UNESCO and Free Software
In 1984, it was impossible to use a modern computer without installing a proprietary operating system, which you would have to obtain under a restrictive license. No one was allowed to share software freely with fellow computer users, and nearly all users were blocked from changing software to fit their own needs. The owners of software had erected walls to divide us from each other.
The GNU Project was founded to change all that. Its first goal: to develop a Unix-compatible portable operating system that would be 100% free software. Not 95% free, not 99.5%, but 100%--so that users would be free to redistribute the whole system, and free to change and contribute to any part of it. The name of the system, GNU, is a recursive acronym meaning "GNU's Not Unix"--a way of paying tribute to Unix, while at the same time saying that GNU is something different. Technically, GNU is like Unix. But unlike Unix, GNU gives its users freedom.
It took many years of work, by hundreds of programmers, to develop this operating system. Some were paid by the Free Software Foundation and by free software companies; most were volunteers. A few have become famous; most are known mainly within their profession, by other hackers who use or work on their code. All together have helped to liberate the potential of the computer network for all humanity.
In 1991, the last major essential component of a Unix-like system was developed: Linux, the free kernel written by Linus Torvalds. Today, the combination of GNU and Linux is used by millions of people around the world, and its popularity is growing. The GNU graphical desktop now makes the GNU/Linux system almost as easy to use as any other operating system.
But our freedom is not permanently assured. The world does not stand still, and we cannot count on having freedom five years from now, just because we have it today. Free software faces difficult challenges and dangers. It will take determined efforts to preserve our freedom, just as it took to obtain freedom in the first place. Meanwhile, the operating system is just the beginning--now we need free applications to handle the whole range of jobs that users want to do. Whatever job you want to do with your computer, you should not have to give up your freedom to get it done.
UNESCO has always supported the extension and dissemination of human knowledge. I'm grateful to UNESCO for recognizing that, in the domain of software, free software disseminates human knowledge in a way that non-free software cannot do.
Texts published in this section may not reflect UNESCO's official position.
Richard Stallman is founder of the Free Software Foundation and the author of the GNU General Public License (GPL).