Concerned about Facebook, Google, and other companies that make billions brokering sensitive information, free-software champion Eben Moglen has unveiled a plan to populate the internet with tiny, low-cost boxes that are designed to preserve individuals' personal privacy.
The Freedom Box, as the chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center has christened it, would be no bigger than power adapters for electronic appliances. The inexpensive devices would be deployed in a peer-to-peer fashion in homes and offices to process email, voice-over-IP communications, and the sharing of pictures, among other things. The decentralized structure of the devices is in stark contrast to today's biggest internet providers, which offer the same services in exchange for users turning over some of their most trusted secrets.
Public enemy No. 1 is Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who in Moglen's eyes, “has done more harm to the human race than anybody else his age.”
“He has to remarkable extent succeeded with a very poor deal, namely 'I will give you free web-hosting and some PHP doodads and you get spying for free all the time,'” Moglen said during a meeting last year of the Internet Society's New York branch. “And it works.”
As Moglen envisions them, Freedom Boxes would be used to perform a wealth of services that most of the world has been brainwashed into believing are better performed in the cloud. Secure backups that automatically store data in encrypted form would be performed on the Freedom Boxes of our friends, just as their encrypted data would be stored on ours.
The boxes would also be used to send and receive encrypted email, VoIP calls, and to act as a safer alternative to social-networking sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn.
The guts of the boxes would be the Debian distribution of Linux, along with countless free applications that would presumably be developed under the same model as most of today's open source software.
The Freedom Box website gives no timeline for delivery, but Moglen told The New York Times that he could build version 1.0 in one year if he could raise “slightly north of $500,000.” The cost of plug-in devices is about $99 right now, but Moglen said they'll eventually sell for about $29. They'll run on a low-power chip. “You plug it into the wall and forget about it,” he told the NYT.
With Facebook and Twitter getting credit for fomenting protests and revolutions in the Middle East, Moglen says the ability to connect online carries immeasurable promise. But right now, most of the organizing is taking place on centralized, for-profit websites with ethics that can easily be compromised.
“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.”
The worthiness of a tiny, low-powered device that makes Facebook obsolete is matched only by its implausibility. We wish the Freedom Box well, but we won't be buying any stock just yet. ®
This story was updated to correct when Moglen spoke to the Internet Society.