concept of free and open source software (FOSS), whereby any programmer can create, contribute to, and give away software for free – offering viable alternatives to corporate-owned and created software.
Today, FOSS runs the world: The Linux operating system, the biggest open source project of them all, powers the servers that make the internet run. Android, the most popular smartphone platform in the world, is based on open source code, too. FOSS has also created thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of value via companies like Red Hat and MuleSoft.
But Stallman’s larger-than-life reputation began to unravel after he inserted himself into the scandal surrounding convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. MIT was embroiled in the scandal for accepted millions of dollars in funding from Epstein.
Stallman under scrutiny
Stallman had been a cornerstone of some of MIT’s most prestigious computer science work since the 1970’s, first as a student and, until last month, as a visiting scientist.
He jumped into the Epstein fray with an email defending the late Marvin Minsky, an MIT professor and legend of AI who was accused of assaulting Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s alleged victims.
That email, sent to the large MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) mailing list, saw him argue that even if Minsky did take advantage of Epstein’s alleged victim Giuffre, that the act should not be characterised as assault or rape because “the most plausible scenario is that she presented herself to him as entirely willing.”
And when a student pointed out that Giuffre was only 17 when she would have been forced to have sex with Minsky in the Virgin Islands – which would constitute the alleged act as rape – Stallman said “it is morally absurd to define ‘rape’ in a way that depends on minor details such as which country it was in or whether the victim was 18 years old or 17.”
His remarks so disturbed MIT alum Selam Jie Gano that she posted them on Medium, along with other things Stallman has said or written over the years on his own personal website or cataloged by women-in-tech site Geek Feminism.
This included remarks by Stallman about pedophilia: “I am sceptical of the claim that voluntarily [sic] pedophilia harms children. The arguments that it causes harm seem to be based on cases which aren’t voluntary, which are then stretched by parents who are horrified by the idea that their little baby is maturing.”
He is said to have later changed his mind about that position. However, the statement still lives on his personal website where he keeps a list of his thoughts on news and social topics.
Gano also lambasted Stallman for his attitudes by women generally, such as a sign on his door, in which he called himself “Knight for Justice (and also hot ladies).”
He described the uproar over his remarks on Epstein and Minsky as “misunderstandings and mischaracterizations” in his two-sentence public statement about his MIT resignation.
He wrote: “I am resigning effective immediately from my position in CSAIL at MIT. I am doing this due to pressure on MIT and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations.”
This statement, characterised by critics as “remorseless,” seems to have done little to quell the furor over Stallman’s remarks. And now, a number of important contributors to the GNU project – his last remaining high-profile open source project – apparently want him out, too.
The ‘last straw’
While the letter didn’t specify exactly why the project’s developers would like him to resign, one of the people who signed it told Business Insider that the Epstein comments were his personal “last straw.”
“Yes, this was a last-straw situation for me personally. Others have their own personal opinions,” Matt Lee, a free and open source software developer and co-founder of the GNU social project, told Business Insider.
The problem is that they don’t have a way to make Stallman leave, given that he started and runs the project – except, perhaps, through the threat of their own mass resignations.
“We have no right to boot him out, but as one of approximately 400 people who maintain packages for GNU, I can no longer be a part of GNU with him running things. GNU would be effectively stalled if everyone were to stop in this way,” Lee said. He added that he continues to support “the Free Software Foundation and the broader free and open source software community.”
Right now, it looks like Stallman has no intention of leaving. Just days before this letter became public, Stallman updated his personal website to say, “I continue to be the Chief GNUisance of the GNU Project. I do not intend to stop any time soon.”
Stallman did not respond to our request for comment.
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