New Internationalist

Internet showdown: why digital freedom matters - to us all

December 2012

One Saturday morning, a few months back, I caught a bus to a showcase of the future. Alighting at London’s Russell Square, I walked through an internal courtyard that locked out the September sunshine, into a drab hotel. Picking their way through tourists with improbably large suitcases were entrepreneurs, programmers, crypto-anarchists and anti-statists – 99 per cent male. Event organizer Amir Taaki billed them as ‘explorers of a new world’.

The event in question was a conference about Bitcoin, a digital currency that allows you to spend cash on the internet, anonymously. But its complicated software has far more interesting possibilities, including the potential to create a peer-to-peer money market that precludes banks.

Donough O'Malley www.pencilrobot.net
Donough O'Malley www.pencilrobot.net

Speakers at the conference explored a range of disruptive technologies coming our way, and drew an audience from across the political spectrum. Gun-toting Cody Wilson, for example, wanted to help the general populace download and 3D-print pistols, while Eli Sklar dreamed of a moneyless, post-scarcity society. Technology has always attracted its fair share of determinist visions, utopian and dystopian. But I was more interested in power – the machinations of government and the corporations – and how these apply to our new-found digital space.

I was here to meet some hackers. Not the kind of hackers who circumvent security systems, but the community of programmers who build things; inventors with a strong anti-authoritarian streak. More specifically, I came to seek out the free software hackers. Theirs could be one of the most important movements of this century – as they grapple with the question: who controls technology? And with it, the keys to freedom, access and transparency.

Freedom software

I started by meeting one of the greatest hackers of all time, Richard Stallman. He is the prophet of the free software movement, which advocates for programs that are free to use, share and change without falling foul of copyright. Stallman travels the world making the argument that software should be treated as public knowledge. To help make this a reality, he and the Free Software Foundation (FSF), foster the development of free alternatives to ‘proprietary software’, which is owned by companies such as Microsoft and Apple, where the inner-workings are hidden and locked away.

We meet at a dim sum restaurant near Russell Square – Stallman’s fondness for Chinese food is almost as legendary as his programming. He is small and bearded, portly with straggly long hair and a net book that’s almost an extra limb. He looks incongruous, sat between smart bald-headed Sveinn Vafells, an Icelandic tech entrepreneur, and young Bitcoin developers Stefan Thomas and Pieter Wuille. But his mammoth solo-programming feats – he wrote a large portion of the free operating system GNU/Linux, which is used on tens of millions of computers – mean he still commands huge respect, nearly 30 years later.

As the table-top disappears under zucchini dumplings and Jasmine tea-smoked ribs, Stallman lays out his beliefs. ‘Practical things should be free to use and change,’ he explains. ‘That’s how an ethical society ought to be. By this I mean design, educational works, fonts, recipes and programs.’

Infectious openness

Stallman devised a way to keep his programming free, for all time, with an ingenious ‘copyleft’ licence. This allows users to read and improve the source code – the human readable version of the code that runs the software – on condition that the same rights are passed on to all other users. That way the knowledge and learning stays in the public domain, forever.

Anti-statist Cody Wilson wants to help the general populace download and 3D-print pistols

Free software has since enjoyed wild success. It now ‘holds up half the world’, in the words of writer Glyn Moody, provides the infrastructure for most of the web and has made major inroads into the ‘closed-software’ competition. The ethical open-source principle has gone on to infect hardware, design and electronics. Stallman’s proselytizing is also said to have inspired the inventor of the internet, Tim Berners Lee, to ‘give it away’ rather than slap a patent on it or charge a licence fee.

It’s heartening to discover a productive model where profit is not the driving motivation. I ask core Bitcoin developer Pieter Wuille what he gets out of writing code. He looks at me askance. ‘I have no intention of making money out of it, if that’s what you mean,’ he says. ‘It gives me satisfaction to be part of this community.’ He likens coding to learning a musical instrument – it’s about mastery, purpose and autonomy. In this culture, which anthropologists have likened to a ‘gift economy’, reputation is everything. Writer Glyn Moody describes the hacker’s world as a ‘true meritocracy’. That’s not to say there aren’t employment prospects. The kudos Wuille has earned through Bitcoin means a job with Google is in the pipeline.

After a final round of crystal-dumpling wraps, rice noodles and cups of Oriental Beauty tea, Sveinn Vafells pulls out his wallet, and insists on settling the bill. When the party protests he offers this by way of explanation: ‘He gave us so many things,’ he says, indicating Stallman. And, with a nod at Wuille and Thomas: ‘so did they’.

Chatty hearing aids

Back at the conference, Stallman talks more about the harm caused by commercial ‘just trust me’ software, as he lays out FSF badges for sale.

‘When people don’t know about this issue they can be herded into giving up their freedom by a combination of convenient features, pressure from institutions and the network effect,’ he warns.

‘Nowadays people who use proprietary software are almost certainly using malware.’ This malicious software may be spyware that can turn your phone into a bug, or your laptop into a video camera (parents and colleges have been caught spying on children in this way in the US).

