Karsten Gerloff is the current president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, the European
sister organization of the FSF. He began his LinuxCon Europe 2012 talk,
entitled "All watched over by machines of loving grace", by focusing on a
number of technological trends. However, he prefaced that by saying that
what he really wanted to focus on were the more interesting topics of
society, power, and control.
The number of computers in our lives is increasing. Karsten noted that
he could count at least 17 computers in his home: in his camera, freezer,
alarm clock, network router, car IVI system,
laptop, and so on. All of those computers can in principle perform any
computable task, but, in many cases, the software turns them into
At the same time as the number of computers in our lives has
increased, the cost of communication has plummeted, and the range of
knowledge to which we have access has vastly increased. But, it is not so
long since things were very different. To illustrate these points, Karsten
drew a couple of examples from his own life. In 1994, he went as an
exchange student from Germany to a high school the US. The following
Christmas, his girlfriend asked her parents for just one thing in lieu of
all other presents: a 30-minute phone call to her boyfriend. By contrast,
today we think nothing of firing up a VOIP call to almost anywhere in the
At university in the 1990s, when Karsten wanted to learn about a new
subject, he went to the library. Where the resources of the library ended,
so too did his research, more or less. Beyond that, the best he might
attempt was to venture to a university library in another city, or request
a book or two on inter-library loan, gambling that it might be relevant to
his research. By contrast, today we start our research on a new topic by
going to Wikipedia or a search engine, and increasingly, cutting-edge
information appears first on the net.
Karsten noted that these huge changes in the cost of communication and
accessibility of information are based on two powerful tools:
general-purpose computers that will do anything we teach them to do, and
general-purpose networks that will transmit whatever we want.
Restricted devices and products
However, the technological advances described above are under threat
from those who see profit in turning our general-purpose computers into
limited appliances, or into devices that are controlled by someone other
than the owner. So, Karsten says, when we approach a service or device, we
need to ask: what can we do with this? For example, can I make the
powerful computer in my phone do something it was not intended to do?
Restrictions on functionality are often added
when marketing gets involved in the product-design cycle. At this point,
product features that get in the way of business goals are eliminated.
Here, Karsten mentioned a couple of examples. All digital cameras produce
raw image output. However, after converting that format to JPEG, low-end
cameras then discard the raw data. Photographers who want the option of
keeping the raw data must instead purchase a more expensive "professional"
camera that doesn't discard the raw data. In the telecoms world, mobile
phone operators often try to block
VOIP over their data services, in an effort to force their customers to
make and to pay for calls over the operator's own service.
These sorts of marketing-driven restrictions are very much against our
interests, because the kinds of technological leaps described
above—the fall in the cost of sending information, the increase in
speed of sending information, and the consequent increase in the amount of
information that we have access to—were only possible because someone
took a general-purpose computer and connected it to a general-purpose
network, and made it do something that no one had thought of before.
Allowing this sort of generality of operation paves the way for innovations
that are often unforeseen. Thus, when Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf devised TCP in
1974, they didn't think of the world wide web, but they designed TCP in a
way that allowed the web to happen. Similarly, Tim Berners-Lee didn't
conceive of Wikipedia when he designed the World Wide Web, but the Web was
designed in a way that allowed Wikipedia to happen.
A restricted device—a smart phone that can't make VOIP calls, for
example—is inconvenient. But the real cost of these sorts of
restrictions is the limitations they place on our ability to create and
innovate, to come up with the next big idea. We thereby lose opportunities
to improve the world, and, Karsten noted, in a world where thousands of
people die of hunger and preventable diseases each day, that's a cost we
Free software and the forces against it
Given unrestricted hardware and networks, how do we implement our next
big ideas? That is, of course, where free software comes in. Free
software is powerful, Karsten said, because it allows us to share and reuse
work, and to work across physical, geographical, and company boundaries.
Everyone working on free software has their own purpose, but all benefit
from the work. By being accessible and promoting a spirit of
investigation, free software lets us control the technology we use, rather
than vice versa.
However, there are forces that work against free software innovation.
