Citizen Action Monitor

Eben Moglen: “Centralized services like Facebook can kill you”

No 133 Posted by fw, March 10, 2011

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.” Eben Moglen, keynote speaker at the 2011 FOSDEM Meeting in Brussels on Feb, 5, 2011

About Eben Moglen — professor of law and legal history at Columbia University and is the founder, Director-Counsel and Chairman of Software Freedom Law Center. Moglen started out as a computer programming language designer and received his bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1980. In 1985, he received a Master of Philosophy in history and a JD from Yale University. He has held visiting appointments at Harvard University, Tel Aviv University and the University of Virginia since 1987. He has an ambitious plan to save us from those seductive but freedom-threatening Web service companies like Facebook. Better than almost anyone, Eben Moglen knows what’s at stake. And when Eben speaks, I listen — attentively.

He’s brilliant, articulate, congenial and witty. More importantly he has important things to say that should be of interest to any citizen activist interested in enhancing — and protecting — our freedoms. But judge for yourself. Watch Eben at his best, speaking without the aid of prepared notes, in his keynote address to the 2011 FOSDEM meeting in Brussels. A transcript of selected portions of his presentation follows the video. My transcript is intended to highlight Moglen’s key ideas.

Here’s a 12:32-minute video of Part 1 of his address. Part 2 and Part 3 are also available on You Tube: .

What follows are my selected seminal passages from Moglen’s speech. I have omitted most of the technical parts. I have also made some minor editing changes to improve the flow of the text. A transcript of the full text of the speech is accessible by clicking on the linked title below.

Why Political Liberty Depends on Software Freedom More Than Ever

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

Software is what the 21st century is made of – supporting freedom, tyranny, business and spying

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. It is the crucial building block, the component out of which everything else is made, and, when I speak of everything else, I mean of course freedom, as well as tyranny, as well as business as usual, as well as spying on everybody for free all the time.

Software does the work of revolution against the state and all the work that the state does trying to retain its power

The really important point now is that [software] code does the work of law and the work of the state. And code does the work of revolution against the state. And code does all the work that the state does trying to retain its power in revolutionary situations. . . . The institutions of the net are increasingly being co-opted by the state in an effort to limit, control, or eliminate freedom.

There is a “right net” and a “wrong net”

The right net brings freedom and the wrong net brings tyranny because it all depends on how the code works. [This will make more sense later]

Events in Tunisia allowed people to learn how power really operates and to do something about it

[Around Christmas time 2010], Wikileaks was being treated everywhere around the world in a semi-criminal fashion, and then events in Tunisia made it a little more complicated. It became clear that what was being reported on around the world [was the idea that Wikileaks was engaged] primarily in a conspiracy to injure the dignity of the US State department, or to embarrass the United States military. Actually [it was] 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. What happened in Tunisia was, I thought, an elegant rebuttal to the idea that the Wikileaks . . . was primarily engaged in destruction, nihilism, or—I shrink from even employing the word in this context—terrorism. It was instead [engaged in] freedom, which is messy, complicated, potentially damaging in the short term, but salvational in the long term, the medicine for the human soul.

We are bearing witness to the kinds of politics of liberation and freedom that software code can make possible — and simultaneously make vulnerable

Most of the time when we’re coding, it doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything that the human soul is very much involved in—to take with full seriousness the political and spiritual meaning of free software at the present hour. But there are a lot of Egyptians whose freedom now depends upon their ability to communicate with one another through a database owned for profit by a guy in California who obeys orders from governments who send orders to disclose to Facebook. 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.

We have seen how social networking software can change the balance of power, but few are aware that this code rests on a fragile, centralized base

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, which much turn a profit in order to justify its existence to the people who design its technology. 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. 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. [The technologies] are too centralized, too vulnerable to state retaliation and control.

We need to fix this.

We need to fix it quickly.

Every day that we don’t fix the problem, is one more day that we risk the lives of others and perhaps of ourselves

Every day that we don’t fix the problems created by the use of insecure, over-centralized, overcapitalized social network media to do the politics of freedom, the real politics of freedom, in the street, where the tanks are — the more we don’t fix this, the more we are becoming part of the system which will bring about a tragedy soon. 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.

The 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 [that] we know is built to sell them out. If we care about freedom as much as we [say we] do, and if we’re as bright with technology as we are, we have to address that problem. We’re actually running out of time. Because people whose movements we care deeply about are already out there in harm’s way using stuff that can hurt them.

What can we do to help freedom under circumstances where the state has decided to try to shut down the network infrastructure? We can go back to mesh networking.

We’ve got to go back to mesh networking. [Mesh networking is a type of networking where each node must not only capture and disseminate its own data, but also serve as a relay for other sensor nodes, that is, it must collaborate to propagate the data in the network]. 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. Mesh networking in densely populated urban environments is capable of sustaining the kind of social action we saw in Cairo and in Alexandria this week. 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. . .. . [that is, meshes that are] outside the contexts of centralized networking environments that can be used to surveil, control, arrest, or shut down.

We can do this. We must do this. Otherwise, the promise of free software leading to a free society will break down

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.

The United States is building a “surveillance-industrial-military complex.” If you aren’t scared, you should be.

North America is becoming the heart of the global data mining industry. Its job is becoming knowing everything about everybody everywhere. 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. The Washington Post produced the most importance piece of public journalism in the United States last year, a series available to you online called Top Secret America, in which the Washington Post not only wrote eight very lengthy analytic stories about the classified sector of American industrial life built around surveillance and data processing. The Post also produced an enormous database which is publicly available to everyone through the newspaper of all the classified contractors available to them in public record, what they do for the government, what they’re paid, and what can be known about them . . . . I would encourage everyone to take a look at Top Secret America. What it will show you is how many Googles there are under the direct control of the United States government, as well as how many Googles there are under the control of Google. In other words, the vast outspreading web, which joins the traditional post-Second World War US listening to everything everywhere on earth outside the United States, to the newly available listening to things inside the United States—that used to be against the law in my country as I knew its law—to all the data now available in all the commercial collection systems, which includes everything you type into search boxes about what you believe, hope, fear, or doubt, as well as every travel reservation you make, and every piece of tracking information coming off your friendly smart phone.

[What’s scary is that] the Obama administration’s policies with regard to data mining, surveillance, and domestic security in the net are hardly different from the predecessor [Bush] administration’s, except where they are more aggressive about government control.

We can’t depend upon the pro-freedom bias in the ’listening to everybody everywhere about everything” culture now going on around the world. Profit motive will not produce privacy, let alone will it produce robust defense for freedom in the street.

“Centralized services can kill you”

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”

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.

We can make such objects cheaper than the chargers for smart phones. We can give people something that they can buy at very low cost that will go in their houses, that will run free software, to provide them services that make life better on the ordinary days and really come into their own on those not so ordinary days when we’re out in the street making freedom thank you for calling.

“We have to aim our engineering more at politics now because we have friends in the street trying to create human freedom”

We set out a generation ago to make freedom and we’re still doing it. 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.


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