Commentary
11/23/2005
10:41 AM
Commentary
Commentary
Commentary

Stallman Stands Up

I get the impression that some people view Richard Stallman's run-in with U.N. security goofballs in Tunisia last week as further proof that, to put it bluntly, Stallman is a few bits short of a byte. If you share that opinion, do yourself and Stallman a favor: Read Bruce Perens' eyewitness account of the incident before you jump to any conclusions about what happened and



I get the impression that some people view Richard Stallman's run-in with U.N. security goofballs in Tunisia last week as further proof that, to put it bluntly, Stallman is a few bits short of a byte. If you share that opinion, do yourself and Stallman a favor: Read Bruce Perens' eyewitness account of the incident before you jump to any conclusions about what happened and especially about why it happened.Here are a few other observations on Stallman's stand-off with clueless U.N. rent-a-cops at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, after Stallman covered his RFID tracking-enabled ID in foil and encouraged members of the audience to do the same:

-- When you read Perens' account of Stallman's adventures in Tunis, keep one crucial fact in mind: The U.N broke a promise it made two years ago never again to use RFID-based identification badges --a vow summit organizers made to calm a similar uproar following their use of RFID tracking-enabled IDs.

-- The United Nations surely can find more competent security personnel than the Barney Fifes who harassed Richard Stallman -- first by preventing him from leaving a meeting room, then by preventing him from entering one -- for the crime of disabling a surveillance technology the organization promised it would not employ during the event, anyway.

(Had any real security threats infiltrated the conference area, one suspects that the security response would have looked like the big closing chase-scene in a "Benny Hill" episode, minus the giggling pack of topless women.)

-- The most important point of all is simply to note that Richard Stallman did a very sane, sober, rational thing when he protested the U.N.'s disregard both for its own word and for the personal autonomy of its conference attendees. Stallman also chose a clever, memorable, method for protesting bureaucratic stupidity -- by far the most common source of civil-liberties threats, especially when combined with the usual don't-ask-questions pretenses: temporary emergencies, extraordinary measures, imminent enemy attack, and so on.

To his eternal credit, Stallman is not the sort of person who will sit down and shut up, rather than "make a scene" over incremental outrages that never seem too too egregious by themselves -- but that slowly add up to impose an awful price.

Really, there are only two types of people in the world: Those willing to "make a scene" to prevent even minor incursions upon their personal freedom; and those who wake up one morning and wonder how their country turned into the East German Post Office. Maybe more of us need to learn how to "make a scene," while we still have a choice in the matter.

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