and we have http://www.freedomboxfoundation.org/ Looking forward to
see more of us joining this effort to secure our freedom in the
You have to keep reminding your government that you don't get your
rights from them; you give them permission to rule, only so long as
they follow the rules: laws and constitution.
[For once I am going to contradict my own posting habits and post the
entire transcript so that it can be forwarded for everyone to read.
Read this you must.]
Why Political Liberty Depends on Software Freedom More Than Ever
Thank you, good morning. It is a great pleasure to be here. I want to
thank the organizers for the miracle that FOSDEM is. You all know that
only chaos could create an organization of this quality and power; it
is an honor for me to play a little bit of a role in it. I know how
eager you are to deal with technical matters and I am sorry to start
with politics first thing in the morning, but it is urgent.
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. 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.
In other words, the very composition of social life, the way it works
or doesn’t work for us, the way it works or doesn’t work for those who
own, the way it works or doesn’t work for those who oppress, all now
depends on software.
At the other end of this hastening process, when we started our little
conspiracy, you and me and everyone else, you remember how it worked,
right? I mean, it was a simple idea. Make freedom, put freedom in
everything, turn freedom on. Right? That was how the conspiracy was
designed, that’s how the thing is supposed to work. We did pretty well
with it and about half-way through stage one, my dear friend Larry
Lessig figured out what was going on for us and he wrote his first,
quite astonishing, book “Code”, in which he said that code was going
to do the work of law in the 21st century. That was a crucial idea out
of which much else got born, including Creative Commons and a bunch of
other useful things. The really important point now is that 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.
But code also organizes the people in the street. We’re having
enormous demonstration around the world right now of the power of
code, in both directions. The newspapers in the United States this
past month have been full of the buzz around the book called “The Net
Delusion” by Evgeny Morozov, a very interesting book taking a more
pessimistic view of the political nature of the changes in the net.
Mr. Morozov, who comes from Belarus, and therefore has a clear
understanding of the mechanism of 21st century despotism, sees the
ways in which the institutions of the net are increasingly being
co-opted by the state in an effort to limit, control, or eliminate
And his summary of a half decade of policy papers on that subject in
his book is a warning to the technological optimists, at least he says
it is, about the nature of the net delusion, that the net brings
freedom. I am, I guess, one of the technological optimists, because I
do believe that the net brings freedom. I don’t think Mr. Morozov is
wrong, however. The wrong net brings tyranny and the right net brings
freedom, this is a version of the reason why I still have the buttons
for distribution that say “Stallman was right.” The right net brings
freedom and the wrong net brings tyranny because it all depends on how
the code works.
Alright, so we all know that. We’ve spent a lot of time making free
software, we’ve spent a lot of time putting free software in
everything, and we have tried to turn freedom on. We have also joined
forces with other elements of the free culture world that we helped to
bring into existence. I’ve known Jimmy Wales a long time, and Julian
Assange. And what we’ve all tried to be about, that changes the world.
Wikipedia and Wikileaks are two sides of the same coin. They are the
two sides of the same coin, the third side of which is FOSDEM, it is
the power of ordinary people to organize to change the world. Without
having to create hierarchy and without having to recapitulate the
structures of power that are being challenged by the desire to make
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
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.
It’s hard, I know—because 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.
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
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, which much
turn a profit in order to justify its existence to the people who
design its technology and which we know is capable of deciding, all by
itself, overnight, to donate the entire history of everything everyone
said through it to the Library of Congress. Which means, I suppose,
that in some other place, they could make a different style of
We need to fix this.
We need to fix it quickly.
We are now behind the curve of the movements for freedom that depend
on code. And 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
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.
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. I’ve pointed a couple of times already to the
reason why centralized social networking and data distribution
services should be replaced by federated services. I was talking about
that intensively last year before this recent round of demonstrations
in the street of the importance of the whole thing began, and I want
to come back to the projects I have been advocating … but let me just
say here again, from this other perspective, that 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 we know is built to sell them out.
If we care about freedom as much as 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
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.
And we need to learn the lessons of what we see happening around us in
One thing that the Egyptian situation showed us, as we probably knew
after the Iranian situation, when we watched the forces of the Iranian
state buy the telecommunications carriers, as we learned when the
Egyptians begin to lean on Vodaphone last week, we learn again why
closed networks are so harmful to us. Why the ability to build a kill
switch on the infrastructure by pressuring the for-profit
communications carriers, who must have a way of life with government
in order to survive, can harm our people seeking freedom using
technology we understand well.
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.
Mesh networking in densely populated urban environments is capable of
sustaining the kind of social action we saw in Cairo and in Alexandria
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
We need to go back to ensuring people secure end-to-end communications
over those local meshes.
We need to provide survivable conditions for the kinds of
communications that people now depend upon outside the contexts of
centralized networking environments that can be used to surveil,
control, arrest, or shut them down.
Can we do this?
Are we gonna do this?
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.
If you look at that map of the globe at night, the one where all the
lights are, and imagine next time you look at it that you’re looking
instead instead at a network graph, instead an electrical
infrastructure graph, you will feel a kind of pulsing coming off of
the North American continent, where all the world’s data mining is
Think of it that way, alright? North America is becoming the heart of
the global data mining industry. Its job is becoming knowing
everything about everybody everywhere.
