Nettime — Decentralizing the Internet So Big Brother Can’t Find You

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NYT, February 15, 2011
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.”
Not many law professors have Mr. Moglen’s credentials as lawyer and geek,
or, for that matter, his record as an early advocate for what looked like
very long shots.
Growing up on the West Side of Manhattan, he began fooling around with
computers as a boy. In 1973, at age 14, he was employed writing programs
for the Scientific Time Sharing Corporation. At 26, he was a young lawyer,
clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall. Later, he got a Ph.D. in history
from Yale. He was also the lawyer for the Free Software Foundation, headed
by Richard M. Stallman, which aggressively — and successfully — protected
the ability of computer scientists, hackers and hobbyists to build software
that was not tied up by copyright, licensing and patents.
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.
In response to Mr. Moglen’s call for help, a group of developers working in
a free operating system called Debian have started to organize Freedom Box
software. Four students from New York University who heard a talk by Mr.
Moglen last year have been building a decentralized social network called
Mr. Moglen said that if he could raise “slightly north of $500,000,”
Freedom Box 1.0 would be ready in one year.
“We should make this far better for the people trying to make change than
for the people trying to make oppression,” Mr. Moglen said. “Being
connected works.”