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17 March 2010, 16:13

Interview: Eben Moglen - Freedom vs. The Cloud Log

Eben Moglen interviewed by Glyn Moody

Free software has won: practically all of the biggest and most exciting Web companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter run on it. But it is also in danger of losing, because those same services now represent a huge threat to our freedom as a result of the vast stores of information they hold about us, and the in-depth surveillance that implies.

Zoom Eben Moglen - Prof. of Law at Columbia and former General Counsel for the FSF.
Better than almost anyone, Eben Moglen knows what's at stake. He was General Counsel of the Free Software Foundation for 13 years, and helped draft several versions of the GNU GPL. As well as being Professor of Law at Columbia Law School, he is the Founding Director of the Software Freedom Law Center. And he has an ambitious plan to save us from those seductive but freedom-threatening Web service companies. He explained to Glyn Moody what the problem is, and how we can fix it.

Glyn Moody: So what's the threat you are trying to deal with?

Eben Moglen: We have a kind of social dilemma which comes from architectural creep. We had an Internet that was designed around the notion of peerage - machines with no hierarchical relationship to one another, and no guarantee about their internal architectures or behaviours, communicating through a series of rules which allowed disparate, heterogeneous networks to be networked together around the assumption that everybody's equal.

In the Web the social harm done by the client-server model arises from the fact that logs of Web servers become the trails left by all of the activities of human beings, and the logs can be centralised in servers under hierarchical control. Web logs become power. With the exception of search, which is a service that nobody knows how to decentralise efficiently, most of these services do not actually rely upon a hierarchical model. They really rely upon the Web - that is, the non-hierarchical peerage model created by Tim Berners-Lee, and which is now the dominant data structure in our world.

The services are centralised for commercial purposes. The power that the Web log holds is monetisable, because it provides a form of surveillance which is attractive to both commercial and governmental social control. So the Web, with services equipped in a basically client-server architecture, becomes a device for surveillance as well as providing additional services. And surveillance becomes the hidden service wrapped inside everything we get for free.

The cloud is a vernacular name which we give to a significant improvement in the server-side of the web - the server, decentralised. It becomes, instead of a lump of iron, a digital appliance, which can be running anywhere. This means that for all practical purposes servers cease to be subject to significant legal control. They no longer operate in a policy-directed manner, because they are no longer iron, subject to territorial orientation of law. In a world of virtualised service provision, the server which provides the service, and therefore the log which is the result of the hidden service of surveillance, can be projected into any domain at any moment and can be stripped of any legal obligation pretty much equally freely.

This is a pessimal result.

GM: Was perhaps another major factor in this the commercialisation of the Internet, which saw power being vested in a company that provided services to the consumer?

EM: That's exactly right. Capitalism also has its architectural Bauplan, which it is reluctant to abandon. In fact, much of what the network is doing to capitalism is forcing it to reconsider its Bauplan via a social process which we call by the crappy name of dis-intermediation. Which is really a description of the Net forcing capitalism to change the way it takes. But there's lots of resistance to that, and what's interesting to all of us I suspect, as we watch the rise of Google to pre-eminence, is the ways in which Google does and does not - and it both does and does not - wind up behaving rather like Microsoft in the course of growing up. There are sort of gravitational propositions that arise when you're the largest organism in an ecosystem.

GM: Do you think free software has been a little slow to address the problems you describe?

EM: Yes, I think that's correct. I think it is conceptually difficult, and it is to a large degree difficult because we are having generational change. After a talk [I gave recently], a young woman came up to me and she said: I'm 23 years old, and none of my friends care about privacy. And that's another important thing, right?, because we make software now using the brains and hands and energies of people who are growing up in a world which has been already affected by all of this. Richard or I can sound rather old-fashioned.

GM: So what's the solution you are proposing?

EM: If we had a real intellectually-defensible taxonomy of services, we would recognise that a number of the services which are currently highly centralised, and which count for a lot of the surveillance built in to the society that we are moving towards, are services which do not require centralisation in order to be technologically deliverable. They are really the Web repackaged.

Social networking applications are the most crucial. They rely in their basic metaphors of operation on a bilateral relationship called friendship, and its multilateral consequences. And they are eminently modelled by the existing structures of the Web itself. Facebook is free Web hosting with some PHP doodads and APIs, and spying free inside all the time - not actually a deal we can't do better than.

My proposal is this: if we could disaggregate the logs, while providing the people all of the same features, we would have a Pareto-superior outcome. Everybody – well, except Mr Zuckenberg - would be better off, and nobody would be worse off. And we can do that using existing stuff.

Next: What's the solution? .. cont...

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