Karsten looked at some current and notable examples of such forces: UEFI
secure boot, DRM, patents, and centralized control of information.
UEFI is the successor to BIOS. UEFI's secure boot protocol, or "restricted boot" as
Karsten likes to call it, is a boot mechanism whereby UEFI checks that a
boot loader is signed by an recognized key, and if the check fails, the
machine will not boot. Secure boot provides a way for the person who does
the authorizing to control what software you install on your machine. Of
course, in this case, the authorizer is Microsoft. Hardware vendors that
want to sell computers with a "Windows compatible" logo must comply with
the rules that Microsoft defines (and can change).
For example, Microsoft says that vendors of Intel PCs must provide a
mechanism for users to disable secure boot. But, hardware vendors that
want to use the "Windows compatible" logo on an ARM device are not
allowed to provide a mechanism to disable UEFI secure boot. Thus, since
Windows phones started shipping in October, millions of restricted
computers are flooding onto the market every day. (Of course, this is in
addition to the millions of Android and iPhone devices that are already
locked down via vendor-specific equivalents of secure boot.) Returning to
his earlier point that the real test of freedom is whether you can make
your computer do something that was unintended by the manufacturer, Karsten
said that if you buy a Windows phone (or another restricted phone) then,
you don't own it, in the sense of having a general-purpose computing
DRM (Digital Rights Management, or as Karsten prefers, "Digital
Restrictions Management") started as the music industry's attempt to
preserve a business model. But it has crept elsewhere, into devices such
as the Kindle. The Kindle is a powerful tablet device that thanks to DRM
has been turned into, essentially, a digital shopping catalog. "Once
upon a time, companies used to send me catalogs at their expense.
Nowadays, I'm being asked to buy the catalog. I'm not sure it's a good
Karsten then turned his attention to patents and, in particular, the
strategies of some companies that are acquiring large numbers of
patents. He began with the observation that he really likes 3D printers
because "I hope they'll do for manufacturing what free software did
for computing: put control back in our hands." A few weeks ago
someone obtained a patent on a DRM system for 3D printers. That patent is
like other DRM patents: a patent for a piece of software in the printer
that checks with a server to see if the hash of the to-be-printed file is
in the set of files that the user is allowed to print; if it is not, then
the file is not printed.
Who obtained the patent? A company called Intellectual Ventures, which
was cofounded by Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft. Intellectual
Ventures is a company with a reputation:
"Calling Intellectual Ventures a patent troll would be like calling
the Atlantic Ocean a puddle." The company is rather secretive, so
information about its workings is hard to come by. However, some
researchers recently published a paper entitled The Giants
Among Us that pulled together all of the information that they could
find. By now, Intellectual Ventures controls tens of thousands of patents.
The company's strategy is to monetize those patents in any way it can.
Sometimes that is done by licensing the patents to people who make things,
but more commonly it is done by "extorting" money from people who make
something without asking Intellectual Ventures's permission first. The
researchers identified around 1300 shell companies operated by Intellectual
Ventures (but they suspect they haven't found them all).
Intellectual Ventures pursues strategies such as threatening people
with patent litigation, and demanding that companies pay money to avoid
that litigation. The paper notes that "patent mass aggregators" such
as Intellectual Ventures are also believed to employ hitherto unusual
strategies for acquiring patents—for example, offering universities
in developing countries contracts where, in exchange for cash, the
university gives the company rights on all innovations that the
universities create for the next N years.
In short, Intellectual Ventures is trying to create a monopoly on
innovation. And they are not alone: Intellectual Ventures is the largest
of the mass aggregators, but there are many other companies now doing the
However, Karsten is not without optimism. Patents and patent trolls
constitute a powerful threat to innovation and free software. But free
software is a powerful opponent, because "we work together and have
a large shared interest…we don't acknowledge company or country
borders, [and] we're very creative at working around restrictions and
eventually beating them." It's Karsten's hope that the current
patent system will start shaking at its foundations within five years, and
will be breaking down within ten years.
The problem of centralized control
By design, the Internet was built with no central point of control.
