The U.S. Government’s ongoing crusade against WikiLeaks and the Egyptian Government’s shutdown of the Internet for five days force us to ask the question: How shall the commoners retain their right to communicate with each other when their own governments intervene to stifle communications that threaten their power?
Eben Moglen, a long-time free software advocate, is promoting a great insurance policy: decentralized, portable, personal servers. He calls them “Freedom Boxes.” The idea is that everyone should have a small, cheap personal server about the size of a cellphone charger. Such devices already exist, he points out in today’s NYT, and cost about $99, and will likely become cheaper in coming months and years. (A speech that Moglen gave on this topic, “Freedom in the Cloud,” on February 5, 2010, can be seen on YouTube here. )
What’s missing at the moment is the software to make them easy to use. So Moglen is calling upon the software programmers of the world to develop free software that could make the Freedom Box a viable, pervasive part of the Internet infrastructure. We would no longer have to depend upon the good graces of a Google, Facebook or Internet service provider to reliably connect us or transact business for us. We would have assured communications and commercial relationships without the threat of government interference or snooping, often through underhanded means.
The post below is excerpted from James K. Boyce's acceptance speech, "The Environment as Our Common Heritage," for the Fair Sharing of the Common Heritage Award, presented by Project Censored and the Media Freedom Foundation in Berkeley, California. It originally appeared on the TripleCrisis.com website, on February 10, 2011. Jim teaches ecological economics, among other things, at UMass Amherst, and has been a long-time defender of the commons.
What does it mean to say that the environment is our “common heritage”? On one level this is a simple statement of fact: when we are born, we come into a world that is not of our own making. The air we breathe, the water we drink, the natural resources on which our livelihoods depend, and the accumulated knowledge and information that underpin our ability to use these resources wisely – all these come to us as gifts of creation passed on to us by preceding generations and enriched by their innovations and creativity.
Yet once we take seriously – as I do – the proposition that this common heritage belongs in common and equal measure to us all, we move beyond a positive statement of facts to a normative declaration of ethics. We move beyond an understanding of what is to an assertion of what ought to be.
To say that the environment belongs in common and equal measure to us all does not mean that we have inherited a free gift with no strings attached. For our common heritage carries with it a common responsibility: the responsibility to share the environment fairly amongst all who are alive today, and the responsibility to care for it wisely to ensure that our children, our grandchildren, and the generations who follow will share fairly in our common heritage, too.
Finally, a bit of great news: California Governor Jerry Brown is courageously bucking a national trend by refusing to sell off state buildings and then lease them back. This trend has been the budget subterfuge of choice among many of the nation's governors. Lease-backs of state assets are a backdoor way of getting a quick hit of money for troubled state budgets (in California's case, $1.2 billion) while saddling future taxpayers with huge additional expenditures (in California, $6 billion over 35 years).
Yes, welcome to the next frontier in the business campaign against government. First it was the fight against regulation and public-sector spending, both largely successful. Now business is vying to own the equity assets of government through arcane lease-back and securitization deals.
These strategies not only hurt us as taxpayers and citizens (through higher expenditures for less value, and through reduced public discretion over public assets). They fling open the doors to all sorts of other investor schemes to buy and privatize public assets. Next stop: the withering of the State and the arrival of the Total Market Order.
Two weeks ago, I blogged about how Brazil is turning its back on the free software and free culture movements, and moving to defend entrenched, proprietary cultural industries: a terribly disappointing turn of events. Now there is an international petition being circulated in Portuguese, French, Spanish and English to express widespread dismay at this recent turn of events. A copy of the petition is below. You can sign it by going to this website.
The petition follows:
While common lands and waters are being stolen by investors and developers the world over, the Supreme Court of India decided it was not going to look the other way. In a bold, surprising ruling, the Court made a sweeping defense of the commons as commons.
In the January 28 decision, the Court held that the enclosure of a village pond in Rohar Jagir, Tehsil, in the State of Punjab, by real estate developers was a totally illegal occupation of the commons. The developers, who were appealing a lower court ruling, had filled in the pond with soil and started building houses on it. The Court ruled in unmistakable terms that the pond/land must revert to the commoners immediately and the illegal occupiers must be evicted. Even more remarkable, the Court held that similar enclosures of common lands elsewhere in India must be reversed even if they have been in effect for years. (Thanks, Trent Schroyer, for alerting me to this case!)
You can read the 12-page decision by Markandey Katju here [pdf file]. Given the ideological capture of American jurisprudence, it is astonishing and inspirational for me to encounter a no-nonsense affirmation of the rights of commoners by the highest court of any nation.
AP quotes White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs: “‘The way Egypt looks and operates must change,’ which is why there needs to be more open communication, on the Internet and elsewhere, he said. But he also said it was not the U.S. role to determine exactly what that freedom looks like.” (February 1, 2011).
Now I understand why the White House has failed to rebuke PayPal, MasterCard, Apple Computer and Bank of America for crippling WikiLeaks’ ability to communicate with American citizens! The U.S. gets to decide what freedom of speech looks like. If that means watering down “net neutrality” rules and still calling it an "open Internet" (as the FCC does) or letting corporate allies stifle embarrassing types of free speech while keeping an arm's distance (as the Obama administraiton has done), that’s apparently okay.
The U.S. State Department has declared that an open Internet is a basic human freedom and a foreign policy goal. Tinny words so long as the vendetta against WikiLeaks continues. Meanwhile, this image is making the rounds (via P2P Foundation and Chris Pinchen).
In the 1990s, a variety of industries dependent on copyright, trademark and patent law decided that the Internet and new digital technologies were getting way too dangerous. Upstart competitors with innovative business models were starting to invade well-established markets. Worse, ordinary people were starting to bypass the market system and challenge the supremacy of copyright and patent law (and to a lesser extent, trademark law). People began to create their own freely shareable alternatives using free software, co-production of content and virtually free distribution.
And so it was that the corporate giants of information and culture staked out the high ground of “property rights.” It would be the citadel from which they would defend their entrenched business models and fight the “dangers” of digital networks. The result has been the IP Wars, a sprawling set of political, economic and cultural conflicts that continue to rage today.
It is a far-ranging conflagration that affects dozens of creative and cultural enterprises -- film production and distribution, musical performance and recording, book publishing, photography and video production, pharmaceutical development, scientific research, scholarly publishing and databases, among many other arenas.
There has also been a strenuous backlash to IP industries. People with HIV/AIDS have risen up to fight the broad patent claims of the pharmaceutical industry, which has made life-saving drugs unaffordable to millions of people in need. Hackers have organized to resist the proprietary lock-down of software code, and insisted upon basic human freedom to copy and share their code. Subsistence farmers have resisted patent laws that promote genetically modified crops and threaten their seed-sharing practices.
The automobile has long been celebrated as a preeminent symbol of individual freedom. Whenever a politician or citizen group calls for redirecting our tax monies toward public transit, inter-city trains, walkable communities, bike lanes, and so forth, the automobile and highway lobbies sneer that such choices are “politically motivated” and threatening to our “freedom.”
Moreover, the lobbies say, spending more money on transportation alternatives would betray a long-time “social compact” that federal and state gas taxes be earmarked for highway construction and improvements. Gas taxes make roads and highways self-funding, the argument goes. This deeply entrenched – and erroneous – mythology has long prevented a re-thinking of how Americans should finance transportation and of the more ecological, socially attractive alternatives.