Eben Moglen — “Will the net empower the center or the ends?”

Bits of Freedom did a terrific job hosting a salon with Eben Moglen this afternoon at The Hub. As Mr. Moglen did, I am going to take the liberty of assuming you already know who he is1 and I’m going to proceed to write a biased view of the afternoon.

I love Bits of Freedom in its current incarnation to death —all its members are trerific people too— and I support their causes though I’m often vocally critical of certain approaches, ideas and dogmas of the privacy movement.

Everything taken into account though, BoF are our own stalwart bastion in the fight for digital freedom so I suggest you support them.

Anyway, to get going:

Many of the points raised today with regards to control, power and its properties, the interregnum moment we find ourselves in, xenofobia, databases, anonymity are highly pertinent to the current global political environment. Mr. Moglen is a gifted speaker with a broad legal and historical perspective which is awesome.

There are a bunch of issues that I find pertinent that seem not to be touched upon within the current movement and this piece is one way of getting them out into the open and out into the Google.

I managed to get one question in that got misinterpreted and had a lively debate afterwards with Mr. Moglen about the cultural cleft between designers and hackers.

Sticking in the mud

What is often a risk with the hacker/counter-cultural attitude to technology is that any protest you have against the current state of things can be interpreted as a plea to abolish said technology and go back to the prior state.

Mr. Moglen had some part in this with his plea against digital payment methods and contactless transit payment (de OV-chipkaart).

I know he wasn’t for abolishing these things, but the more extreme outliers in the privacy movement either want to or they want to cripple these systems with freedom to such an extent that they become unusable or their utility becomes compromised. Sometimes these point of views are porpagated with such a disconnect to the larger part of society that it borders on Luddism. I think that is a real risk.

What the privacy movement needs to do is to speak out clearly for the benefits of these technologies. I clearly see the value of the OV-chipkaart and any plea for rolling back the system back to the strippenkaart is ludicrous on a variety of levels. Even if the OV-chipkaart is as Mr. Moglen stated: a policeman in every tram.

The benefits and the need for technological and service innovation in society are clear and that is not where this battle should be fought.

The challenge should be: how to create these systems and in the meantime also safeguard our privacy and freedom. What legislation needs to be carried through in mandates and audits in such a way as to not compromise or hamstring the design and yield usable, pleasant and secure systems. That is a big challenge, but it is the only one.

User Experience

The track record of the free software movement when it comes to usability and consumer appeal over the past decades has not been stellar2. In netbooks and other devices adoption is increasing but the frontier has been moved on to mobile devices and on to closed (but tempting) app platforms.

Mr. Moglen talked about the freedom box which is going to be a plug which you can put in your complete personal computing surface which will store your media and backups, intermediate your necessary services, talk to your cell phone and federate with suitable social services. This is the vision.

From an experience point of view this is going to be a hell of a nut to crack. We already have best of breed applications that serve most of these ends3. These are already crystallized, have tremendously talented people working for them and have massive network effects. Building functional parity services is going to take a lot of time, these are probably not going to be as interesting, usable or seductive as their proprietary counterparts and in the meantime those will have moved the goalposts.

There may be a large opportunity for such a device in the developing world and free culture innovation out of China or Brazil could help improve such a thing massively, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

The broader problem is that both designers are not very keen to work on open source projects (though that is changing) and that open source projects are not very keen on design input. Yes, anybody can fork a project and build something ‘better’, but the division of effort is not useful while the division of labour within a project: programmer program, designer design, would be more welcome.

My discussion with Mr. Moglen served as a reminder how immense this cultural divide is and frankly I don’t think it is bridgeable in any traditional way4. It gets mired in assumptions on technology use, problems that need solving and a misunderstanding of what people (users) actually want and value in software.

So in short: freedom without usability does not amount to much. I consider myself rather well versed in these issues but I use Apple products and Facebook5. If all the knowledge within the movement cannot deter me, then 1. imagine the general public and 2. realize that it is not an education problem we are dealing with.

Public Space

So the free personal webserver is a great vision and a lofty goal, but mind that the goalposts are being moved once again and that before that project is done society may have changed under our feet.

I asked a question about this but that seemed to be so far from out field that it got misunderstood and turned into something about wireless net neutrality.

The issue is this: We have a rich set of rules and affordances governing access to and rights in public space and the built environment. With the wiring and  virtualization of public space, how can we proactively codify similar rules for these new situations to create generally good outcomes?

What I meant by the wiring of public space is the fact that every object from lanterns and traffic lights to every brick and tile can and will have an internet connection (think Everyware). Construction companies and IBM are pitching this stuff on greenfield cities and systems already6. We in the old world are somewhat insulated from these developments due to sheer inertia, though we already have near perfect parking camera surveillance.

The virtualization of public space is nearing with the linking of real life and online be it conceptually or in full blown AR. Object and facial recognition, real-time image processing and filtering and differentation/personalization are going to have large scale effects. Imagine coupling this with ad supported carrier provided AR displays and things get really hairy really quickly.

I think this is going to have large scale repercussions7 and it would be good if the privacy movement had its eye on this ball as well (yes, there are many balls), however nascent it might seem at this moment.

Update: This discussion is exactly one touched upon by Zittrain in his “The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It”:

But people do not buy PCs as insurance policies against appliances that limit their freedoms, even though PCs serve exactly this vital function. People buy them to perform certain tasks at the moment of acquisition. (Chapter 3)

  1. Otherwise you can read the Wikipedia page and 20+ years of Free Software literature.
  2. These are the people that still can’t figure out how to connect a laptop to a beamer or build a workable FTP-client.
  3. So if a friend of mine needed a backup made, would I tell them to buy and configure some arcane plug that goes into the wall or would I tell them to signup for Dropbox? Mind you Dropbox has a large and quite talented team of engineers and designers who have worked very hard to make that experience as seamless as it is.
  4. These kind of discussions with free software people also quickly deteriorate into technological pissing contests. Though I may at times still be amused by those, your average user couldn’t care less about the intricacies.
  5. You could argue that my knowledge of these systems gives me a more informed choice, which is only partially true.
  6. For instance the new parking meter system in San Francisco.
  7. I’m giving a talk on some of these developments this Thursday.

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