towards a freer internet: eben moglen and the freedom box

One of the more interesting ideas I've encountered at the iSchool is questioning why internet access is controlled through private corporations.

Broadband internet access is now a necessity, but we must pay private, for-profit services for access. From the start, internet access could have been fashioned as a public utility, much the way access to water and electricity is, or - depending on where you live - should be. If our governments were more interested in public access (democracy) than in corporate access (free-market capitalism), it might be. Much as been written and said about this (a sample of the issues can be heard in this debate on NPR); I mention it only to note that the concept was new to me, and immediately made perfect sense.

Expensive monthly fees for broadband access is only one of many roots of the digital divide, the chasm that separates the internet-literate haves from the internet-illiterate have-nots, but it's an important one. The digital divide is often conceived of solely in terms of access, such as in the Wikipedia definition, but many other issues factor into confidence in a digital environment - age, education, job status, gender, language skills, and others.

The idea that internet access should be free from dovetails with our desire to free the internet of censorship and either government or corporate control. Many of us use free platforms like Blogger or Facebook without a second thought as to who controls these applications. When we do think about it, we generally shudder or shake our heads, then go back to the same platforms. That's what we know and that's where our friends - and our information - are. Again, this is a huge topic that I'm not tackling here. But I do want to highlight what one person is suggesting as an alternative.

Meet The Freedom Box.
Decentralizing the Internet So Big Brother Can’t Find You

By Jim Dwyer [ed note: hooray for Jim Dwyer, excellent progressive writer]

On Tuesday afternoon, as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke in Washington about the Internet and human liberty, a Columbia law professor in Manhattan, Eben Moglen, was putting together a shopping list to rebuild the Internet — this time, without governments and big companies able to watch every twitch of our fingers.

The list begins with “cheap, small, low-power plug servers,” Mr. Moglen said. “A small device the size of a cellphone charger, running on a low-power chip. You plug it into the wall and forget about it.”

Almost anyone could have one of these tiny servers, which are now produced for limited purposes but could be adapted to a full range of Internet applications, he said.

“They will get very cheap, very quick,” Mr. Moglen said. “They’re $99; they will go to $69. Once everyone is getting them, they will cost $29.”

The missing ingredients are software packages, which are available at no cost but have to be made easy to use. “You would have a whole system with privacy and security built in for the civil world we are living in,” he said. “It stores everything you care about.”

Put free software into the little plug server in the wall, and you would have a Freedom Box that would decentralize information and power, Mr. Moglen said. This month, he created the Freedom Box Foundation to organize the software.

“We have to aim our engineering more directly at politics now,” he said. “What has happened in Egypt is enormously inspiring, but the Egyptian state was late to the attempt to control the Net and not ready to be as remorseless as it could have been.”

. . .

In the first days of the personal computer era, many scoffed at the idea that free software could have an important place in the modern world. Today, it is the digital genome for millions of phones, printers, cameras, MP3 players, televisions, the Pentagon, the New York Stock Exchange and the computers that underpin Google’s empire.

This month, Mr. Moglen, who now runs the Software Freedom Law Center, spoke to a convention of 2,000 free-software programmers in Brussels, urging them to get to work on the Freedom Box.

Social networking has changed the balance of political power, he said, “but 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.”

In January, investors were said to have put a value of about $50 billion on Facebook, the social network founded by Mark Zuckerberg. If revolutions for freedom rest on the shoulders of Facebook, Mr. Moglen said, the revolutionaries will have to count on individuals who have huge stakes in keeping the powerful happy.

“It is not hard, when everybody is just in one big database controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg, to decapitate a revolution by sending an order to Mr. Zuckerberg that he cannot afford to refuse,” Mr. Moglen said.

By contrast, with tens of thousands of individual encrypted servers, there would be no one place where a repressive government could find out who was publishing or reading “subversive” material. . . .

The decentralized social network platform Diaspora was conceived in response to an earlier talk by Moglen. Now he's trying to raise half a million dollars to get The Freedom Box off the ground. Read it here.


Amy said...

Fascinating. It has always bothered me that private entities are also in charge of distributing domain names (with government oversight). Of course, we also pay for cable TV and telephone service, which also should be seen as public utilities. After all, before cable television, TV was free (though obviously not free from commercials and corporate control).