But the most common malware is Digital Rights Management (DRM) – what Stallman likes to call ‘digital handcuffs’ – that restricts what you can do with the data in your own computer.

Sci-fi writer and activist Cory Doctorow gives the example of a Nintendo console that ‘bricks itself’ if you tamper with it by installing unauthorized software. DRM means a publisher can wipe an e-book you have already bought when a distributer’s licencing deal changes, or can stop you transferring your music files from iPhone or iPod to your computer.

Tech glossary

Source code: the human readable version of the code that runs computer programs.
Free software: a program whose license allows a user to see, modify, and distribute the source code. See gnu.org.
Open source software: close to / equivalent to free software opensource.org
Malware: malicious software that can gather sensitive information, gain access to your computer or disrupt its operation.
Proprietary software: software where the source code is hidden, which is licenced under exclusive legal right of the copyright holder.
Open-hardware: physical technology such as the first general-purpose 3D-printer RepRap, designed and shared in the same way as free software.
Open-data: information that is freely available to everyone, to use and republish as they wish.

The companies would say they are protecting copyright to recover money spent on research and development. But when computers and software are designed to override his or her owner’s decisions, Doctorow sees an unacceptable erosion of human rights in favour of creators’ monopolies.

He warns that the entertainment industry is only the ‘first belligerent’. As computing creeps into all areas of life – cars, planes, radios, even DNA sequencers – industries with far stronger lobbying powers will be queuing up to control what computers are allowed to do, at the users’ expense. Wait until Monsanto and the oil industry get in on the game.

‘I want to be sure my hearing aid is an honest servant to my will,’ says Doctorow. And the first, prerequisite step to making sure your hearing aid doesn’t whisper ads in your ear or bleep out blasphemy, or that your leased pacemaker doesn’t lose a beat if you miss a payment, is to know how the device works.

Which brings us full circle to the code. If you use free systems with their code laid bare for all to see, Stallman says, ‘no-one has that power over you.’

Copyright forever

Digital Rights Management is not happening in a vacuum. The past 25 years have seen an explosion of intellectual property rights, much to the detriment of domestic industry in developing nations.

The US is leading the charge. Here, copyright terms have shot up from the original 14 years to the author’s lifetime plus 70. Relentlessly lobbied by software, technology and entertainment industries, Washington has pushed hard for trade deals that export its stringent domestic regime.

The internet is the latest battleground. It’s near impossible to prove that an illegal download represents a lost sale. But that hasn’t stopped the entertainment industry from laying all the losses of the information age at the door of peer-to-peer file-sharers, the people they label ‘pirates’. The shifting digital landscape poses a major challenge to artists and culture makers. But it would be better to help artists develop new, innovative business models than to impose punitive anti-piracy measures. These bills and trade pacts short-cut due process and are futile in an age of easy copying, according to the Social Science Research Council’s independent and exhaustive study, ‘Media piracy in emerging economies’.

The fierce piracy debates matter to everyone at the Bitcoin conference, whatever their online habits, because copyright enforcement on the internet, like on our personal devices, brings an unacceptable level of surveillance and control.

‘Your phone company can’t cut you off because they don’t like what you say,’ Stallman points out. ‘We need that kind of support in cyber space.’

‘English authorship comes to us as free as the vital air, shall we tax it and thus impose a barrier to the circulation of intellectual and moral light? Shall we build up a dam, to obstruct the flow of the rivers of knowledge?’2

A 19th-century US publisher defends the country’s suspension of British copyright claims, which persisted for over a century. From infringer to enforcer, then – the US is now described as the intellectual property capital of the world.

Routing round censorship

Caleb James DeLisle is working on a plan to lend that support. This hacker has been coding since the age of 10, ‘programming the world I want to live in’. Which is one where the government doesn’t ‘listen and block’.

Dressed in a checked shirt and walking boots, he looks as if he has just hiked out of the forest. It turns out he lives a car-free existence off a dirt road in the woods in Massachusetts. He travelled to London to showcase his project to route around censorship, using a mesh-network called cjdns, which would create an open source, community-owned internet.

‘All internet companies are dictators – either benevolent or oppressive,’ he says. His networking protocol – currently in the Alpha stage – decentralizes connections, and power along with it. That means an Internet Service Provider (ISP) can’t be leaned upon to shut down a site that the government doesn’t like – such as Wikileaks, for example.

DeLisle’s network would also help counter the growing trend of governments spying on data and communications without a warrant. Journalist Heather Brooke has documented how the internet, while making it easy to share ideas, has made it equally easy to intercept them.1 This has made governments greedy for data. Britain, for one, is debating a Communications Data Bill – described by critics as a ‘snooper’s charter’ – that would require internet companies to track and store records of each and every citizen’s web use for a year.

