Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

Summary: Eben Moglen, renowned free-software attorney, has proposed a new open-source software-based approach to the Internet to avoid censorship, network restrictions, and centralized control.


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."

Page 2: [Fixing the Internet] »

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."

Such plug-in servers are already shipping. They include the TonidoPlug, the SheevaPlug, and GuruPlug.

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.

Page 3: [Free Software for a Free Internet] »

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.

Topics: IT Employment, Browser, CXO, Hardware, Networking, Servers, Software

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  • Right. Because we all know that information travels

    through the internet in little packages carried in the arms of faeries. Oh. Wait. It doesn't. It uses phone lines and cable lines, and T1 pipes and microwave relays. And all that stuff owned and operated by telcos and regulated by the government. But you go ahead and just pull another puff on that bong and keep singing kumbaya.
    • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time


      Quite. Also, getting the critical mass of users to make this solution significant is going to be hard as the big corporations that contol most internet services won't push it.
      • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

        @OffsideInVancouver @frgough@

        Well the internet delivery business will still be what is has for decades. Moving packets around and providing the equipment for that.

        What they want to change is who owns the data, and controls its access, or should we just let corporations decide what rules they want to follow with our data. This includes:

        - All your searches
        - Anything you or your relatives put on Facebook (myspace et al) about you.
        - Mailing lists your on.
        - Things you purchase.

        This is just the beginning think of what people can do with that data. Why should we put up with the fact that anyone can know anything they want about us? for any reason, and use it for whatever they need.

        This takes that and says we control who sees our data on our end of the net. We let facebook index it or not, we can cryptographically message someone, or send them a personal message (if you think AIM or any of that is safe, research deep packet inspection, shit download wireshark).

        Our data in the net is a very serious issue. One that shouldn't be over looked, much less shrugged off like we are some crazy hippies wanting a perfect world, no its very socially conscious people who fear what can be done with that data. Change the system by building a better more convenient one, one that doesn't convenience profiteers but the end users.
      • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time


        If people don't want their data to be in the control of third parties, there is a very simple solution for that. Don't put their data on third party systems! (i.e. Facebook, Google, their ISP's mail server, MY MySQL server on my PHP based's database that houses these comments.).
      • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

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    • Real vs. Artificially Imposed Barriers

      Well, you are talking about real barriers, and he is talking about artificially created barriers. At the moment, most places have more than one network route to the rest of the world. If you cut their access locally, something like this won't help. If you cut their access artificially through routing rules, then you had better make sure there are no other routes data can take, or this solution will work. It seems there were some holes in and out of Egypt.
    • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

      @frgough@... "And all that stuff owned and operated by telcos and regulated by the government..." ... on an infrastructure and system developed for the public and paid for by taxpayer money. No single entity "owns" this stuff any more than one might own the public airwaves. It really bothers me when people like you come along and frame it in those terms however. Nobody built or owns the Internet.
      Andre Richards
      • Nobody built or owns the Internet?

        @Andre Richards

        If no one built the Internet, then it does not exist. Since it does exist, then someone built it.

        As for owning the Internet...many entities own the Internet. As FRGough writes, the transmission lines are owned by Telcos, which are regulated by governments (they always want control of any and every part of our lives). The servers are owned by many different owners (private and corporate--but not government except for government data servers), domain names (human readable addresses) are regulated by governments through ICANN, and Domain Name Servers are myriad with most owned by individual corporations according to an accepted Domain Name System protocol that is incorporated into the Internet Protocol (IP) Suite.

        Since most network protocols were developed for and by universities, I think it would be difficult to identify how much of it was &ldquo;developed for the public and paid for by taxpayer money.&rdquo;

        Do you develop and maintain your own Web sites? Are they free? Most of us pay a domain registrar (not a government) an annual fee (rent) for our domain names, and a hosting company (not a government) to store and serve our Web data (pages, images, scripts, databases, etc.), I think your statements are quite uninformed.
      • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

        @Isocrates: "If no one built the Internet, then it does not exist. Since it does exist, then someone built it."

        I meant that in the sense that no single entity built it which is as absolutely true as the fact that nobody can claim ownership of it. As for all these different bodies and organizations owning this stuff now... it would never have been there to own had it not been for massive investments of taxpayer money in the development of these technologies and the infrastructure to support them. I don't care who's making money off it--they don't own the Internet and no single entity should try to exert ownership-like control over it which is the ridiculous premise frgough predicates his inane comments on.

