Eben Moglen Interview: Freedom Box

Professor Eben Moglen of Columbia University and founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center wants to develop a Freedom Box, a small personal server or “privacy appliance”, which would be as affordable and ubiquitous as the mobile telephone, and would run on free software which would “do all the things for you that service providers over the web like Facebook and Twitter currently do for you, but they can do them in ways that protect your privacy and security.”

Professor Moglen wants to counteract what he sees as “constriction in the Internet, a lot of government repression, and a lot of commercial exploitation”, through the provision of free software, which will take advantage of a new wave of affordable hardware coming on the market such as the GlobalScale SheevaPlug.

“The point is to make a thing which is as easy to use as a mobile phone but which is a stationary server for your privacy protection”.

“The stuff we call free software, the new X Windows, Linux kernel, all those pieces of infrastructure software are very inaccessible to ordinary people”, says Professor Moglen. The Freedom Box will, he believes, take the technological benefits that someone like him has at his disposal and make it available to the less technically-literate.

“If a person whose computer experience is using a mobile phone and using a computer desktop at work opened my laptop and tried to use all the privacy software in it, I don’t think he or she would find it very usable. My software is very powerful, but it’s probably not put the way people would want to use it, so the task of making it available for them to use it, is maybe not mostly producing the function, it’s maybe integrating functions and putting inside a user experience that really works for people”.

“There will be some areas in which we will want to push the envelope of existing software to do new things or to do really important things in radically better, new ways. But in the beginning, I think most of the functions that we need, we already have. It’s really about producing software that makes those functions available to ordinary people in a really usable way. That’s the biggest part of what we’re doing here, I think”.

Mesh networking is, continues Professor Moglen, “a very powerful idea.” This networking, where wireless devices that possess two radios each can hook themselves up in networks that require only electricity will mean, “that people who want to build networks of wireless interconnection can do so.”

This will have particular applications in countries where censorship of the Internet is particularly prevalent. The Freedom Box will help, “to preserve the network in difficult places, where governments actively interfere with it or try to shut it down. I think that in that respect we should think of Freedom Box software as a platform designed to help people who want to develop advanced resistant, resilient communications to have a place where they can not only develop their software, but where users can interact with it in user-friendly ways.”

The ideal of providing free software is not a new one, but one that Eben Moglen feels is more relevant now than ever, “The free software movement started from a vision thirty years ago, that really embraces where we are trying to go now, and where it has been trying to go all along.”

Today, he continues, “The Internet has grown to be the place where everybody’s life is really being lived in many societies. Everybody’s connected to the ‘net all the time, and their behaviour is affected by it. And that means that freedom in that net is absolutely crucial to people’s freedom in their lives. And so we need to be more there for them; we need to get closer to help them preserve their freedom. And that’s what I think this part of the process is.”

Professor Moglen is optimistic that the Freedom Box project is not too far from being in a position to achieve this. “I think that the software will begin to be ready quite soon, within the next, say, year and a half, probably substantially less. Then all of a sudden, like popcorn popping, there will be cheap personal server hardware available all over the world within a few years at very inexpensive prices, cheaper than cell phones. At that point, I think the software we have made in order to make devices like that into personal privacy appliances will be very widely used by people all over the world.”

If the Freedom Box turns out as Eben Moglen envisions it, its benefits will far exceed mere technical applications. The internet has permeated society to such a degree that he believes this development will have much broader ramifications.

“I think that the end of that process will be much-improved privacy and security for people. there will be less malware. There will be less identity theft. there will be less torturing of people for their opinions around the world, and everybody will be better off.”

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