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The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Richard Stallman's leadership are common topics on the Internet. However, perusing the usual criticisms and defenses of Stallman in a discussion last week on Facebook and Google+, I had a blinding flash of the obvious:
What, I wondered, happens when Stallman no longer leads? Will new intellectual leaders emerge, or will free software be limited to a single generation?
The question of succession is one that many organizations in free and open source software (FOSS) will have to face in the coming years. Since FOSS is less than three decades old, in many cases, organizations are still being led by their founders. However, as the original leaders approach old age, the question will become increasingly unavoidable.
Some, of course, have already answered it. In the Linux kernel, the "Linus doesn't scale" controversy of a decade ago resulted in a reorganization of work flow so that now several lieutenants exist who might be able to step into Torvalds' position if for some reason he was unavailable.
Similarly, one of the reasons that Eben Moglen created the Software Freedom Law Center in 2005 was to help guarantee a new generation of FOSS-knowledgable lawyers.
However, in the case of the FSF, no such provision seems to have been made. Asking board members and employees, I drew blanks when I received any answer at all.
Probably, the matter does not seem urgent. Stallman is only 58 years old, and has made no announcement of major health problems. Nor does he seem a likely candidate for retirement.
Still, I can't help wondering if the subject is one that people prefer not to think about. Yet, once you think of the matter, raising it is no more ghoulish than writing a will. In fact, to anticipate the need only seems responsible. Like anyone else in late middle-age, some time in the next few decades, Stallman is likely to die or become unable to continue his present hectic schedule. At some point -- short of a digital uploading of his personality -- the problem of succession will need to be dealt with.
When that happens, the FSF may suffer more than many FOSS organizations might, because so much of its philosophical center seems dependent on Stallman alone. On a day to day basis, the FSF could probably continue indefinitely, but how will it respond to new technology and challenges?
Who might emerge as a new intellectual leader, and how might they affect how the Foundation operates and change the face that it presents to the world?
Three Possible Successors
Whenever the time for a successor comes, the FSF should have more choice than it once did. Over the last half decade, the Foundation has more efforts to encourage participation in its efforts than in the rest of its existence.
For example, in the last few years, the FSF has created LibrePlanet, an umbrella organization for local free software groups, as well as the annual conference of the same name, and GNU Generation, an organization for pre-university students.
These organizations seem to be spread a bit thin, but add regular internships, as well as the board of directors, and in theory the FSF should have no shortages of places from which future leaders might emerge.
However, as I write, the number of plausible candidates seems relatively few. At least half the current board seem too far along in their own careers -- even those who, like Henri Poole, a founder of CivicActions, I have heard mentioned as possible successors.
Similarly, current executive director John Sullivan, has a long history of free software advocacy, but after only six months in the position, he hasn't had much chance to leave his mark.
In fact, after several days of thinking, I could only come up with three plausible candidates. In alphabetical order, they are:
1) Peter Brown, the FSF's executive director from February 2005 to March 2011, and a current director and treasurer for the Software Freedom Conservancy. Before that, Brown was a director of the activist magazine The New Internationalist, and worked for BBC Radio.
As executive director, Brown worked hard to make the FSF more of an activist organization, encouraging public information campaigns, and trying to establish alliances with academics, activists, and anyone else who might support free software issues.
Even the Open Source Initiative, which you might assume would be at odds with the FSF, seems to have appreciated his efforts at outreach. His success was limited, although whether a lack of funds or internal opposition was the reason is uncertain -- perhaps both.
Brown has always expressed orthodox free software positions, but his emphasis would probably be more on political action. One thing he said that has always stuck with me is that free software should be as much of an issue in the public mind as recycling.
More outgoing than Stallman, he would probably provoke less personal criticism, although many might object to his activist tendencies.
2) Benjamin Mako Hill has been active in Debian, Ubuntu, and One Laptop Per Child. He became an FSF board member in 2007 at the age of twenty-seven as part of Brown's deliberate effort to recruit younger supporters. He is a Senior Senior Researcher at the MIT Sloan School of Management, studying free software communities and business models.
Hill is a fluent although slow writer, whose ideas reflect the breadth of his experience in FOSS, and are more thoughtful than dogmatic. He would probably respond to new technology and circumstances with some flexibility -- even with originality.
However, since he used to describe himself as "a rebel with too many causes," Hill might spread himself too thin to lead successfully. Moreover, for all his experience, he may also be too independent to want a leadership position, or to use it effectively.
3) Bradley Kuhn: was FSF executive director from 2001 to 2005. He has been an employee at the Software Freedom Law Center, and is now executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy.
Through Kuhn's blog, he has become increasingly quoted when free software issues make the news -- recently, for example, his views on Project Harmony, Mark Shuttleworth's group for developing templates for copyright assignment, have been widely repeated.
As FSF executive director, Kuhn was relatively quiet. Although several of the Foundation's long-time employees praise his work, externally, he seemed very much in Stallman's shadow. This appearance may be due partly to the fact that he was twenty-seven when appointed.
However, his recent comments on issues suggest that part of the reason may have been that his opinions differ little from Stallman's. My impression is that the FSF under Kuhn would act and look much the same as it does today. It might even revert to being an organization more for developers than for average users.
I have no idea if any of Brown, Hill, or Kuhn have any interest in setting the intellectual standards for free software. Since the question is theoretical for now, I saw no point in asking. I mention them mainly to suggest the range of alternate futures that might be in store for the FSF.
I am leaving open, as well, the question of how formal the succession would be -- whether it would be signalled by someone eventually replacing Stallman as president, or simply be a matter of informal influence. I could even see policy being set, not by an individual, but by votes at the LibrePlanet conference each year.
Still, the matter is worth some discussion, no matter how it is defined. Planning for what comes next is not merely a way of placating those who criticize Stallman's leadership and who suggest that he has outserved his time.
Rather, thinking about the future now will not only to help to decide what the FSF will be like in the future but also -- just possibly -- how much of a future the FSF has.