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
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
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 know about
them, a database which can be used to create all kinds of journalism
beyond what the Post published itself. 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.
When governments talk about the future of the net these days, I have
on decent authority from government officials in several countries,
when governments talk about the future of the net these days, they
talk almost entirely in terms of “cyber-war.”
A field in which I have never had much interest and which has a jargon
all its own, but some current lessons from inter-governmental
discussions about cyber-war are probably valuable to us here.
The three most powerful collections of states on Earth, the United
States of America, the European Union, and the People’s Republic of
China, discuss cyber-war at a fairly high intergovernmental level
fairly regularly. Some of the people around that table have
disagreements of policy, but there is a broad area of consensus. In
the world of cyber-war they talk about “exfiltration”; we would call
that “spying” they mean exflitrating our data off our networks into
their pockets. Exfiltration, I am told by government officials here
and there and everywhere, exfiltration is broadly considered by all
governments to be a free fire zone; everybody may listen to everything
everywhere all the time, we don’t believe in any governmental limits,
and the reason is every government wants to listen and no government
believes listening can be prevented.
On that later point I think they’re too pessimistic but let’s grant
them that they’ve spent a lot of money trying and they think they
Where the disagreements currently exist, I am currently told by the
government officials I talk to, concerns not exfiltration but what
they call “network disruption,” by which they mean destroying freedom.
The basic attitude here is of two parties in balanced speech. One side
in that side says “what we want are clear rules. We want to know what
we’re allowed to attack, what we have to defend, and what we do with
the things that are neither friendly nor enemy.” The other side in
that conversation says “we recognize no distinctions. Anywhere in the
net where there is a threat to our national security or national
interests, we claim the right to disrupt or destroy that threat,
regardless of its geographical location.”
I needn’t characterize for you which among the governments—the United
States of America, the European Union, or the People’s Republic of
China—take those different positions and I should say that within all
those governments there are differences of opinion on those points,
dominant factions and less dominant factions. But all parties are
increasingly aware that in North America is where the data mining is,
and that’s either a benefit, a dubiousness, or a problem, depending on
which state or collection of states you represent.
European data protection law has done this much: it has put your
personal data almost exclusively in North America where it is
To that extent European legislation succeed.
The data mining industries are concentrated outside the European
Union, largely for reasons of legal policy. They operate, as any
enterprise tends to operate, in the part of the world where there is
least control over their behavior.
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.
No possibility, no time soon.
When he was a candidate for President, at the beginning, in the
Democratic primaries, Barack Obama was in favor of not immunizing
American telecommunications giants for participation in spying
domestically inside the United States without direct public legal
authorization. By the time he was a candidate in the general election,
he was no longer in favor of preventing immunization, indeed he as a
Senator from Illinois did not filibuster the legislation immunizing
the telecomms giants and it went through. As you are aware, the Obama
administration’s policies with regard to data mining, surveillance,
and domestic security in the net are hardly different from the
predecessor 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.
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
We can’t fool around about this. We can’t let Facebook dance up and
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
Cheap, small, low-power plug servers are the form factor we need, and
they exist everywhere now and they will get very cheap, very quick,
A small device the size of a cell phone charger—running a low power
chip, with a wireless NIC or two and some other available ports, and
some very sweet free software of our own—is a practicable device for
creating significant personal privacy and freedom-based
Think what it needs to have in it. Mesh networking. We’re not quite
there but we should be. OpenBTS, Asterisk? Yeah, we could make
telephone systems that are self-constructing out of parts that cost
next to nothing.
Federated, rather than centralized, microblogging, social networking,
photo exchange, anonymous publication platforms based around cloudy
webservers—We can do all of that. Your data, at home, in your house,
where they have to come and get it, facing whatever the legal
restrictions are, if any, in your society about what goes on inside
the precincts of the home. Encrypted email, just all the time,
perimeter defense for all those wonky Windows computers and other bad
devices that roll over every time they’re pushed at by a 12 year old.
Proxy services for climbing over national firewalls, smart tunneling
to get around anti-neutrality activity by upstream ISPs and other
network providers, all of that can be easily done on top of stuff we
already make and use all the time. We have general purpose
distributions of stacks more than robust enough for all of this and a
little bit of application layer work to do on the top.
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.
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.
A Belarussian theater troupe that got arrested and heavily beaten on
after the so-called elections in Minsk this winter, exfiltrated itself
to New York City in January, did some performances of Harold Pinter
and gave some interviews.
One of the Belarussian actors who was part of that troupe said in an
interview with the New York Times, “The Belarussian KGB is the most
honest organization on earth. After the Soviet Union fell apart, they
saw no need to change anything they did, so they saw no need to change
their name either.” And I thought that was a really quite useful
We need to keep in mind that they are exactly the same people they
always were, whether they’re in Cairo, or Moscow, or Belarus, or Los
Angeles, or Jakarta, or anywhere else on earth. They’re exactly the
same people they always were. So are we, exactly the same people we
always were too. 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.