Jon 'Maddog' Hall Interview: Free Software Champion On Money, Borders, Guns And Porn

Flickr: alvi2047

Every faith and culture has its travelling gurus -- its wandering wise men, who spread thought and enlightenment as they traverse the globe, preferably while maintaining an excellent beard.

Computer science is no different. And that's where Jon 'Maddog' Hall comes in.

Outside of computer circles, his name might not seem that familiar. But Hall, 63, has been one of the leading voices in the free (or open source) software movement for many decades.

An author, educator, programmer and currently the executive director of Linux International, he has travelled the world speaking on the benefits of free software, and most recently has given several keynote talks at the global Campus Party technology conference.

In September he will speak at the next Campus Party, to be held at London's O2 arena.

We managed to catch up with Maddog to ask about Campus Party, but we also touched on several other big issues affecting the tech world - among them whether the UK should consider moving its data off US-owned surveys. Oh and porn. We talked about porn.

This is an edited transcript of a longer telephone interview conducted with HuffPost UK.

To get this out of the way, I imagine you get asked where the name 'Maddog' comes from five to six times a day?

At least, yeah. And I’ll just tell you that at the age of 63 I’ve learned to control my temper better than I could at the age of 27.

Fair enough. Perhaps we should start with the O2 Campus Party - how did you get involved with these kinds of events?

Well I’ve been talking about free software in Brazil since 1996. Campus Party started in Spain a number of years ago and then about six or seven years ago they came to Brazil and they were looking for somebody who knew free software there... So I came to Campus Party and really liked it - the people were really bright and enthusiastic. ... I get to talk to the great unwashed, and get to convince them about the goodness and purity of free software. And how to make and save money from using free software.

How do young people respond to that message, given that many of the people they may look up to in software are not just millionaires but billionaires?

First of all, there are quite a few free software people who are now billionaires. The people who started Red Hat Software - Bob Young is a billionaire, and the three technical people who started it made hundreds of millions of dollars... There are lots of people who make money off free software. And a lot of these people want to make a comfortable living but they also want to do good for society.

What damage are the global patent and copyright systems doing to the tech industry?

In the past I just thought that software patents were bad. Now I believe that they are actually evil.

I look at the stupidity of Samsung and Apple and going back and forth, and all the money that was spent on all the lawsuits and everything else, and I ask myself who is actually making money on this? It’s the lawyers. Who’s paying for it? The consumers. And it’s pulling away from the ability to choose...

That is not to say that there aren’t some software patents that really deserve to be patented, but if you take a look at some of the patents that are out there... The best one was where Apple insisted that it’s not intuitive that people wanted to have a thin, lightweight tablet with rounded corners. No, as a consumer it’s obvious I wanted a big, heavy, fat tablet with sharp square corners... Linus Torvalds refuses to study software patents, because if you are aware that you have a patent infringement and you continue to do it you have to pay three times the penalty. By not studying that he can honestly say ‘hey I didn’t know’.

Part of the other argument is - ‘what happens with the innovator who has an idea, but don’t have the resources to take it to market?’ They sell it to a larger company, and they’ve paid money and have an investment in it now, and they’re going to take it to market and recoup their investment. I can understand that as a businessperson.

But you know something? Going back to that constitution of the United States? Guess where the patent and copyright office was formed? In the first six articles of the constitution. We didn’t even get to the rights of people until the first 10 amendments. The patent and copyright office was set up in the constitution - it was about making money. But because it’s in the constitution it’s ‘we the people’. Not ‘we the companies’, ‘we the industry’, ‘we the rich people’, it’s ‘we the people’ have to decide what’s right for the country. This has gotten way out of hand.

[Following a discussion about the balance of powers in the US political system, and it’s implications for the role of Prism].

We’ve seen with the Prism surveillance operation that there are implications for the UK in storing data overseas. Should we think differently about how that works?

Is this a complex thing? Yes it is. Now I’m speaking as a US citizen. And the problem that you guys have is that you don’t get to vote for Obama, or a congress. And you don’t get to be protected by our constitution. And yet all of these things are affecting you as part of the internet, and as part of using Google and Facebook.

So you guys are screwed!

This is actually the message that I take to governments like Brazil, and they like me because I do talk to them like this. And I say to them, you know if you store your data outside of your country, it is now stored in a place where it may be coming under the laws of the United States. And if you don’t like that you better try and figure out how to store your data under your own laws. Every single one of these companies - Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook - they’re all US companies.

Is part of that problem that many people online tend to assume they’re working in a borderless, ‘new’ environment, when in fact that’s not the case?

Well take pornography, okay? I could personally take the viewpoint that I don’t mind pornography. I might even be a consumer of pornography. I often tell people that the internet was invented for pornography. So there are people who want to say they want to filter pornography and they want to turn off the ability for people to see a web-server that has pornography on it. But on the other hand what happens if that server is in a country where pornography is perfectly legal, and the consumer of that pornography is in a country where it’s perfectly legal, but the country that’s turning off that ability to access the DNS server is a country where it’s illegal.

Now you have somebody supplying it, that’s legal, somebody consuming it, that’s legal, and just because it’s coming through these so-called pipes of the internet, somebody gets to determine that you can’t have access to this.

We talk about net neutrality... You don’t sue the telephone company because somebody is taking pornography off the copper wires of the telephone company... Likewise you shouldn’t go back to the internet provider. You punish the person supplying it, you punish the person consuming it - fine. But in the middle? No.

There’s been a lot of attention paid recently to the idea of 3D printing and in particular 3D guns. There’s a fear that when you allow people to download not just data but physical objects you cross another dangerous line. Do you think that’s overplayed?

You know when I can go down to the local street corner and buy a gun and get the ammunition and stuff, I’m not going to worry too much about people printing guns in 3D printers out of plastic. You cannot legislate morality through technology.

There are always going to be people who will find out how to kill somebody, hurt somebody or whatever... We ran into this in the early days of free software because there were people who said, I don’t want people using my software for military purposes, or they’re a bank and I don’t like banks, or they’re a large multi-national. If you continue that all the way through you find out that make any piece of software that somebody will be using or misusing that you don’t like. You get morality by teaching people morals.

Above: Maddog the Guru?

Do you yourself have any role in teaching that morality?

I like to think I do. I like to think that I go around and I encourage people to do good things, and work on good projects to help people. Of course I have an interesting twist on this because I happen to be a capitalist, I happen to believe that capitalism is one of the best economic models that we have. I believe people should be able to have a good life and make a good living, and be able to do anything that doesn’t hurt somebody else.

About a year ago I came out as a gay man at the age of 62. And I was perfectly happy being in the closet myself and I didn’t have any problems, but I saw a whole bunch of kids who were committing suicide and getting kicked out of their homes by their parents, and a lot of these kids were geeks. Under the double-whammy of being a geek and a gay kid, and I just said I can’t take that any more.

So I wrote a very open blog and surprised a whole bunch of people who knew me - as I don’t exactly look like your stereotypical gay man, whatever that means, and I have no idea what a stereotypical gay person is.

But I’ve had a lot of people come up to me and say thank you very much for writing that. And it’s also led me to a study of Alan Turing and the great things he did for this country and the horrible things that happened to him simply because he was gay. So I like to think that I work towards moral types of stuff.

And one of the words people attach to you if that you’re a ‘Guru’ figure - is that a word you’re comfortable with?

Well... I think that there are many people who have contributed as much or more than I have to computer science, for example Alan Turing -- and those are the people I point to.