'Your phone company can't cut you off because they don't like what you say. We need that kind of support in cyber space'

For their part, a number of IT companies are selling high-tech surveillance technology to dictatorships and democracies alike. In response, hackers are writing anonymizing software that protects identities online. These information activists reject the state line that their authority over our communication is for our own protection – be it from threats to ‘national security’ or to stop child or other degrading pornography. They believe restrictions are ultimately geared at protecting the status quo.

States already have ample powers to close down offensive sites and track criminals, Brooke reminds us. And as our data flies out onto the web, the courts are struggling to protect civil rights in this fast-changing technological context (it was 40 years before police needed a warrant to tap a phone call).

Once scaled up, Delisle’s mesh-network might help to protect personal privacy and freedom. But it is clear that a wider arsenal of judges and civil society will be needed to keep governments’ data-grab in check.

You are the product

Berliner Daniel Reusche, a 22-year-old sometime-student of physics and maths, is more concerned about the ownership of data. Reusche is helping to build a secure free-software social network Secushare.org, because ‘it’s not a good idea to have other people controlling your data’. Secushare would enable us to bring all that personal information – which a billion of us currently entrust to Facebook – back in-house.

The volunteers who drive this project understand that if you are not paying for the product, you are the product. Facebook is quite open about putting your data to work, for profit. Targeted ads are perhaps the most benign expression of this. Meanwhile, the stealthy retreat of privacy settings is claiming victims, outing gay teens in the US, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.

For its part, the ubiquitous search engine Google runs more than a million data services around the world and rolls over a billion search requests per day. Governments, again, are keen to cast their eyes over it – Google openly reports thousands of daily data requests. The US tops the list, making over 6,000 requests in the period July to December 2011, while China has skirted niceties and allegedly hacked straight into Gmail to get the passwords for dissidents’ accounts. Brooke reports that the US Supreme Court is seeking the legal equivalent: installation of backdoors into Facebook, Google and the BlackBerry network.

Reusche’s main worry is that when our data is stored in this centralized way, it may fall into the wrong hands, and that leaves minorities particularly vulnerable.

Stallman is similarly unequivocal. Facebook, he says, is a ‘surveillance engine’ offering up more information than Stalin could have dreamed of.

Trystan Lea
Power to the people: Welsh start-up Megni and others have developed the Open Energy Monitor (pictured above). Crafted from open-source hardware and software, it's a smart device that lets you track energy use in the home – without that data being controlled by utility companies. Trystan Lea

‘Those with more power will profit more from data,’ says Reusche. Secushare is a way to write public-interest values into the programs we use, as part of a wider fight for social justice. ‘We need equal distribution of power and rights.’

When I emerged from the Bitcoin conference later that Saturday, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the daylight, I felt a new sense of responsibility. I had warmed to Stallman’s vision of capable, independent people, skilled users of free software, who were not dependent on dumbed-down closed systems.

That’s not to say the freedom-seeking software fixes explored in this article do not summon up complex, age-old debates on free access and regulation. The same anonymizing software that saves dissidents is likely to be used by criminals with darker intent.

But it is clear that control of our emerging information society should not lie solely with governments and corporations. We can have commercialized, complex technology that is controlled by – and serves the interests of – a few. Or, as co-operative ideas about open-knowledge spread, the choice of alternative, human-scale technology that is accessible to many, and controlled from the bottom up.

We need these technological tools. The digital age brings opportunity: a dizzying potential to expose, mobilize, hold up leaders to scrutiny and share knowledge. Yet it also brings new threats to hard-won civil liberties.

Software may keep dissidents safe from police, but defining and defending privacy and data protection in the digital sphere will take more than changing the code we use. Luckily, the techies are not alone. There are civil society groups mobilizing around the same principles across the world – from the Philippines’ Internet Freedom Alliance to Brazil’s internet rights group Movimiento Mega Nao and the Pirate Parties of Germany and Sweden.

The geek pioneers, with their deep understanding of the binary systems that baffle so many of us, are key to keeping free communication of ideas at the heart of technology. Open systems, and the techno-literates that design them, deserve our support.

  1. Heather Brooke, The Revolution Will be Digitized. Dispatches from the Information War. Random House 2011

  2. Thorvald Solberg 1886. ‘International Copyright I Congress.’ Library Journal 11.

Further Reading

Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking by Gabriela Coleman, 2012 (Princeton University Press).
The Revolution will be Digitized: Dispatches from the Information War by Heather Brooke, 2011 (Random House).
Tinker, tailor, cyber spy: on modern surveillance technologies by Rebecca Fisher, 2012 in The Corporate Capture of Social Networking, Corporate Watch, Issue 52/53.
The Washington Declaration on Intellectual Property and the Public Interest.
Media Piracy in Emerging Economies ed. Joe Karaganis, 2011 (Social Science Research Council).
The coming war on general purpose computation by Cory Doctorow, 2011.
What They Know digital privacy series. The Wall Street Journal.
The No-Nonsense Guide to Global Surveillance by Robin Tudge, 2011 (New Internationalist).

Slideshow photo: photosteve101, under a CC License.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 458 This special report appeared in the free software issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.

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