The Free Software movement used GNU/Linux to put ‘freedom' into our computers. It's now time to turn on that freedom and achieve social results

Last week, four young hackers from New York University released the first version of Diaspora, the much-talked-about open alternative to the top social networking site Facebook. Miffed by Facebook's invasive privacy policies, they spent their summer hacking, using funds sent in by unhappy Facebook users over the Internet.

This significant initiative was inspired by a lecture that is very popular on the Internet, not only because it ordains the twenty-something Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg with the title of ‘having done more harm to the human race that anybody else his age', but also bringing to the mainstream a rather critical issue: privacy and freedom on the ‘cloud'.

When Eben Moglen delivered his talk, titled ‘Freedom in the Cloud', in February this year, he inspired these young men to attempt to restore ‘freedom' to the Internet — an invention that was built on the concept of peer-to-peer networking.

Speaking to The Hindu on the sidelines of a lecture he delivered at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, free software activist and hacker, professor at Columbia Law School and founder of the Software Law Centre, Moglen said he believes that Diaspora is important because it attempts to create a software networking layer for distributed use, and allows you and your friends to gradually migrate from a privacy-invading option to a privacy-respecting one, without ‘getting disconnected'. But a software layer will hardly do the trick. With web services offering ‘free-of-cost services' (served with surveillance, spying and complete loss of control of your personal data, as Moglen puts it), running on virtualised servers or ‘clouds' that are centralised, a new social networking layer can hardly turn things around.

Moglen proposes a simple solution, one that he says will reverse the ‘client-server model' that is antithetical to the spirit of the Internet as it was conceived, and more importantly, save our data by “de-virtualising the servers and pushing the power (or control) back to the edges”. He calls it the ‘Freedom Box'.

The ‘Freedom Box' or the ‘Wall-wart' servers are low-price, ultra-small servers that can be plugged in and will use as much power as a nightlight. Basically, Moglen explains, you can plug it in, sync in with a wi-fi router and it starts itself up. It will know how to start its web server, how to go and collect your stuff from all the social networking places and even send an encrypted backup of everything to your friends' servers.

It keeps your data logs, but instead of it sitting on a server owned by some company that may sell it or share it with somebody, it will be on your wall or in your neighbourhood, he explains.

Free World's iPhone

Currently available in the market for around $100, it runs on ARM chips and is being manufactured by two companies and is powered by Open Source software. “It's so small you can carry it around in your pocket. A final version will be ready in about 18 months and will be a lot cheaper when it is mass produced and is used by ordinary people. For this, it should be powerful, strong, easy to set up and use and really fun to interact with — and these are things that we in the Free Software world can do very well,” Moglen says. He believes that with powerful software stacks these “beauties” will catch on because they will cost less than a router, offer features such as being able to bypass censorship by encrypting and routing traffic, and most importantly, offer you a ‘no spying' option to every service available on the Web. The combination of this hardware and existing free software, he says, could make this the ‘Free World's iPhone' — an invention that changes the way people think about their relationship to the network.

The world we live in

The place we are in today is an unquestionably dangerous one. But how did something that was intrinsically conceived to be a ‘peer-to-peer' network where two computers simply talked to each other, turn into a hierarchical scheme that stripped users of all control and privacy of their data? When did e-mail cease to be a private conversation between two people, reflects Moglen.

Charting the history of this centralisation, Moglen explains: “The Internet, as it was conceived, was just pipes and switches. But when Microsoft took over as the dominant operating system, it established a server/client architecture where a centralised system, the server, determined your interactions with computers, thus establishing a clear hierarchy and disempowering client or computer users.” So, logs and storage control remained with this central server. This central server in today's virtualised world is the ‘cloud'. In this virtualised world, the server has no location and ‘clients' are disempowered because their data is now location-less. “Unlike the old server, which was made of iron, located in a room somewhere, this cloudy substance called the ‘cloud' is where all your data resides.” Now, data protection becomes extremely problematic given that for all practical purposes servers cease to be subject to legal control or operate in a policy-directed manner since they cannot be territorially linked, he says. And because servers cannot be controlled, the logs (of online activity), the result of the hidden service of surveillance, can be projected into any domain at any moment, stripping them of any territorial legal obligation, Moglen believes.

Social networking

The loss of privacy becomes all the more critical, and somewhat catastrophic, when it comes to social networking, says Moglen. “In exchange for a few web services, we now have the spy in our skull. People are living online, and in this world you have Zuckerberg make them believe that it is ‘sexy' to be spied on.” Unaware of the implications, people — often young people — are online, out there, sharing personal information that can and is easily being monetised. This is where the Free Software movement needs to get in, and change the way things work.

With software that creates federated web services, where data is not put on centralised servers but in dispersed virtual servers or even pocket servers, and the ‘Freedom Box' that allows lay users to run their own servers, the ‘Free Software' movement is on the right track. Dismissing those who decree the Free Software movement irrelevant, Moglen explains that the Free Software or GNU/Linux empowered ‘clients' against their masters by providing technically superlative alternatives to proprietary software. “We put the freedom in everything. Now is the time to build on this platform for free software to achieve social results. It's time to turn on the freedom.”