Eben Moglen is usually an inspiring speaker, and his keynote at FOSDEM 2011
did not disappoint. Free software remains, as always, at the core of his
talks, but he has adopted a wider political vision and thinks that the
community should do the same. Our freedom, he said, depends on
reengineering the network to replace vulnerable, centralized services with
alternatives which resist government control.
The publication of Larry Lessig's
Code, Eben said, drew our attention to the fact that, in the world we
live in, code increasingly functions as law. Code does the work of the state,
but it can also serve revolution against the state.
We are seeing an enormous demonstration of the power of code now, he said.
At the same time, there is a lot of attention being paid to the publication
of Evgeny Morozov's The Net
Delusion, which makes the claim that the net is being co-opted
to control freedom worldwide. The book is meant to be a warning to
technology optimists. Eben is, he said, one of those optimists. The
lesson he draws from current events is that the right net brings freedom,
but the wrong net brings tyranny.
We have spent a lot of time making free software. In the process, we have
joined forces with other elements of the free culture world. Those forces
include people like Jimmy Wales, but also people like Julian Assange.
Wikipedia and Wikileaks, he said, are two sides of the same coin. At
FOSDEM, he said, one could see "the third side" of the coin. We are all
people who have organized to change the world without creating new
hierarchies in the process.
At the end of 2010, Wikileaks was seen mainly as a criminal operation.
Events in Tunisia changed that perception, though. Wikileaks turns out to
be an attempt to help people learn about their world. Wikileaks, he said,
is not destruction - it's freedom.
But now there are a lot of Egyptians out there whose freedom depends on the
ability to communicate through commercial operations which will respond to
pressure from the government. We are now seeing in real time the
vulnerabilities which come from the bad engineering in the current system.
Social networking, he said, changes the balance of power away from the
state and toward people. Events in countries like Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt
demonstrate its importance. But current forms of social communication are
"intensely dangerous" to use. They are too centralized and vulnerable to
state control. Their design is motivated by profit, not by freedom. As a
result, political movements are resting on a fragile foundation: the
courage of Mr. Zuckerberg or Google to resist the state - the same state
which can easily shut them down.
Likewise, real time information for people trying to build freedom
currently depends on a single California-based microblogging service which must
turn a profit. This operation is capable of deciding, on its own, to donate
its entire history to the US Library of Congress. Who knows what types
of "donations" it may have made elsewhere?
We need to fix this situation, he said, and quickly. We are "behind the
curve" of freedom movements which depend heavily on code. The longer we
wait, the more we become part of the system. That will bring tragedy
soon. Egypt is inspiring, but things there could have been far worse. The
was late to control the net and unready to be as tough as it could have
been. It is, Eben said, not hard to decapitate a revolution when everybody
is in Mr. Zuckerberg's database.
It is time to think about the consequences of what we have built - and what
we have not built yet. We have talked for years about replacing
centralized services with federated services; overcentralization is a
critical vulnerability which can lead to arrests, torture, and killings.
People are depending on technology which is built to sell them out. If we
care about freedom, we have to address this problem; we are running out of
time, and people are in harm's way. Eben does not want people who are
taking risks for freedom to be carrying an iPhone.
One thing that Egypt has showed us, like Iran did before, is that closed
networks are harmful and network "kill switches" will harm people who are
seeking freedom. What can we do when the government has clamped down on
network infrastructure? We must return to the idea of mesh networks, built
with existing equipment, which can resist governmental control. And we must
to secure, end-to-end communications over those networks. Can we do it, he
asked? Certainly, but will we? If we don't, the promise of the free
software movement will begin to be broken. Force will intervene and we
will see more demonstrations that, despite the net, the state still wins.
North America, Eben said, is becoming the heart of a global data mining
industry. When US President Dwight Eisenhower left office, he famously
warned about the power of the growing military-industrial complex. Despite
that warning, the US has, since then, spent more on defense than the rest
of the world combined. Since the events of September 11, 2001, a new
surveillance-industrial complex has grown. Eben strongly recommended
America articles published by the Washington Post. It
is eye-opening to see just how many Google-like operations there are, all
under the control of the government.
Europe's data protection laws have worked, in that they have caused all of
that data to move to North America where its use is uncontrolled. Data
mining, like any industry, tends to move to the areas where there is the
least control. There is no way that the US government is going to change
that situation; it depends on it too heavily. As a presidential candidate,
Barack Obama was against giving immunity to the telecom industry for its
role in spying on Americans. That position did not even last through the
general election. Obama's actual policies are not notably different from
his predecessor - except in the areas where they are more aggressive.
Private industry will not change things either; the profit motive will not
produce privacy or defense for people in the street. Companies trying to
earn a profit cannot do so without the good will of the government. So we
must build under the assumption that the net is untrustworthy, and that
centralized services can kill people. We cannot, he said, fool around with
this; we must replace things which create these vulnerabilities.
We know how to engineer our way out of this situation. We need to create
plug servers which are cheap and require little power, and we must fill
them with "sweet free software." We need working mesh networking,
self-constructing phone systems built with tools like OpenBTS and Asterisk,
federated social services, and anonymous publication platforms. We need to
keep our data within our houses where it is shielded by whatever
protections against physical searches remain. We need to send encrypted
email all the time. These systems can also provide perimeter defense for
more vulnerable systems and proxy servers for circumvention of national
firewalls. We can do all of it, Eben said; it is easily done on top of the
stuff we already have.
Eben concluded with an announcement of the creation of the Freedom
Box Foundation, which is dedicated to making all of this stuff available
and "cheaper than phone chargers." A generation ago, he said, we set out
to create freedom, and we are still doing it. But we have to pick up the
pace, and we have to aim our engineering more directly at politics. We
have friends in the street; if we don't help them, they will get hurt. The
good news is that we already have almost everything we need and we are more
than capable of doing the rest.
[Editor's note: as of this writing, the Freedom Box Foundation does not
appear to have a web site - stay tuned.]
[Update: Added link to The FreedomBox Foundation]
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