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

Event records

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 freedom.

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 freedom.

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.

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 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, 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 donation.

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 soon.

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 you.

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 real time.

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 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.

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 being done.

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 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.

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 know.

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 uncontrolled.

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 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.

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, very soon.

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 communications.

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 comment.

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.