July 30, 2002

Sarah Brown: Digital freedoms and the non-deity of RMS

- by Tina Gasperson -
She's a new media artist who likes the Emacs text editor because it feels sexy,
fast, and responsive. She's an activist who fights for digital freedoms and
works to get geeks involved in that fight. And oh, by the way, she's dating
Richard Stallman, the father of Free Software, the author of Emacs, and a
passionate activist in his own right.
Brown, 25, was born in Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Washington, D.C. She's
energetic and upbeat as she talks about her passion for Free Software and
technology during a telephone conversation with NewsForge to discuss, among
other things, her new job as "Internet organizer" for a non-profit company
called Public Knowledge.

"Public Knowledge was started out of the need for a Washington-based advocacy
organization that will represent the public's interest in copyright, patent,
trademark, and digital technology laws," says Brown. "It's a fun place to work."

Brown has taken an interesting path to the place she is now. After
managing to avoid getting interested in computers all her life, she got a
degree in art, moved to New York and worked for a contemporary art gallery
showing pieces made with new technologies. She was intrigued by the idea of
using computer technology in art, but didn't get hooked by computers until she
moved to Cambridge and began writing a political novel. "A friend said, 'here's
this really great text editor called Emacs,'" Brown says of her introduction to
Free Software.

"Emacs enables me to write the way I think. I'm a really speedy thinker, and
found the user interface so intuitive. I'm able to express my ideas as fast as I
think of them."

She later studied computer science, "but I seem to have little talent for it,"
she says. "I decided it would be a benefit to the field of computer science if I
defended it politically, rather than actually writing code. So my big goal is to
change the political climate so drastically that Richard Stallman feels it's
safe enough to get back to programming."

Brown approached Stallman, the programmer who created Emacs, for a date. They
first went out on January 1, 2000. She says he taught her how to program in C.
He also had an impact on her appreciation for the philosophies of Free Software.
Richard has "injected morality into a field where amorality has pretty much
existed forever," she says.

"I got terrified that political mandates from
(Washington) D.C. would start to impede the progress of Free Software." She says
she reads Slashdot posts every day. "Frequently I'm impressed with how knowledgeable
they are about the issues ... and there are huge numbers of them. So it became
frustrating that their voices were not getting heard in D.C. in any way that
changed the political landscape."

So she moved to the nation's capital and
got involved with Public Knowledge. What follows is the result of an email exchange after the phone conversation with Ms. Brown.

NewsForge: Tell me about your job.

Brown: "Right now, we're busy responding to legislation that might harm
the freedom of computer users, the way people currently use their technology and
legitimate use of content and media. We realize, of course, in order to
stop the onslaught of bills that threaten to control the information
commons, we need to propose an affirmative policy agenda that will protect
our freedoms. It's more than changing policy. It's about re-framing the
terms of the debate for copyright, patent, trademark and digital technology.
Policy without new terms for debate will be structurally disadvantaged. This
includes things like promoting greater use and acceptance of Free Software.

"The difficult part is coordinating these tasks with the fast-moving changes
in digital technology and the Internet -- the areas in which things are still
up for grabs and no entrenched interests can claim presumptive political
control or entitlement. It's why it is a critical time to organize: We have
to act now, before new laws get enacted and regressive norms fixed (like
what happened with the DMCA).

"This isn't going to happen without a large, participating constituency. It's
my job to help organize it."

NewsForge: As far as digital freedom and Free Software, why do you think most
of our government is backwards-thinking?

Brown: "Not everyone in government is backwards thinking on the matter. Of course,
they don't all think about the issues like Free Software programmers, nor
should they. They're politicians, not programmers. It's their job to
represent a variety of issues and interests.

"It's interesting to be in Washington, and to observe the political process
up close. The old adage that 'money buys politicians' isn't exactly true.
What money buys is people that will spend lots of their time talking to
politicians. We'll never have as much money to spend, but it's conceivable
we could organize a whole lot of people that are willing to talk to their
politicians for free.

"Organizations like Public Knowledge facilitate communication between
constituencies and Washington. We're going to make it as easy as possible
for you to communicate with your representatives. We have some ideas and
procedures that will amplify your voice in Washington. We help to make sure
that the time that you do spend defending your freedom is spent effectively.

"There's another part in all this: the lobbying efforts of the computer
industry. The computer industry is a much, much larger part of our economy
than the entertainment industry, and therefore, under the old 'money hires
people that will talk to politicians' adage, the computer industry should
have much more power.

"But the entertainment industry is a much older industry. They have been in
Washington a long time and understand the political process well. The
computer industry is just beginning to discover Washington, and as
consumers, we need to encourage them.

