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Interview: How a hacker became a freedom fighter

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One of the founding fathers of "free software" and an esteemed elder of the hacking community, Richard Stallman has made defending people's freedoms his life's work. That usually means supplying hackers with software and attacking copyright law. But as he tells Michael Reilly, his advocacy of personal freedoms extends to the protection of true democracy and of the human rights increasingly being trampled on in the US and elsewhere

Is it true you used to live in your office?

Yes it is. I lived there for half of the 1980s and most of the 1990s.

What made you do that?

It was convenient and cheap. To walk home to another place when I was sleepy was a very bad thing: first of all, if I was sleepy, it might take a couple of hours before I could get it together to put on my coat and my shoes and so on. And after that, walking home would wake me up, so when I got home I wouldn't go to sleep either. It was so much better to just be able to go to sleep where I was.

What does "hacker" mean to you?

A hacker is someone who enjoys playful cleverness. I know many people think it means security breaker, but since "hacker" is what we call ourselves in my community, I won't accept a derogatory meaning. If you want to refer to security breakers you should call them "crackers". You can be a hacker in a lot of different media, it doesn't have to be with computers. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology there's an old tradition in which people "hack" buildings and public spaces, by putting up the famous "Nerd Crossing" road sign, for example. It didn't involve breaking any security and it was playful and clever.

On playfulness, when did you start saying "happy hacking" as an alternative to goodbye?

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