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.

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