The Game Changer

April 22, 2015

Professor Eben Moglen makes speeches. He gives talks every few weeks, across the globe, to critics and the like-minded, in large groups and small. Moglen, who serves as director of the Software Freedom Law Center, does many other things, too—he organizes legal and financial support for programmers; he creates community groups to advance the rights of free software projects—but if you ask people in tech-legal circles what stands out most about Moglen, it is the speeches everyone cites. And if you ask them to name one speech in particular, they will point to the talk he gave to the Internet Society in February of 2010. There, Moglen introduced the world to an idea he had been mulling over for some time. He calls it the Freedom Box. In its most basic incarnation, the Freedom Box is a tiny computer that sits between you and the Internet. From there, it safeguards your privacy against online monitoring, helps you reach past censorship on the web, replaces Facebook and other social-networking services with alternatives that give you more control over your personal information, and securely backs up your data, among other functions. With Moglen’s prodding, a group of programmers are aiming to mass produce Freedom Boxes within the next couple of years. Moglen calls the device the culmination of everything he has been working on since the 1980s. “Our plan,” he says, “is to make freedom, share freedom, put freedom inside everything. Then we turn freedom on.” 

The world needs the Freedom Box, Moglen says, because the Internet has gone rogue. More specifically, he notes that hundreds of millions of people around the world have embraced Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other systems that seek to profit by monitoring and cataloging our actions in centralized servers far beyond our grasp. “You now live in a network which surveils you more deeply; which knows more about you; and which renders the knowledge about you more dangerously accessible to those who wish to modify your behavior than any one of the 20th-century political systems we refer to as totalitarian,” he said at the Open World Forum in Paris last fall.

Moglen concedes that these systems have been beneficial; over the past few months, many of the services he demonizes have propelled revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and across the Arab world. But Moglen considers these benefits as temporary. Over the long term, the power that Internet giants have accumulated will corrupt, he says. “We need to fix this,” he said in Brussels in February. “The more we don’t fix this, the more we are becoming part of a system which will bring about a tragedy soon.” Moglen described the problem more starkly last year, when discussing Mark Zuckerberg, the wunderkind founder of Facebook, during his acclaimed 2010 Internet Society speech: “Mr. Zuckerberg has attained an unenviable record,” he said. “He has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.”

For more than two decades, Moglen has been one of the leading thinkers in the free software movement—a band of programmers and legal theorists who argue that the laws governing what we can do with our computers actually restrict many more far-ranging freedoms. During the 1990s, according to Moglen, that movement’s main rival was Microsoft, a company whose enormous fortune was built by installing its code—mainly Windows and Office—on nearly every PC in the world. At one point, Microsoft looked unbeatable, but around the turn of the century, its star suddenly dimmed. The Internet had replaced the PC as the central technology of our lives—and the Internet, unlike the PC, was powered by free software. Many of the world’s servers, databases, browsers, and mobile operating systems are based on open-source code. Free software has also helped launch a new breed of tech giants; Facebook and Google nominally embrace the free software movement’s tenets and build many of their systems on open-source code.

You would suspect, then, that Moglen and others in the free software movement might be feeling a sense of relief over their apparent victory. But to Moglen, fending off Microsoft was the easy part. Now comes something more difficult: freeing the world from the centralized networks that are capturing the Internet. “Everybody’s talking about Internet freedom,” Moglen says. “We’re doing it.”

In February, Moglen created the Freedom Box Foundation, a nonprofit group that will coordinate the development of the gadget he hopes will rebuild the Internet. In early prototypes, the box looks like a small cell-phone charger, a little unit that plugs into the wall and disappears among all the other electronic doodads littering your house. But Moglen stresses that this is just one of many hardware configurations; the Freedom Box’s main ingredient is software, not hardware, and the code inside it will find its way into many different devices. In the U.S. and other western countries, Freedom Boxes could sell as prepackaged goods—you’ll buy one for $30 or so, plug it in, and instantly remake your relationship with the Internet and the companies that dominate it. In repressive regimes, Moglen imagines people passing around Freedom Box software to squirrel into all kinds of devices—cable TV boxes, netbook PCs, and other small computers. Installing the software would surreptitiously “build freedom” into their machines, Moglen says. In some versions, home brew Freedom Boxes could wirelessly “mesh” together, allowing people to communicate with one another even after authorities have shut down the Internet. 

