The Freedom Box is starting to roll, with a fundraising drive that met its
goals in a few short days, along with a newly formed foundation to oversee its
development. What started as an idea in a talk given by Eben Moglen just over a
year ago has more recently gained a lot of momentum. What can we expect to
see from this "personal server running a free software operating
system, with free applications designed to create and preserve personal
privacy", and when can we expect to see it?
The "when" question may have become somewhat clearer since the "Push
the FreedomBox Foundation from 0 to 60 in 30 days" Kickstarter
fundraising effort has clearly been a success. The fundraising drive was
set up on February 17, with
the goal of getting $60,000 in donations in 30 days, but it has exceeded
that—and quickly. As of this writing, there are more than 650 supporters
who have donated over $64,000 in just five or six days. Based on the
reaching the goal (and quite possibly far surpassing it) should result in
a software release in six months. With luck, that means we will see the
first Freedom Box release in August or so.
It should be noted that, perhaps a bit oddly, the project is called
"Freedom Box", but the foundation is the "FreedomBox Foundation".
Like the Diaspora fundraising
drive last May, the FreedomBox effort shows that there is a pool of
money available for privacy-respecting tools and applications. So far,
Diaspora, which is an attempt to
provide a privacy-respecting Facebook alternative, has delivered some code and is running a
private alpha. Whether Diaspora gains any sort of traction remains to be
seen, but it may fall flat because the vast majority of internet users do not
seem to put privacy anywhere near the top of their priority lists.
But, clearly some internet users do have a privacy focus and are
willing to fund projects they see as advancing that agenda. There are also
a large number of people whose privacy may be more than just a preference
and is, instead, a life or death matter. For those
folks, what will the
Freedom Box offer? The high-level goals are spelled out
on the foundation's website; the basic idea is to decentralize
web applications and services, so that governments, companies, and other
organizations will find it difficult to disrupt or eavesdrop on Freedom Box
communications. To accomplish that, the project's goals are quite ambitious.
Unlike some other projects, Freedom Box is not just a software solution. It
is targeting various types of low-end hardware servers to run a
Debian-derived Linux system
that implements its plans. The current targets are so-called "plug
computers" (or "plug servers"), which are small, low-cost, low-power
computers that often have the form factor of a "wall wart" power supply.
These devices would be always-on gateways to the internet,
with an interface that allows them to be used by both technically savvy and
less sophisticated users.
While providing "safe social networking" is one of the aims of
the Freedom Box, it is only part of the picture. The project wants to
protect users' data as well as their communications, including internet
traffic, email, and voice. Beyond that, Freedom Box is specifically
targeted at routing around ISPs' restrictions on the types of traffic they
will carry, as well as attempts by governments to do similar traffic
restrictions. In short, the goals of the Freedom Box live up to Moglen's
original vision, as spelled out in his February 2010 talk
at the New York branch of the Internet Society, as well as those outlined in a more recent talk
at FOSDEM 2011: it is geared towards restoring users' freedoms.
Those freedoms are best guarded by keeping our data safe within the walls
of our homes, because there are typically more legal protections there than
there are when storing data on some company's servers. We have already
seen that companies will often bow to governmental pressure in ways that
would be more difficult to orchestrate when the data is spread out across
the net. To that end, Freedom Box also plans to provide ways to securely
back up encrypted data on friends' and neighbors' servers. In addition, it
will provide ways for those under repressive regimes to anonymously publish
information, such that those regimes will find it difficult to stop or
If the FreedomBox is going to handle all of these kinds of things,
obviously the security of the device itself is paramount, but it is also
at protecting other systems in the home that live "behind" the Freedom Box.
Did we mention that it is an ambitious vision? It is that, without
question, and will certainly not be fully delivered in the six-month
time frame. One would guess it will be a few years before it fulfills all
of its goals, but those goals are important.
Development, or at least planning, has been taking place on the Debian
wiki's Freedom Box project
page. One would guess that the infusion of some funding will
accelerate the process, but there is already a fair amount of information
about the parts and pieces that could come together as the Freedom Box. As
Moglen has said, almost all of those pieces needed for the project already
exist in one form or another. In some sense, the project will be an
integration effort for many different free software projects. That part
will be tricky for sure, but fairly straightforward; the harder part
will be getting the user interface "right".
The Debian Freedom Box "vision statement" describes that part of the problem
In order to bring about the new network order, it is paramount that it is easy to convert to it. The hardware it runs on must be cheap. The software it runs on must be easy to install and administrate by anybody. It must be easy to transition from existing services.
There are a number of projects working to realize a future of distributed
services; we aim to bring them all together in a convenient package.
