Free software isn't about free services or beer, it's about intellectual freedom. As recent episodes such as censorship in China, the Egyptian government turning off the Internet, and Facebook's constant spying, have shown, freedom and privacy on the Internet are under constant assault. Now Eben Moglen, law professor at Columbia University and renowned free software legal expert, has proposed a way to combine free software with the original peer-to-peer (P2P) design of the Internet to liberate users from the control of governments and big brother-like companies: Freedom Box.
In a recent Freedom in the Clouds speech in NYC, Moglen explained what he sees as the Internet's current problems and his proposed solution. First, here's the trouble with the Internet today as Moglen sees it:
[6:13] "It begins of course with the Internet. Designed as a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control and assuming that every switch in the net is an independent free standing entity who's volition is equivalent to the human beings who control it ... But it never really worked out that way."
The Software Problem [7:18]: "It was a simple software problem and it has a simple three syllable name. Its name was 'Microsoft'. Conceptually there was a network which was designed as a system of peer nodes, but the operating software ... that came to occupy the network over the course of a decade-and-a-half was built around a very clear idea that had nothing to do with peers. It was called 'server/client architecture'."
The Great Idea Behind Windows [9:22]: "It was the great idea of Windows, in an odd way, to create a political archetype in the net that reduced the human being to the client, and created a big centralized computer, which we might refer to as the server, that provided things to the human being on 'take or it leave it' terms. And unfortunately everyone took it because they didn't know how to leave once they got in. Now, the net was made up of servers in the center and clients at the edge. Clients had quite a little power and servers had quite a lot ... As storage gets cheaper, as processing gets cheaper, as complex services that scale in ways that are hard to use small computers for ... the hierarchical nature of net came to seem like it was meant to be there."
Logs [10:44]: "One more thing happened about that time ... Servers began to keep logs. That's good decision ... But if you have a system which centralizes servers, and the servers centralize their logs, then you are creating vast repositories of hierarchically organized data about people at the edges of the network that they do not control, and unless they are experienced in the operation of servers, will not understand the comprehensiveness of [server-collected user data.]."
The Recipe for Disaster [12:01]: "So we built a network out of a communications architecture designed for peering, which we defined in client server style, which we then defined to be the dis-empowered client at the edge and the server in the middle. We aggregated processing and storage increasingly in the middle and we kept the logs -- that is information about the flows of information in the net -- in centralized places far from the human beings who controlled or at any rate thought they controlled
This ended up creating "an architecture that was very subject to misuse, indeed it was begging to be misused. Now we are getting the misuse we set up...There are a lot of reasons for making clients dis-empowered ... There are many overlapping rights owners, as they see themselves, each of whom has a stake in dis-empowering a client at the edge of the network. To prevent particular hardware from being moved from one network to another, to prevent particular hardware from playing music not bought at the monopoly of music in the sky."
In particular, Moglen has no love at all for Facebook. "The human race has susceptibility to harm but Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record. He has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age. Because he harnessed Friday night, that is, 'Everybody needs to get laid,' and turned into a structure for degenerating the integrity of human personality and he has to remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal, namely 'I will give you free web-hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time.' And it works.
How could that have happened? There was no architectural reason. Facebook is the web with, 'I keep all the logs, how do you feel about that?' It's a terrarium for what it feels like to live in a Panopticon built out of web parts. And it shouldn't be allowed. That's a very poor way to deliver those services. They are grossly overpriced at 'spying all the time', they are not technically innovative. They depend on an architecture subject to misuse and the business model that supports them is misuse. There isn't any other business model for them. This is bad. I'm not suggesting it should be illegal. It should be obsolete. We're technologists we should fix it."
Fixing the Internet
So, what's the solution to this client/server architecture and all the abuses against freedom and privacy it enables? Moglen turns to inexpensive server hardware. He told the New York Times that "cheap, small, low-power plug servers," are the start. These are small devices "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," he continued, "They're $99; they will go to $69. Once everyone is getting them, they will cost $29."
The point of these Freedom servers is to address the privacy and control issues of "social networking and digital communications technologies, [which] are now critical to people fighting to make freedom in their societies or simply trying to preserve their privacy where the Web and other parts of the Net are intensively surveilled by profit-seekers and government agencies." This needs to be done "Because smartphones, mobile tablets, and other common forms of consumer electronics are being built as 'platforms' to control their users and monitor their activity."
So what will these Freedom Boxes do? The current goals for the project are:
1. Safe social networking:, in which, without losing touch with any of your friends, you replace Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and other centralized services with privacy-respecting federated services.
2. Secure backup: Your data automatically stored in encrypted format on the Freedom Boxes of your friends or associates, thus protecting your personal data against seizure or loss.
3. Network neutrality protection: If your ISP starts limiting or interfering with your access to services in the Net, your Freedom Box can communicate with your friends to detect and route traffic around the limitations. Network censorship is automatically routed around, for your friends in societies with oppressive national firewalls, or for you.
4. Safe anonymous publication: Friends or associates outside zones of network censorship can automatically forward information from people within them, enabling safe, anonymous publication.
5. Home network security with real protection against intrusion and the security threats aimed at Microsoft Windows or other risky computers your network;
6. Encrypted email, with seamless encryption and decryption;
7. Private voice communications: Freedom Box users can make voice-over-Internet phone calls to one another or to any phone. Calls between Freedom Box users will be encrypted securely.
What runs on these servers is where Linux and open-source software comes in. The one firm software decision that's been made so far is that the base operating system will be the latest release of Debian Linux This version of Debian is the one that, for better or worse, contains no proprietary hardware drivers or software.
Free Software for a Free Internet
The other software details have yet to be worked out. I spoke to Moglen today and he told me that "technical leads will be announced shortly, and their responsibilities will begin with hard decisions about roadmap and parts."
"Developers [will be] self-organizing to work on elements of what they think Freedom Box needs. This is by community for community. When our technical management has coalesced, it will begin directly communicating with volunteers and compensated developers." For more on what's going on with the programming side, see the Freedom Box Wiki.
When it comes to networking software specifics on how to deal with Internet restrictions, Moglen said, that "By tunneling encrypted streams among Freedom Boxes that will allow one Box to encapsulate traffic that its own upstream won't permit and tunnel it to a friend's or associate's box that has a different upstream connectivity provider and can successfully route the traffic."
I, for one, am going to be watching this project very closely. To maintain true freedom, the world needs Internet systems under the control of the people and not just governments and corporations.