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.
What does the corporate enclosure of the Internet look like? It starts with grand words wrapped in timid acts. That's what FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski gave the American people as he punted on the important issues that need to be resolved. Internet users and startup entrepreneurs needed to be assured that their data-traffic would not be delayed or stifled just because AT&T, Comcast or Verizon might wish to do so.
Given the political clout that Internet service providers have within the Obama administration and Congress, the new rules will only hasten a further consolidation of power over Internet access and a new marketization of Internet content and traffic. It won't happen overnight, and it won't happen without new battles that might slow or limit this outcome. But the FCC's unwillingness to defend our interests -- in the face of telecom oligopolies with enormous political influence and legal resources -- is a clear sign of where things are headed. Downward.
John Naughton, writing in The Guardian (UK), is one of the few observers to see the WikiLeaks case for what it is: “the first really sustained confrontation between the established order and the culture of the internet. There have been skirmishes before, but this is the real thing.”
It’s difficult to make predictions about a story that is still unfolding, but the U.S. Government’s response to the WikiLeaks disclosures make two things quite clear: 1) that the world’s oldest democracy is not really committed to open debate, citizen accountability and due process; and 2) nation-states, in quiet collusion with key corporations, share an interest in curbing the open Internet in order to limit its disruptive impact on their power.
While the U.S. lectures China about the virtues of an open Internet, what happens when that very ideal is applied to the U.S. Government? The disclosures expose stunning deceit, mendacity, incompetence and corruption, and the U.S. Government goes into attack mode against WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange.
The Commons as a New Sector of Value-Creation
Remarks by David Bollier
“Economies of the Commons:
Strategies for Sustainable Access and
Creative Reuse of Images and Sounds Online”
De Balie Centre for Culture and Politics
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
April 12, 2008
As commercial interests try to convert what has essentially been a commons into a total market order, the Internet is experiencing a mid-life crisis. The open Internet is in the process of being enclosed by a variety of commercial forces. The struggle for political and creative freedom is getting more urgent and complicated as commercial forces try to “develop” the Internet.
The challenge for people who believe in free culture is to reinterpret the core values of the Internet and somehow develop new ways to protect them in today’s more complicated environment.