Making all of the envisioned functionality easy to configure and use will
be an enormous challenge. Focusing on just a few—or even
one—hardware platform(s) will help with that process, but there are a
lot of disparate pieces to be integrated—and to be made to mostly
"just work". It would appear that the planning for that part has barely
started, but there has been some work done on defining and describing the
underlying guts of the system.
The "Design and
ToDos" page outlines the base system as well as the
extensions—based on existing free software tools—that
will replace various "cloud" services (Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Dropbox,
Google Calendar and Reader, and so on) that are in use today. It also has
a list of issues
that underscores the amount of work to be done.
The base system will be based on Debian (obviously) with encrypted
filesystems (which immediately raises a question about key/password
management for users), a web server, AppArmor for security, a configuration
system possibly based on Config::Model,
and Tor for anonymous communications.
extensions that are listed cover all kinds of different services
including web-based email (Roundcube, SquirrelMail, ...), blogging
(Wordpress, Drupal), file sharing (Sparkleshare, ownCloud, ...), telephony
(Asterisk, Yate), social networking a la Facebook (Appleseed,
Jappix, Diaspora), and so on. The extension list seems to cover most or
all of the web applications and services that folks are using today, but
it's a little hard to say if, for example, SquirrelMail is truly an
acceptable Gmail alternative.
The project mailing
list starts back in August, but the posting volume trailed off late
last year. Since the advent of the FreedomBox Foundation, along with
Moglen's FOSDEM talk, things have rapidly picked back up. Discussions
there have mostly centered on high-level requirements, thoughts, and plans.
Funding and the role of the foundation
One of the more interesting postings to freedombox-discuss, was a transcription
of an IRC question and answer session with Ian Sullivan, who is helping to
coordinate the activities of the foundation. The Q&A was held on February
18 on the #freedombox channel on OFTC, and outlined some of the goals of
the foundation along with the plans for the funds that are being raised:
The biggest part of the work is getting a team together with solid
integration and technical design skills so that we can start coming
together on general design ideas and roadmaps. Coordinating that is
the biggest role for the foundation at this step. But as we've all
seen, there are so many different places to start and so many
different angles, it is easy to get stymied and lose the initiative.
So the kickstarter goal is to get the foundation enough resources to
enable it to start filling that role.
Presumably, how the funds will be used will be dependent on how much is
raised. The current plan is not to hire full-time developers—$60,000
wouldn't go very far in doing so anyway—but to use the funds as
something of a
seed to get more people involved. Sullivan mentioned the idea of "buying plug computers and sending them to developers who promise to
work on the project" as one possibility for using the funds. But,
part of the idea of the funding drive is to increase the visibility of the
project and, hopefully, increase the enthusiasm of potential
There are a lot of people who have expressed interest in the
project, and even more firm commitments of time and effort, but it is
too easy for all of that to keep in a holding pattern with everyone
thinking that they will move after person X has moved or milestone X
has been reached. If we can raise this funding, it will enable us to
get some full time support and will shake up a lot of people who have
been interested, but who are not yet convinced that now is the right
Clearly the project and the foundation are in their early stages, with much
left to be worked out—not just technically, but organizationally as
well. The foundation's web page notes that "in coming weeks we will
be announcing here the technical leads for Freedom Box and its component
projects". The foundation is incorporated as a Delaware non-profit
and will seek non-profit recognition by the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
"as soon as the paperwork is ready", Sullivan said.
Sense of urgency
Recent unrest in the Middle East, along with Egypt and Libya governments'
internet shutdowns, have clearly increased the sense of urgency in the need
for a device like the Freedom Box, as the Kickstarter appeal makes clear:
What we need is the glue to hold all of that together, the architecture of
which pieces stack together in which way to turn a collection of
possibilities into an appliance so easy to use that you forget you even
have one, at least until that moment when you really need it. The
FreedomBox Foundation was built to put this all together. It was started by
community leaders with long track records and lives as a community
project. But the past few months have shown us all that there are millions
of people around the world who need such a device now and we need to pick
up the pace and get them made so that next time, our friends have some
In the end, $60,000 is not a lot of money for a project of this scope.
Even if the amount doubles (or more) before the Kickstarter campaign ends,
it's really just a drop in the bucket. Moglen was quoted in
the New York Times as saying that "slightly north of
$500,000" would be enough to develop Freedom Box 1.0 in a year, so
one might guess that the foundation has some other fundraising
plans—perhaps approaching well-heeled individuals, other foundations, or
companies to make up the difference. The interest and enthusiasm shown by
the Kickstarter effort may be enough to shake loose some bigger donations.
The problem that the Freedom Box is seeking to solve is real, and recent
events have only helped clarify that. We will have to wait and see whether
the project and foundation are successful in solving it. Even if they
fail, which is an outcome few would hope for, all of the work that is
done will be available to others who want to head down that path. That is
just another example of the freedom inherent in free software.
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