If this sounds a bit dreamy, even far-fetched, it should. Moglen has conscripted an army of open-source developers to build the Freedom Box, but he speaks with such world-changing confidence (“It is no longer economically or technically feasible to try to catch up with us,” he says of the free software movement) that it is hard not to get the sense that he is underestimating the difficulty of the task ahead. To appreciate the enormity of his project, it helps to understand how most of the major services on the Web actually work. In geek-speak, Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and other sites use a “client-server” model. You are the client, and Facebook is the server. The server keeps all the data—Facebook’s “cloud” of thousands of computers spread around the planet store terabytes of information that you and your friends have entered. When you update your status, your computer sends a message to Facebook’s servers; when your friends check Facebook, the company’s servers send them your new status.

There is an obvious advantage to this system: You do not have to worry about maintaining the data yourself. If your computer crashes, or if you are away from your computer, everything you have entered into Facebook will still be accessible to you from any other machine connected to the Internet. But there are obvious disadvantages, too. You are giving up control of your data to Facebook, and the company is free to change the terms with which it handles your information anytime it wants.

Moglen’s Freedom Box would guarantee freedom, he says, by upending the client-server model. Rather than storing your data in the cloud, the Freedom Box would store your data locally—encrypted on your own Box, and those of other people you trust. Technically, it is more complex to build Web services that store data locally rather than centrally, but it is not impossible. Many parts of the Internet are already based on this kind of peer-to-peer architecture, and there is no reason why social-networking can’t be, too, Moglen says. (Indeed, Moglen’s 2010 speech at the Internet Society inspired four college students to build just such a thing; an early version of their decentralized social-network, called DIASPORA*, was released in September.) Moglen sees this as the first of many decentralized services that the Freedom Box will make possible—and which, in time, will rid us of the scourge of centralized data. “If anybody wants to know what’s happening in your server, they can get a search warrant,” he told a crowd in New York last year.

But the biggest hurdles Moglen’s idea faces aren’t technical—they are social. When he first unveiled the concept of the Freedom Box last year, Facebook had 400 million active users around the world. Now it has more than 500 million. And although Facebook has received withering criticism for the way it handles people’s private data, few people quit the site. In fact, every day, a few hundred thousand more sign up. So it appears that the things Moglen fears about Facebook—its centralization, its susceptibility to government control, the way it automates “spying”—may not matter enough to most people to outweigh the fun and convenience of the site.

Developers working on the Freedom Box say they are aiming for simplicity. “We’re trying to make it so that ordinary people can grab these things in large numbers and go use them,” says Thomas Lord, a Freedom Box volunteer in Berkeley, Calif. Certainly free software has experienced its successes with non-geeks. (The open-source browser Firefox, for instance, has proved adept at convincing people to ditch Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.) But building social networks that catch on is not easy. Some of the world’s biggest tech companies—Google, Apple, and Yahoo, for starters—have failed to build compelling social sites to take on Facebook, so it may be expecting too much to suggest open-source developers can do better.

Another problem might be the technical and legal barriers that companies and governments place in front of the Freedom Box. What if the Chinese government forces all manufacturers of set-top boxes to make their devices inhospitable to Freedom Box software? Or what if more gadget companies take a page from Apple, which has locked down its iPhones and iPads against software that it has not vetted? Free software hackers are quite skilled at getting around such strictures, but can they make it easy enough for the dispossessed hordes of the world to do so, too?

If anyone can realize this dream, the Freedom Box’s supporters say, it is Moglen. “Eben’s a truly visionary person,” says Jonathan Zittrain, the co-founder of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “I hope that others can join and help refine his effort to make for a freer ecosystem, especially in light of recent events in the Middle East, where control over the Internet was not just a theoretical debate.

And Moglen himself is not lacking in confidence. He gives Facebook 10 years to live, at most: “The basic secret of 21st-century activity is disintermediation,” Moglen says. “Facebook is an unnecessary intermediary. It will go away the same way that travel agencies and The New York Times will go away.”

Within 18 months—in a best-case scenario, 12 months—the first Freedom Boxes will be ready for purchase, Moglen predicts. And with that, the world changes. “If we make it, it will make freedom, and people will use it,” he says. “It will move faster, go farther, and do more than anything that competes with it on a capitalist basis.” As for Moglen’s role in the process, he prefers to deflect credit, labeling himself merely a “spark plug” for the Freedom Box project: “I am the guy who gives some speeches, raises some money, and watches a community do a wonderful thing for the world.”

Farhad Manjoo is the technology columnist for Slate and Fast Company.

Freedom Box photographed on its side by Peter Freed