On Monday, a group of maintainers of the GNU Project, the free operating system created by Richard Stallman, questioned Stallman's leadership and emitted a joint statement for rethinking how the project should be managed going forward.
Late last month, after resigning as president of the Free Foundation in the wake of catastrophically insensitive statements posted to an MIT mailing list, and a social media backlash, Stallman also appeared to resign as the head of the GNU Project.
A statement saying as much appeared on his personal website. But then it disappeared, leaving speculation that his site had been hacked.
In an email to The Register, Matt Lee, a free and open-source software developer and one of the 18 signatories of the joint statement, offered support for that theory.
"Regarding his website being defaced, Stallman's personal site has been hosted by Positive Internet in the UK for a long time and he has many volunteers who update parts of the site daily," Lee said.
"I would expect someone who had access at some point but had been dormant updated his site. It seems like the error was caught pretty quickly and Stallman seems to be the master of his domain once more."
In other posts and messages, Stallman has insisted he will continue to oversee the GNU Project.
After he announced his resignation as president of the Free Software Foundation, a decision he attributed "to pressure on the Foundation and me over a series of misunderstandings and mischaracterizations of what I have said," he made clear in a mailing list message that he plans to keep steering the GNU Project.
"On September 16, I resigned as president of the Free Software Foundation, but the GNU Project and the FSF are not the same," he wrote. "I am still the head of the GNU Project (the Chief GNUisance), and I intend to continue as such."
The header of Stallman's personal website currently says as much: "I continue to be the Chief GNUisance of the GNU Project. I do not intend to stop any time soon."
And in response to a query from The Register, Stallman reiterated that he is not going anywhere. "I don't intend to step down as head of the GNU Project," he said. "I could agree to incremental changes in how some decisions are made if I am confident that won't lead to unbounded radical changes."
Eighteen GNU Project maintainers argue otherwise. The joint statement, from only a handful of the estimated 300 and 400 project maintainers, acknowledges Stallman's decades of work to advance the cause of free software, but contends that his behavior over the years has undermined the project's efforts to empower all computer users.
"GNU is not fulfilling its mission when the behavior of its leader alienates a large part of those we want to reach out to," the statement says. "We believe that Richard Stallman cannot represent all of GNU."
The memo asks GNU maintainers to come together and decide how the project should be organized. "The GNU Project we want to build is one that everyone can trust to defend their freedom," the statement says.
The GNU maintainer memo follows a statement issued by the Free Software Foundation on Sunday. The FSF said that because Stallman founded the GNU Project and the FSF, and until recently had led both, the relationship between the two organizations remains in flux.
"Since RMS resigned as president of the FSF, but not as head of GNU, the FSF is now working with GNU leadership on a shared understanding of the relationship for the future," the FSF said.
Lee said that the two organizations have been intertwined for so long - the FSF provides GNU with financial, technical, and promotional assistance - that their relationship is confusing. "For example, the GNU GPL is published by the FSF, not GNU," Lee said. "Key infrastructure that GNU relies on is owned by the FSF, and used by GNU and non-GNU projects alike."
"I am personally disappointed that Richard is choosing to continue as leader of GNU," said Lee. "I think the GNU Advisory Committee is better suited to lead things. I believe both the FSF board and the GAC need term limits and I hope they implement them."
Lee expressed optimism that the free software movement can become more cohesive and supportive, noting that he's part of a newly launched project, freesw.org, to help that happen. "I just want people who contribute to the free and open source community to come together and feel welcome," he said. ®
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