"As a Free Software user, it's my job to tell these companies that I need
them to be in Washington, D.C., representing my rights. As an IBM user, it's
upsetting that my $3,000 laptop can't play a $14.99 DVD because I choose to
run GNU/Linux. Before I'll ever buy another IBM laptop with a DVD player I
can't use, I'll want to be sure that IBM has a presence in Washington, and
is advocating strongly for my rights as a consumer.

Free Software users aren't anti-market at all: we just spend all the money
we save on software buying more impressive hardware. We need to start
documenting and using our buying power. We've got to be telling the hardware
manufactures we buy from that we will buy from a different company if they
implement technologies that inhibit us from using all the features of our

NewsForge: How are you going to change the world?

Brown: "I don't really want to change the world, because I like a
lot of things about it. Anyway, I like to have more specific goals than that.

"That said, I'm going to do my job, which is to organize the tech community
into a force to be reckoned with in Washington. We're working with EFF and
other groups. We've got to become the most vocal and organized constituency
out there. Yes! The Million Geek March! It can't be far off. The numbers are
there: 1/4 million people a day visit Slashdot. But I want to get
Slashdotters to stop talking amongst themselves and start talking to

NewsForge: Who is going to help you?

Brown: "Technically, It's my job to help others. I've got to make it easy and
compelling for people to make their voice heard in Washington.

"If there's anything I know about techies, it's that they hate doing tedious
and dumb things. So I'm going to design campaigns that make it as easy as
possible to participate (not tedious), and that are researched, well-thought
out, and targeted for effectiveness (not dumb).

"I refuse to ask a techie to do something superfluous. I'd much rather have
everyone writing software than writing to their government. But we have to
recognize the fact that if we aren't writing to our government now, it's
going to restrict our ability to write useful software later. Writing to
your congressman and writing software aren't separate activities."

NewsForge: (In a phone conversation while pointing out the humanity of RMS)
You said Richard is like a "god we can all talk to" -- and you seem to be an
enthusiastic evangelist for Free Software. Would you say that Free Software is a

Brown: "Free Software is not a religion. Free Software is a technical issue that had
broad social implications only because everyone in society seems to be using
software. Free Software, as a movement, has one thing in common with most
religions: They propagate treating others nicely. Other than that, Free
Software and religion share no characteristics. For example, many religions
have ideas about what you should eat. The Free Software movement has no such
suggestions. Also, religions typically have some sort of creation myth, and
ideas about what happens when you die. The Free Software movement has no
ideas on the matter: it recognizes that it is way out of its scope. People of
all religions use Free Software.

"I'm sure I didn't say Richard 'is like a god we can all talk to.' I might have
said 'if Richard is like a god, then he's a god we can all talk to' in order
to point out the ways in which Richard Stallman is not like a god.
Richard Stallman is not like a god because his email address is on the Internet.
If you email him, it's likely he will email you back. As far as I know, God
doesn't have an email address yet and prefers more mysterious forms of

NewsForge: Tell me about your first experiences with computers.

Brown: "My dad bought me a Mac when I went to college. I tried to connect it to the
Internet and couldn't figure out how. It soon was abandoned, as computers
not connected to the Internet aren't very useful. For years, I used
computers running Windows as glorified word processors. I used the Internet
for research. I didn't even have an email address.

"At this point, I designed my first Web site. I was sitting around with a
bunch of friends that were talking about how they needed a Web site for their
motion picture production company. In my typical arrogant fashion, I said,
'I'll make it!' even though I had no idea how to make a Web site: I didn't
even know it would take some kind of 'source' to generate the Web site.

"So I learned. Eventually, people started to hire me to design Web sites. I
liked to do the design and mark-up myself. You don't have to design too many
Web sites before you realize that your job would be much easier if you
learned to program. All the programmers I knew said I should learn to
program using Emacs, so I downloaded it and started using it on my Windows

"Emacs was my introduction to Free Software, which was when I really started
to become interested in technology. All of a sudden my computer became
interesting to me. It was no longer a big, clumsy tool. Using GNU/Linux is
really an entirely different paradigm for using a computer. It's much more
exciting. It's impossible to use the system without finding out more about
how your computer works."

NewsForge: Why do you think so many creative people are attracted to

Brown: "Artists make art about and with what's around them. So when computers are
everywhere, it only makes sense that artists are interested in them.

"Computers are tactile and tangible. Programming is a different experience
than drawing with a pen and pencil, but it's no less visceral. It's still
creating something, you still have to use your senses to do it well.

"As an artist, I like GNU/Linux because I'm picky about how things look. I
like the fact I that GNU/Linux gives me more control over how my environment
looks. I don't even like to use my computer unless it look a certain way: my
computer has to look like it belongs in a 1950s science fiction film:
blank, technological."


  • News
Click Here!