Excerpts of: Why Political Liberty Depends on Software Freedom More Than Ever

Excerpts of a speech given by Eben Moglen at the 2011 FOSDEM conference in Brussels on Feb 5, 2011

Event records

You’ve been watching it all around the world the past several weeks, haven’t you? It is about how politics actually works now for people actually seeking freedom now, for people trying to make change in their world now.

Software is what the 21st century is made of. What steel was to the economy of the 20th century, what steel was to the power of the 20th century, what steel was to the politics of the 20th century, software is now.

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Wikipedia and Wikileaks are two sides of the same coin. . . .it is the power of ordinary people to organize to change the world. . .

Wikileaks was being treated everywhere around the world in a semi-criminal fashion, at Christmas time, and then events in Tunisia made it a little more complicated.

As it became clear that what was being reported on around the world as if it were primarily a conspiracy to injure the dignity of the US State department, or to embarrass the United States military, was actually, really, an attempt to allow people to learn about their world.

To learn about how power really operates, and therefore to do something about it.

And what happened in Tunisia was, I thought, an elegant rebuttal to the idea that the Wikileaks end of Free Culture and Free Software was primarily engaged in destruction, nihilism, or—I shrink from even employing the word in this context—terrorism. It was instead freedom, which is messy, complicated, potentially damaging in the short term, but salvational in the long term, the medicine for the human soul.

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We are watching in real time the evolution of the kinds of politics of liberation and freedom in the 21st century that code can make, and we are watching in real time the discovery of the vulnerabilities that arise from the bad engineering of the current system.

Social networking—that is, the ability to use free form methods of communication from many to many, now, in an instantaneous fashion—changes the balance of power in society away from highly organized vehicles of state control towards people in their own lives.

What has happened in Iran, in Egypt, in Tunisia—and what will happen in other societies over the next few years—demonstrates the enormous political and social importance of social networking. 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. The design of their technology, like the design of almost all unfree software technology, is motivated more by business interests seeking profit than by technological interests seeking freedom.

As a result of which, we are watching political movements of enormous value, capable of transforming the lives of hundreds of millions of people, resting on a fragile basis, like, for example, the courage of Mr. Zuckerberg, or the willingness of Google to resist the state, where the state is a powerful business partner and a party Google cannot afford frequently to insult.

We are living in a world in which real-time information crucial to people in the street seeking to build their freedom depends on a commercial micro-blogging service in northern California . . .

We need to fix this.

We need to fix it quickly.

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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.

We need to think deeply, and rapidly, and to good technological effect, about the consequences of what we have built and what we haven’t built yet. . . . [T]he over-centralization of network services is a crucial political vulnerability. Friends of ours, people seeking freedom, are going to get arrested, beaten, tortured, and eventually killed somewhere on earth because they’re depending for their political survival in their movements for freedom on technology we know is built to sell them out.

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I don’t want anybody taking life or death risks to make freedom somewhere carrying an iPhone.

Because I know what the iPhone can be doing to him without our having any way to control it, stop it, help it, or even know it is going on.

We need to think infrastructurally about what we mean to freedom now.

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Now what can we do to help freedom under circumstances where the state has decided to try to clamp the network infrastructure?

Well we can go back to mesh networking. We’ve got to go back to mesh networking. We’ve got to understand how we can assist people, using the ordinary devices already available to them, or cheaply available to them, to build networking that resists centralized control.

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Even without the centralized network services providers, if people have wireless routers that mesh up in their apartments, in their workplaces, in the places of public resort around them, they can continue to communicate despite attempts in central terms to shut them down.

We need to go back to ensuring people secure end-to-end communications over those local meshes.

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If we don’t, then the great social promise of the free software movement, that free software can lead to free society, will begin to be broken. Force will intervene somewhere, soon. And a demonstration will be offered to humanity that even with all that networking technology and all those young people seeking to build new lives for themselves, the state still wins.

This must not happen.

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When Dwight Eisenhower was leaving the presidency in 1961 he made a famous farewell speech to the American people in which he warned them against the power of the military-industrial complex, a phrase that became so commonplace in discussion that people stopped thinking seriously about what it meant.

The general who had run the largest military activity of the 20th century, the invasion of Europe, the general who had become the President of America at the height of the cold war, was warning Americans about the permanent changes to their society that would result from the interaction of industrial capitalism with American military might. And since the time of that speech, as you all know, the United States has spent on defense more than the rest of the world combined.

Now, in the 21st century, which we can define as after the latter part of September 2001, the United States began to build a new thing, a surveillance-industrial-military complex.

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European data protection law has done this much: it has put your personal data almost exclusively in North America where it is uncontrolled.

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There is no prospect that the North American governments, particularly the government of the United States, whose national security policy now depends on listening to and data mining everything, are going to change that for you.

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Profit motive will not produce privacy, let alone will it produce robust defense for freedom in the street.

If we are going to build systems of communication for future politics, we’re going to have to build them under the assumption that the network is not only untrusted, but untrustworthy. And we’re going to have to build under the assumption that centralized services can kill you.

We can’t fool around about this. We can’t let Facebook dance up and down about their privacy policy. That’s ludicrous,

We have to replace the things that create vulnerability and lure our colleagues around the world into using them to make freedom, only to discover that the promise is easily broken by a kill switch.

Fortunately, we actually do know how to engineer ourselves out of this situation.

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Yesterday in the United States, we formed the FreedomBox Foundation, which I plan to use as the temporary, or long term as the case may be, organizational headquarters to make free software that runs on small-format server boxes, free hardware wherever possible, unfree hardware where we must, in order to make available around the world, at low prices, appliances human beings will like interacting with that produce privacy and help to secure robust freedom.

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But we have to pick up the pace now. We have to get more urgent now. We have to aim our engineering more directly at politics now.

Because we have friends in the street trying to create human freedom, and if we don’t help them, they’ll get hurt. We rise to challenges, this is one. We’ve got to do it. Thank you very much.