        BTW, the very network protocol stack that runs the entire Internet were developed by the government for military usage and later trickled out into the educational and public domains. Look into the history of DARPA before questioning my knowledge of this subject. You'll find that you are the one who is quite uninformed.
        Andre Richards
      • My, my, my, Mr. Richards! You resort to ad hominem attacks?

        @Andre Richards,

        I commend your desire for accuracy. Let me assist you with that. You initially stated the Internet was built, &ldquo;<em>on an infrastructure and system developed for the public and paid for by taxpayer money. No single entity owns this stuff any more than one might own the public airwaves.</em>&rdquo;

        Actually, the early ARPANET Internetworking was not an Internet. Vinton Cerf was a professor at Stanford University and with the help of his &ldquo;<em>networking research group at Stanford in the 1973-74 period</em>&rdquo; produced &ldquo;<em>the first TCP specification</em>,&rdquo; prior to Stanford being hired by DARPA (V. Cerg et al. as cited, 2011, in Internet Protocol Suite, History, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, &para;&para; 5-6, However, DARPA did not create the Internet. Rather, &ldquo;<em>In 1985, the Internet Architecture Board held a three day workshop on TCP/IP for the computer industry, attended by 250 vendor representatives, promoting the protocol and leading to its increasing commercial use</em>&rdquo; (&para; 8).

        Nonetheless, in your original post on this topic, you did not clearly explain what you later attempted to fill politicians do. Because of the generality and obscurity of your original statements, like, &ldquo;<em>Nobody built or owns the Internet</em>,&rdquo; I said your <strong>statements</strong> were &ldquo;<em>quite uninformed.</em>.&rdquo; And, they were.

        You turned around and made a personal attack by stating that I am uninformed, a brash accusation based on your own ignorance of my background, education, and knowledge. You would be much better off not making statements about people that expose your own ignorance.

        Please refrain from such weak defenses as personal attacks and keep your arguments specific to facts and the arguments presented by others.
  • My Thoughts Exactly

    Someone still owns the physical medium and that is too easy to unplug, aka Egypt.
  • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

    Hats off to Eben Moglen.
    Linux is the underpinning technology for nearly every sector of the market in every form of computing.

    Great article, Steven
    • Then Linux made the Internet the mess it is today?

      Just asking.
      • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

        How is the internet a mess, please enlighten everyone.
    • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

      @choyongpil - no ... wait ... that can't be true ... he spelled it out in his (nonsensical tirade) ... it was all Microsoft's fault ... Windows was the cause of the formation of galaxies within the Internet universe.

      What UTTER tosh!

      The internet was NOT created as a peer-to-peer network. It happened to be a peer-to-peer network back before HTTP became prevalent and when the number of nodes on the internet could be counted on two hands, but that quickly broke down as IP addresses exploded and DNS was required. THAT was the beginning of galaxies - subsets of the nodes on the internet offering specific services. Next came nodes serving NNTP, SendMail/SMTP, and, of course, HTTP. Those were all servers well established long before Microsoft "got it" and decided to add client OS support for the internet Win95.

      So, in FACT, UNIX is the cause of the internet's "decline" from a peer to peer network.

      And this guy keeps his job HOW?
      • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time


        Spot on!
      • There another thing he got wrong...

        Server/client (or client/server, as I was doing it back in 1975) wasn't invented by Microsoft. They just made it available to a much larger audience.
      • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

        @bitcrazed <br>Sorry you're wrong and you yell too much even if you were right.<br>Internet WAS created as a peer-to-peer network (called host-to-host in rfc1):<br><br><i>P2P architecture embodies one of the key technical concepts of the Internet, described in the first Internet Request for Comments, RFC 1, "Host Software" dated April 7, 1969</i><br><a ref="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a></a></a></a><br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a></a></a></a><br><br>HTTP was created by Tim Berners-Lee with a p2p approach. (see link above)<br><br>DNS is also p2p: <a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a></a></a></a><br><br>Moreover, difference between servers and clients in UNIX are partial and only based on the primary role adopted by each node, not based on imposed limitations like Windows does and forces. That's why Eben says that every free computer can be a server and a client.<br><br>Knowing all this is how he keeps his job and it's not you precisely who is going to replace him.
  • RE: Freedom Box: Freeing the Internet one Server at a time

    This is one of the best ideas i have ever seen. Create a true P2P system network architecture that have mashup of all sort of connected devices and software through secured networking. That will be hard for hackers to create targeted machines attacks and even if they do that will be useless as other peer will take over. companies like Skype has proven that it could be done and now its the time we need to redefine the Internet architecture and this time do it right.