It will be interesting to see if this ever really develops into a practical alternative.

laura k said...

It has always bothered me that private entities are also in charge of distributing domain names (with government oversight). Of course, we also pay for cable TV and telephone service, which also should be seen as public utilities. After all, before cable television, TV was free (though obviously not free from commercials and corporate control).

Me too. I am forever saying that we used to just buy a TV and plug it in. Now we have a monthly bill for service.

Our monthly expenses - cable, cell phone, internet - continue to escalate, but for most people, income does not keep pace. Not even close.

Some people claim the answer - usually declared to be a "simple" solution - is to forego cell phone and cable TV. In other words, cut yourself off from important technology and information.

A more equitable answer would be not allowing private corporations to control resources that we all need.

Lorraine said...

The 'simple' solution is an example of what's called unsolicited advice, much akin to the financial advice of retirement savings via coffee deprivation.

Your post illustrates something I've been saying for a while; that 'free as in beer' vs. 'free as in speech' is a false dichotomy. As Free (a.k.a. Abbie Hoffman) said, "free means you don't have to pay."

Also, your point about the TV used to be a product rather than a service. The Freedom Box as described in the excerpt you included above appears to be a Very Cheap Computer, but of course (in this part of the world, anyway) those can be found at garage sales. What is really needed is a Moore's Law for bandwidth...

laura k said...

Lorraine, I won't pretend to know what your comment means, but the "Freedom Box" is not a computer. If you will read the article, you will see that.

No cheap computer will address the issue of a decentralized network free from government or corporate control.

Lorraine said...

So I see. The Freedom Box is a server, basically a hot spot, I take it? That is nice. That could be a game changer. I'm thinking, I'd like to get one of these Freedom Boxes, but how close do I have to be to another Freedom Box for this to make a difference? What the theorists call 'network externalities' or 'critical mass.' I wonder if the Freedom Box is something I can plug in, forget about in the event that nothing interesting happens, and perhaps months or years later a light turns on or it chirps or something if it detects another Freedom Box? That would make it more entertaining.

For some reason I'm reminded of an early-60's wall wart type gadget seen on The History Detectives that was supposed to be part of some 'Civil Defense' system.

Lorraine said...

BTW I read something just now that for some reason made me think of you. (Sox-fan, ex-American, maybe even secular minded) Have you ever witnessed anything akin to this? I don't know whether to believe it.

allan said...

Have you ever witnessed anything akin to this? I don't know whether to believe it.

He is exaggerating. I am confient in saying that this:

"during this- the police come out- and literally line up along the base lines- and stare at the crowds- making sure everyone is standing up"

is bullshit.

However, a fan was ejected from Yankee Stadium in August 2008 for trying to get to the men's room during God Bless America. He wrote:

"I attempted to get up to use the restroom, rather urgently, during the 7th inning stretch as God Bless America was beginning. As I attempted to walk down the aisle and exit my section into the tunnel, I was stopped by a police officer. He informed me that I had to wait until the song was over. I responded that I had to use the restroom and that I did not care about God Bless America.

As soon as the latter came out of my mouth, my right arm was twisted violently behind my back and I was informed that I was being escorted out of the stadium. A second officer then joined in and twisted my left arm, also in an excessively forceful manner, behind my back. ...

When we reached the exit of the stadium, they confiscated my ticket and the first officer shoved me through the turnstiles, saying "Get the hell out of my country if you don't like it."


I have no idea why Boston is mentioned. I guess the poster is not too clear on his facts.

laura k said...

Have you ever witnessed anything akin to this? I don't know whether to believe it.

Back before my divorce from the Yankees, this happened to me fairly regularly. The oppressive atmosphere at the Stadium was one of many reasons that this happened. But what that guy describes is an exaggeration, I am certain of that.

Perhaps the commenter had never been to a baseball game before, and didn't know that every so often, all the security people stand in front of the first row facing the crowd. They are not making sure everyone is standing. Scattered people always sit, either for religious or political reasons, or out of laziness. Security does not single them out.

allan said...

It is usually to discourage people from running on the field.