Around 18 months ago, Richard Stallman was forced to resign from the Free Software Foundation board of directors and as president. It could have been anything -- at that point he already had a history of behaving in a way that was particularly alienating to women -- but in the end it was his insinuation that it was somehow OK if his recently-deceased mentor Marvin Minsky, then in his 70s or 80s, had sex with a 17-year-old on Jeffrey Epstein's private island. A weird pick of hill to stake one's reputation on, to say the least.
At the time I was relieved that we would finally be getting some leadership renewal at the FSF, and hopeful that we could get some mission renewal as well. I was also looking forward to the practical implications would be for the GNU project, as more people agreed that GNU was about software freedom and not about its founder.
But now we're back! Not only has RMS continued through this whole time to insist that he runs the GNU project -- something that is simply not the case, in my estimation -- but this week, a majority of a small self-selected group of people, essentially a subset of current and former members of the FSF board of directors and including RMS himself, elected to reinstate RMS to the board of the Free Software Foundation. Um... read the room, FSF voting members? What kind of message are you sending?
In this context I can only agree with the calls for the entire FSF board to resign. The board is clearly not fit for purpose, if it can make choices like this.
I haven't (yet?) signed the open letter because I would be in an inconsistent position if I did so. The letter enjoins people to "refuse to contribute to projects related to the FSF and RMS"; as a co-maintainer of GNU Guile, which has its origins in the heady 1990s of the FSF but has nothing to do any more with RMS, but whose copyrights are entirely held by the FSF, is hosted on FSF-run servers, and is even obliged (GPLv3 §5d, as referenced by LGPLv3) to print out Copyright (C) 1995-2021 Free Software Foundation, Inc. when it starts, I must admit that I contribute to a project that is "related to the FSF". But I don't see how Guile could continue this association, if the FSF board continues as it is. It's bad for contributors and for the future of the project.
It would be very tricky to disentangle Guile from the FSF -- consider hosting, for example -- so it's not the work of a day, but it's something to think about.
on the nature of fire
Reflecting on how specifically we could have gotten here -- I don't know. I don't know the set of voting members at the FSF, what discussions were made, who voted what. But, having worked as a volunteer on GNU projects for almost two decades now, I have a guess. RMS and his closest supporters see themselves as guardians of the flame of free software -- a lost world of the late 70s MIT AI lab, reborn in a flurry of mid-80s hack, but since 25 years or so, slipping further and further away. These are dark times, in their view, and having the principled founder in a leadership role can only be a good thing.
(Of course, the environment in the AI lab was only good for some. The treatment of Margaret Hamilton as recounted in Levy's Hackers shows that not all were welcome. If this were just one story, I would discount it, but looking back, it does seem to be part of a pattern.)
But is that what the FSF is for today? If so, Guile should certainly leave. I'm not here for software as perfomative nostalgia -- I'm here to have fun with friends and start a fire. The FSF should look to do the same -- look at the world we are in, look where the energy is now, and engage in real conversations about success and failure and tactics. There is a world to win and doubling down on RMS won't get us there from here.