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03 January 2012, 13:07

What should free software do in 2012?

by Glyn Moody

In my last column, I suggested that one of the best things that Mozilla could do in order to promote the Open Web and openness in general would be to support the battle for online freedom in more general ways. That's something it has already started doing, notably in trying to halt the passage of the awful Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that is currently grinding through the US legislative process.

But that raises a broader question: what should the rest of the free software world be doing to defend freedom and openness from SOPA and its ilk? For, rest assured, even if SOPA is defeated – no certain thing given the lobbying by the copyright industries – similar bills will inevitably follow in the US.

Just as bad are the knock-on effects of SOPA. The very fact that the US is seeking to bring in laws that will allow arbitrary censorship of foreign sites without due process has, at a stroke, effectively legitimised what has been going on for years in places like China, which uses what is generally called the "Great Firewall of China" to block unwanted foreign services and content. What little moral high ground the West might once have had is now gone, which means that countries with state surveillance already in place are likely to tighten the screws yet further.

That seems to present us with a rather dismal global picture of increasing surveillance and widening censorship. On the (slightly) bright side, SOPA does make clear one thing: that software produced by companies can never ultimately be trusted, because they will always do what they are told. As Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge wrote recently:

There is a problem with proprietary, closed software, which makes me a bit uneasy. We get a serious democratic deficit when the citizens are not able to inspect if the computers running the country’s administrations are actually doing what they claim to be doing, doing all that and something else invisibly on top, doing the wrong thing in the wrong way at the wrong time, or doing nothing at all. (Judging from most governmental IT projects, they all fall into one of these four categories.)

But this problem is peanuts compared to what has just appeared. In the debate around the American Stop Online Piracy Act, American legislators have demonstrated a clear capability and willingness to interfere with the technical operations of American products, when doing so furthers American political interests regardless of the policy situation in the customer’s country. Actually, it’s even worse: American legislators have demonstrated a willingness to do this just because of the different laws in the customer’s country, outside of the United States.

In other words, awful as it is, SOPA has at least reminded us why free software is even more vital than ever: because it is supranational, and thus not subject to the whims of politicians in any jurisdiction. But hitherto most of us have used free software in Western countries assuming a fairly benign context: SOPA (and various court cases around the world) suggests that is no longer the case.

We are entering a phase where censorship and surveillance are viewed as acceptable – the norm, even – shocking though that might be. That means running free software like GNU/Linux and Firefox is not enough to preserve freedom: we need tools that are specifically designed to resist these increasing efforts to block and to spy.

To which people might reply: but these already exist, and that's true. But they are not easy to use, which means that there is little hope of "ordinary" users adopting them. And without that widespread uptake, they are irrelevant. The only way to fight back against censorship and surveillance is by deploying on a massive scale tools that circumvent them, and thus make them pointless; and to achieve that, they must be trivial to install and use.

So I'd like to suggest that one of the key tasks for free software in 2012 ought to be the creation of these easy-to-use tools.

In terms of specific projects, there are a number of clear priorities. One is that we need a replacement for Google, which has become the first thing that governments and companies attack when seeking to censor content. That's because something that can't be found with a Google search simply doesn't exist for most people.

What we need, then, is a completely independent, non-commercial search engine based on free software that doesn't have a single point of failure. What we need is YaCy:

YaCy is a free search engine that anyone can use to build a search portal for their intranet or to help search the public internet. When contributing to the world-wide peer network, the scale of YaCy is limited only by the number of users in the world and can index billions of web pages. It is fully decentralized, all users of the search engine network are equal, the network does not store user search requests and it is not possible for anyone to censor the content of the shared index. We want to achieve freedom of information through a free, distributed web search which is powered by the world's users.

One simple action that we can all take, then, is to install YaCy to help boost its indexing and search capabilities to make it a viable alternative to Google et al. The same applies to the relatively familiar privacy-preserving program Tor: the more copies that are installed around the world, the more powerful the virtual networks that it creates.

Next: Connections and encryption

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