And on top of that distributed network, we've built distributed,
decentralized systems such as email. But the general-purpose nature of our
networks and computers is not a given natural order. It can be reversed.
And indeed that is what is happening in many areas as companies erect
structures that centralize control. Thus "Facebook defines who we
are, Google defines what we think, and Amazon defines what we want",
because we feed them information, and they place us in a "comfortable
bubble" where we no longer see other opinions and cease being curious.
The problem is that those companies will sell us out when it is in
their interests to do so. Here, Karsten mentioned the case where Yahoo! surrendered
the details of a Chinese blogger to the Chinese government. Most
likely what happened was that the Chinese government threatened to exclude
Yahoo! from doing business in China. Consequently, Yahoo! provided details
identifying the blogger, despite apparently having some information that
suggested they knew that the blogger had antigovernment sympathies and was
therefore at risk of persecution.
But, asked Karsten, this only happens in dictatorships, right? Well,
no. In September, Twitter handed
over messages by some of its users who were part of the Occupy Wall
Street movement to New York prosecutors. After originally declining to do
this on the grounds of protecting free speech, a judge threatened the
company with a fine based on a percentage of its earnings. This threat
constituted a double blow, since it would have required Twitter, a private
company, to actually reveal its earnings. Given a choice between loyalty
to private shareholders and loyalty to users, Twitter
chose the former.
We can, of course, leave these centralized structures of control. But,
we do so much as dissidents left the Soviet Union, leaving behind friends
and family. Yes, Karsten remarked, it is all only digital, but there is
still some pain in leaving if you have invested part of your life in these
Rather than submitting to centralized control, we can build
decentralized structures, running on servers in every home. We already
have enough computers to do that. And in fact we already have most of the
required software components: it's just a matter of putting them together,
which is the goal of the Freedom Box
project. (A Freedom Box talk by Bdale Garbee was unfortunately scheduled at
the conference at exactly the same time as Karsten's talk.) Here, Karsten
listed a number of the tools and protocols that already exist: Diaspora and GNU social for social
networking; protocols such as OStatus, WebFinger, and Federated
Social Web that allow these services to work together; distributed file
storage through ownCloud and GNUnet; user-owned ISPs; Bitcoin as a currency; and distributed
search engines such as YaCy. We can replicate
(in a decentralized fashion) all the things that we today use in a
The key to controlling our own future is to master the necessary
technologies and skills. Karsten quoted from Douglas Rushkoff's book Program or Be
The real question is, do we direct technology, or do we let ourselves be
directed by it and those who have mastered it? Choose the former and you
gain access to the control panel of civilization. Choose the latter, and it
could be the last real choice you get to make.
So, said Karsten, when you see a system or a service, ask yourself: who
controls this? If you don't like the answer, don't buy the product or the
service. Go and build something better.
The work of the FSFE
Karsten concluded his talk with a few words about the activities of the
FSFE. Like its sister organizations (FSF, FSF Latin America, FSF India),
FSFE is a non-profit organization that engages in various activities to
support free software. The organization does a lot of work in politics, to
try and get rid of bad laws, and get good laws made. They run campaigns to
increase people's awareness of free software. For example, they are
a "Free your Android"
campaign where they show people how
to put a freer version of Android on their devices. (Interestingly, they
are getting a lot of interest from people who characterize themselves as
non-technical, but who are concerned about where their data is going.)
Karsten extended an invitation to support the FSFE. There are many ways to do
this, from simply signing up as a supporter to more actively engaging as a
Fellow of the foundation. For individuals and companies that have the
donations are of course useful. "But, more important than this,
stop taking the road of least resistance. Start doing things that make
yourselves more free."
[For those who are curious, the title of Karsten's talk comes from the
title poem in a book of poetry by the American writer Richard
Brautigan, probably by way of a BBC documentary TV series of the same name. Both the book and the
TV series have resonances for the topic of the talk. Brautigan licensed the poems to be
freely reprinted in books and newspapers if they are given away for
free. Wikipedia notes that the TV series "argues that computers have
failed to liberate humanity and instead have distorted and simplified our
view of the world around us".]
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