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.
This is not a theoretical threat. We have already seen how MasterCard, PayPal, Apple Computer and Bank of America took a wink and a nudge from the U.S. Government, and tried to cripple WikiLeaks’ finances and operations by refusing to do business with it.
The U.S. Government itself, in its quest to shut down WikiLeaks, has demanded that Twitter hand over records of personal Twitter communications by two associates of Julian Assange’s. The government wants to learn the IP addresses (and geographical location) of the two WikiLeaks associates over a seven-month period of “tweeted” messages. The government also wants to learn the identities of people with whom they were exchanging private direct messages. A rather chilling effect on the right of free speech and freedom of association.
Then there is the emerging story of the U.S. Government's quiet role in recommending a law firm to help Bank of America orchestrate a smear campaign against critics of WikiLeaks, including Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald.
In short, governments and corporations often see it in their mutual self-interest to cooperate in stifling politically embarrassing communications. Private corporate telecom networks and software systems provide the perfect “chokepoints” for government intervention and interception. Just look at how the Indian Government has demanded that Blackberry make its system available to the government for wiretapping. Or consider how AT&T and other telecom companies provided private customer records to the U.S. Government during the Bush Administration -- and then won post hoc congressional exemptions from the law that prohibited such disclosures!
The chokepoints of tech systems controlled by private companies have the dubious virtue of enabling easy surveillance and disruption of civil liberties. They can also be used to keep everything "off the books" in a legal sense, which can be valuable when the government is legally prohibited from taking certain actions. As Moglen told the Times: “It is not hard, when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg [the founder of Facebook], to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse.”
Although social networks are changing the balance of political power, as the Egyptian uprising demonstrates, they are also exposing the significant powers that governments and businesses still retain. As Moglen points out: “Everything we know about technology tells us that the current forms of social network communication, despite their enormous current value for politics, are also intensely dangerous to use. They are too centralized; they are too vulnerable to state retaliation and control.”
The Freedom Box server offers an elegant, decentralized solution: a technical end-run around the extra-legal (and legal) abuses of governments and businesses. If there were thousands of personal servers connected to the Internet, each of them portable and beyond the direct control of large corporations and government, there would be no centralized chokepoints that could be readily exploited, particularly if the software, as free software, also belonged to the commoners.
The history of the Internet has always been about users developing their own infrastructure (software, wifi, other innovations) in order to meet their needs and assure their freedom. Once the market gets into the game, a very different calculus can come into play – one that often works against the interests of commoners. Yes, there are often large overlaps between the interests of open-platform companies like Google and their users. But in the end, the companies have priorities and allegiances to investors that diverge from those of users, such as protecting market share and profitability.
Moglen believes that if he can raise more than $500,000, Freedom Box 1.0 could be ready in one year. Here's a tip of the hat to the enterprising hacker-citizens of the Debian free software community, which is overseeing this project. Let’s hope that we don’t have to deal with any additional government surveillance and disruptions in the meantime.