Today, Sony is releasing a new firmware update for the Playstation 3 videogame console. Among other things, according to a post on the official Sony blog, "it will disable the 'Install Other OS' feature that was available on the PS3 systems prior to the current slimmer models, launched in September 2009. No, it's not an April Fool's day joke - geeks won't be able to run Linux on their PS3s anymore. Infoweek compares this to the move by "Tivo, which uses Linux in its digital video recorder, has rigged its devices to block installation of source code that's been modified by the end user. Critics of the move, including free software advocate Richard Stallman, now refer to any attempts by Linux-based hardware manufacturers to limit the use of modified Linux on their products as 'Tivoization.'"
Stallman is one of the original online freedom fighters. It's sort of ironic because he doesn't own a cell phone. He doesn't surf the web. And he's sick of people who spend their lives so plugged in. "It's almost as if they worship technology," he has said, "and they don't care about the social consequences of using it." So how did this guy who sounds Amish and looks like Rick Rubin become the most dangerous man online?
Stallman is the founder and high-priest of the Free Software Foundation, a posse of hackers, scientists, and economists who share a renegade mission: to empower the people by unshackling the restrictions of computer technology and freely distributing software across the Web. His enemies are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and every other leader of what he calls the "unjust Internet regime. "
Stallman launched the free software movement in 1985 after graduating Harvard magna um laude in physics and becoming the most notorious hacker at MIT (where he became famous for leading a mutiny against the school's computer password system, and cracked the code open for his classmates). He created GNU, the first operating system made completely of free software. Linux, Gnutella, open-source software, piracy, and the breakdown of the proprietary technology system as we know it followed in his wake. He's the greatest hero of what he calls the "copyleft" and, as one detractor put it, "the most hated man in cyberspace."
But after two decades as the icon of the digital underground, Stallman's time is now. In the fallout of the recession, the Napster generation who grew up in the free age online is heeding his gospel. A while back, his followers launched a high-profile fight by suing Cisco for restricting access to software that is licensed by the Stallman's group to be free. He's also expanding his fight to address other issues such as climate change, radio-frequency identification, and Darfur. He lectures barefoot, lotus-style, and goes by the hacker nickname RMS. He's also a diehard backcountry explorer, from Cambodia to Peru, and performs hacker folk songs during his trips: "Join us now and share the software," goes one of his tunes, "You'll be free, hackers, you'll be free." Except on the PS3.
David Kushner is the author of many books, including Masters of Doom, Jonny Magic & the Card Shark Kids, Levittown, The Bones of Marianna, and Alligator Candy. A contributing editor of Rolling Stone, he has written for publications including The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine.